Sharing Cooperative Engagement

By Kerry Bertram (she/her)
Strategic Locality Lead, Action Together in Rochdale

Co-operative Engagement is Rochdale’s approach to giving information, involving and collaborating with local people, communities and stakeholders. I presented the process of developing and facilitating this approach at the national Government Events, Community Engagement conference and the role of Action Together as facilitator and convenor.

The delegates, mainly local government employees, were asked, “why is community engagement important?” 21% said that engagement enables us to transform the way we organise ourselves and interact around public problems. 50% said engagement empowers communities to address the issues they face.

My experience speaks to both of these answers, but I’d go a step further and state that engagement can address societal problems and solutions to these will only be found when we all (residents, communities, charities, faith-based groups, volunteers, public sector workers, health partners) cooperate.

Action Together is an infrastructure organisation for the voluntary sector. What that means is that we connect charities, community groups, volunteers, social enterprises and faith-based organisations, adding strength through training, investment and relationships. But we are also convenors, working in the space between systems, communities and power. We are good at bringing together, gathering perspectives around problems, facilitating solutions, collaborating and building momentum. We spend our energy with people, contributing to change that feels meaningful. And we get it wrong sometimes, so many lessons were taught through the pandemic – we tried to tell and learnt to listen; aimed to please and learnt to set boundaries; got defensive then walked in others shoes; started to blame then chose to contribute.

Partners in the development of the cooperative engagement approach are vital, varied and many. Rochdale CouncilHealthwatch Rochdale and multiple VCFSE colleagues worked with us to develop the approach and generously engaged as we tested early versions.

I shared some of the challenges, of engagement. We often have a conversation about what to do if you ask people what they want and then can’t deliver – is it better not to ask? We try to help partners understand the far reaching effects of scarcity and disadvantage, that often disengages communities from working with public sectors. We have seen in practice that work to align what communities want with what decision makers want through shared language can influence the biggest changes. With interest I heard how Brent Council have worked with communities that the council finds hard to reach, and I was encouraged by questions seeking guidance on methods to engage.

I shared the wins, like the Rochdale Community Warehouse and our borough's financial support offer bolstered by communities. These new infrastructure offers that benefit communities could not have been created without collective efforts, pooled budgets, shared data and honest multi-partner conversations.

Discussing spaces and places for engagement, the Inclusive Messaging Group, Equalities Assemblies, Women’s Services Network, Grassroots Gatherings and many more, I could picture the variety of people we've worked alongside. I remembered emotions, moments and experiences we had shared together through the pandemic and how connections between frontline workers, charities, decision makers and volunteers now felt so much more natural and equal – though we are always being challenged and learning.

Returning to the question of why we should engage, I’d like to share a final point. We are engaging, communicating all the time, if we like it or not, or if it’s the time in the commissioning cycle or not. If we are not holding a space for conversation between the people that our services are there to support, and the people delivering that support, then we are sending a powerful message. In answer to the delegate's question “how can we find out what people need?”, the answer is both simple and complex – talk to them.