Like most local community groups, the Clissold Park User Group (CPUG) often struggles to get people to understand its role. As the current Chair of the group I can see that the higher our profile and the more professional we look, the less people think we are really a community group. If you type “Clissold Park” into any search engine it is our website that comes up first, long before anything from Hackney Council. That is not a bad thing but it means that we end up providing up-to-date information about park opening hours, when the paddling pool will be filled up and how the Council’s restoration project is progressing not to mention handling requests for tennis court bookings, queries about the toilets and complaints about animal welfare, none of which are actually within our remit.
What Are We Here For?
One of the hardest things about being involved in any sort of local user group is clarifying the role of the group to yourselves and to other people. This is made even harder when the group is very disparate and represents a wide range of different, overlapping and sometimes conflicting interests as CPUG does. Not for us the simplicity and unity of purpose of the campaign against the proposed new supermarket.
The weekend before last we held one of our bimonthly meetings. The dog walkers had heard (inaccurately as it happened) that the Council was planning to compel them to put their dogs on leads throughout the park and that this was the focus of our meeting. Here, they thought, was an opportunity for them to tell the Council of their objections. The man from the Council was there but it was a User Group meeting. It was the familiar story – despite explaining several times that as Chair of the group I was NOT the face of the Council, they had come to be cross with the Council and as the next best thing, I would do. In fact, what we had intended to discuss was a “user group owned” code of behaviour around dogs and dog walking which enshrined the right of dogs to roam freely in the park but also proposed some measures such as asking people to put their dogs on leads around the new cafe. Some dog owners on the group had drafted a consultation paper with some questions, put it on the website and given other dog walkers copies several weeks before the meeting. Although only around ten people had sent written responses, the majority of the supported the proposals and the principles behind them.
The Doggy Army
Our normal “hard core” of around 15 generalists who turn up come rain or shine was joined by a further 25 passionate dog walkers, who asked for “their” item to be put at the top of the agenda so they could get back to their dogs asap. This did not suit the skateboarders waiting for their item about problems with the skatepark and getting more bored by the minute. Not much fun trying to chair that one, I can tell you. The most vocal group in the room forcefully put forward the view that dogs should continue to be allowed to use the park pretty much exactly as they do now and that any code of behaviour was an insult to respectable dog walkers like them and would never have any impact on the antisocial ones anyway. A few people tried to put forward other points of view but they were pretty much drowned out.
“So, that’s a decision then”, said one of the dog-walking contingent. ” People will not be asked to put their dogs on leads anywhere in the park. Right?”
Well no, not really. Although that was what many of the people in the room wanted, over the years the user group has heard some very different points of view. Some of these were represented by other people in the room who tried to be heard but were soon shouted down. Ultimately, and quite rightly, it will be the Council that makes any important decisions about how the park is run. We can consult and discuss as much as we like and provide a safe forum in which people can share their views and have their voices heard by the Council but we can never know or represent the views of everyone who uses the park. And we cannot simply represent the views of those who shout loudest.
The Doggy Dilemma
I tried to explain that this was not a decision forum. There was indignation. Were people really unhappy about current dog and dog walker behaviour? Where was our evidence? Exactly how many times had people felt intimidated by dogs? Precisely how many complaints have been received? None of these were questions that a user group run by volunteers in their spare time could possibly answer although the issues have been raised at meetings for years. Questions, perhaps, for the Council and something we could certainly monitor. At least they did not call for a vote – the ultimate nightmare scenario for any diverse user group where an single issue interest group has turned up in numbers at a public meeting. “So we get lots of people who agree with us in a room and then take a vote and, hey presto we all agree with ourselves.” Democracy at work.
And then we moved onto the next item and most of them left the room. It would have been nice if they could have stayed and contributed to the other discussions about the cafe, the toilets, the trees, the waterlogged skatepark. But they were only interested in one thing – and that was their prerogative, I suppose. There is some consolation to be found in the fact that out of every “single issue” like this we normally acquire one or two new people who take a wider view, stay to find out more and become regular attenders. If we can develop a sensible and trusting relationship with each other (and the onus to do so fall on all of us) then, if we are lucky, we can achieve the great MAC mark of success: turning complainants into fans and supporters. One of the more articulate dog defenders who did stay was shocked to discover that young boys were having their phones “removed” from them regularly in the park. “Why on earth have we just spent most of this meeting discussing dogs?” Seemed like a good question to me. Maybe next time he will help us to stick to the timings on the agenda.
True, this was a tricky meeting but actually it was a success on several fronts. At MAC we have always acknowledged that emotion is the driver of public engagement – public indignation produces multitudes that come and boost the numbers and the volume of public feedback. We had a lot of new faces at the meeting and we heard a range of opinions, many of which were familiar but a few of which were new. By the end of the meeting we had come up with a range of suggestions as to how to take things forward: we will develop a user group code of behaviour for ALL park users (not just dog walkers) and the dog walkers will be part of the process of writing it; we have a list of simple requests for the Council for things that will make life better for dogs and dog walkers in the park such as providing bags for dog waste, our dog rep will get in touch with a local organisation to see if they can arrange some training events for dogs and dog owners in the park. And we have perhaps begun, I hope to cut through some of the distrust that these people seemed to feel about our group and its motives.
Classic Participation Drivers
It is well recognised that if you want to get people to turn up in numbers you just have to put out the word that something is being closed or taken away from them. They will seldom go out of their way to thank you for giving them something they like. When emotions run high people want to come and shout at you. We should not be surprised by this or or feel threatened by it. All too often I have seen public organisations prepare for meetings as if they are going into battle with the enemy, girding their loins, putting up the barricades and sometimes almost visibly terrified of the people who are talking to them. “Come and tell us what you think” their posters say. Their eyes say “Shut up and put up – and can I go home soon?” It is an understandable reaction but as government moves from being something done in private to being open and public, being able not just to cope but use the nerves and the adrenalin to produce a worthwhile result has to be part of the public servant’s array of essential competencies.
Barking up the right tree
User groups such as ours have the potential to be a massive asset for local authorities. In Hackney, part of the success of the £9m bid for funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund for our park was as a direct result of the Council being able to demonstrate that it had a strong relationship with the user group. A well-functioning local group with a clear sense of its own purpose, a good reputation in its community and a constructive relationship with the service provider can help to bridge the gap between Them and Us. The ability to develop and sustain long-lasting relationships and ongoing dialogue with local people is something that few local authorities can emulate successfully.
If local groups are to be useful to anyone, they need to be strongly chaired and well-run, ideally by people who are interested in chairing and representing the group rather than promoting their own self-interest. But it can be an intimidating process even for the toughest and most clear-sighted individuals. I am lucky to have been sitting on committees and closely involved both professionally and as a volunteer in this world for the last thirty years (I started young!) and I have also had the privilege to see some great Chairs at work (not least my brilliant predecessor at CPUG Professor Ken Worpole) but for many people who are driven to become involved by a passionate personal interest in an issue, the world of meetings and public decision-making can be an uncharted minefield.
Maybe it is time for local authorities to understand the real potential of local community groups in helping them to do their job. There is a lot that both sides can learn from each other and, with the right support and training, ordinary citizens can become part of the solution, not the problem.
The Moore Adamson Craig Partnership supports user and public participation, trains lay representatives and develops responsive public service organisations. Feel free to contact us to discuss the opportunities.