Faye Scadden: Peer to peer engagement is risky but necessary

As the public sector faces up to the harsh reality of cuts, many of us are thinking how best to engage with our customers about where the axe should fall. We are facing a huge challenge to our reputation but need to manage expectations and prepare the community for change.

Faye Scadden: peer to peer networks
Faye Scadden: peer to peer networks

Certainly there are discussions at a national level about how to cut or rationalise services, there are headlines almost daily about the number of redundancies being planned by different public services but there seems to be little public involvement in how to shape the services of the future. 

It is important that we allow customers to say what services they feel are most important to their lives and should be protected at all costs.

With £100m savings needed in the next 3 years, at Northamptonshire County Council we have taken a radical approach to asking the question ‘this is your county - what is most important to you?’

Central to the You Choose campaign is the use of peer to peer engagement. Community communicators (sometimes referred to as local gossips!) have been empowered to spread the messages on our behalf, encouraging others to get involved and have a say. You Choose tool-kits give groups of friends or neighbours, the voluntary sector and community groups the skills and resources to have the debate themselves, in a time and place to suit them and without the council dictating the agenda.

Following our fascinating discussion with Obama’s presidential web team at The White House, the You Choose website uses social media technology to encourage residents to express their views, develop ongoing discussions and vote for or against other people’s ideas. This has been linked with Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Flickr to allow participation through a resident’s preferred social networks.

This is an innovative campaign but it has required cultural change at the council – allowing residents to voice their negative views online without moderation and groups to organise their own discussions without being facilitated or controlled.

Peer to peer engagement is a risky strategy for the public sector but it will enhance the perception of transparency, allow those who don’t normally engage to have a say and has the potential to ensure that the decisions made during these financially difficult times actually reflect the views and priorities of customers.

(For more information go to www.northamptonshire.gov.uk/youchoose)

Faye Scadden is head of communication and marketing at Northamptonshire County Council and a member of the CIPR Local Public Services Group committee

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