Innovative approaches to participative community based socio-economic planning

January 5, 2012

A recently published report addresses the possible application of new models for community based participative planning in Ireland. The Report highlights a range of approaches to undertaking participative community based planning. It acknowledges that the application of integrated socio-economic planning at community level is relevant to the principles set out by the Task Force for the Integration of Local Government and Local Development over a decade ago.

The Report notes the current objectives in regard to the reform of local government and the alignment of the local development sector to the renewed local government framework. It highlights the importance of implementation of the Programme for Government in regard to the preparation of strategic plans in each City and County. It also highlights the need for a renewed town/sub county public service. It identifies opportunities through which community based area focused initiatives can underpin such reforms in a manner which is complementary to the objectives of the Programme for Government.

The Report sets out in broad terms, the approaches taken to community/area based initiatives in Ireland. The report draws upon the processes applied to develop a possible model which could be applied in the context of the renewal of local government and the alignment of local government and local development.

Key Findings in the Report
Structured processes, the Report acknowledges, are central to participative community-based planning which are, in turn, central to the statutory planning of local authorities and the business planning of other agencies operating at local level. The best practice identified in this report suggests that local communities engage in socio-economic planning from one to two years prior to the commencement of the statutory planning process and the county strategy with appropriate involvement of the relevant public sector officials.

The Report identifies five factors which impact on the achievement of best results:

• Local community capacity (knowledge, understanding and skills to engage in socio-economic planning and deliver agreed projects)
• Legal umbrella structure within the local community and network of their representatives at county/sub-county (district) level.
• Local authority willingness to engage appropriately with the socio-economic planning
• The level of trust among community leaders for engaging with the public sector.
• External facilitation is needed to support the socio-economic planning process at community level (most of which may be delivered by existing staff in local authorities and local development companies).

The capacity of local communities to engage has improved in the last two decades as a result of resources applied by the local development sector. The capacity remains unequal. There are two distinct levels; The most advanced community umbrella groups who also need to ensure a social inclusion focus in their work. The less advanced communities require support in developing structures and developing the capacity of the disadvantaged and broad-based interest groups in their community.

The case studies in the report highlight a range of empowering training initiatives to improve participation and structures.

The legal umbrella structure needs to be representative of all the interest groups and sectors in the community. It has a number of functions. It is the local formal link for the public sector. It leads the local socio-economic action planning. It monitors the implementation of the actions in the socio-economic plan. Public money, the report notes, should only be given to community projects where there is a community umbrella group and a local socio-economic plan, both of which create significant cohesion and voluntary/public resource efficiencies (much less waste and duplication of facilities).

The case studies demonstrate best practice of local development and local authority engagement with local socio-economic planning in speeding up the pace, scale and quality of development.

External facilitation is needed, the report highlights, to support the socio-economic process at community level. There is also a need for community buy-in to the process. The community needs to be motivated, to see the merit and want to participate in the plan. All of the groups and the sectors that do not have a representative group need to be involved from an early stage. Most of the facilitation can be delivered, the report notes, by existing staff in local authorities and local development companies and trained volunteers. A key action within the facilitated process is engagement with relevant public and voluntary service providers. Two outcomes arise: appropriate actions to be delivered at local level; and learning from the engagement which informs the county strategy and in turn the future plans of the service providers.

A Model which integrates community planning into public planning processes
In the context of local government reform and alignment of local government/local development, there is an opportunity to value a process that delivers good results and get it universally delivered in the Republic of Ireland. A model which integrates the community socio-economic planning processes into the Local Authority and other public planning processes is proposed in the context of a move towards a sub-county/municipal structure. The principal elements, the report concludes, to the process include:

• The completion of intensive training to underpin community capacity is central to a community based participative planning process.

• Agreement of the local authority, the local development sector and the relevant state agencies, at the commencement of the process regarding the need to move towards committed forms of engagement is a necessary feature of successful community/area based initiatives.

• Opportunities for engagement with disadvantaged communities within the areas concerned, thereby underpinning social inclusion policies must be a central feature of all community/area based initiatives.

• Each identified community has to have a cadre of volunteer leaders operating with the support of, at least, an officer with the necessary developmental skills to facilitate a continuous focus on the delivery of actions.

• The recruitment of Community Support Volunteers, appropriately trained to lead community engagement from plan preparation to plan implementation and review is best practice and should be a feature of all area based planning processes.

• The engagement of an external facilitator to work with the communities to develop their plans is a necessary feature of community/area based planning.

• In the absence of a statutory basis, integration between community or area based planning initiatives and the local area planning of each planning authority is currently dependent on a willingness of the local planning authority to engage.