The manager of the Communities First Support Service*, Russell Todd, explains how he planned a programme of focus groups with the Communities First workforce, service users and the equalities sector in Wales as part of the #TalkCommunities engagement about the future of Communities First.
The engagement process that began in the aftermath of the Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Children’s announcement last October that he was “minded to phase out Communities First” started with an online survey aimed at the general public and people who have accessed Communities First services and projects. There was some dissatisfaction with this method as a sole means of articulating one’s views on the implications of this decision, as it potentially excluded those people without access to IT or the literacy to respond to the questions. It was also difficult for Communities First staff to answer the questions as the designer/deliverer of a project, and not the user of that service.
With this in mind, Welsh Government asked the Support Service to plan a programme of focus groups that allowed for richer, more detailed discussion about aspects of Communities First and resilient communities. The focus groups would also help inform the broader Equality Impact Assessment (EIA) of the possible phasing out of Communities First. We have the expertise having supported clusters to run focus groups; run a programme of focus groups with people from workless households as part of the pilot phase of the Lift programme; and delivered training on designing focus groups.
What we did not have, however, was a lot of time: we only had a short run-up and the likelihood of running close to the Christmas period when a lot of people have a myriad of other distractions.
As we do with all engagement exercises we adhered to the National Principles for Public Engagement. In keeping with the numerical format of the easy-read version of the Principles here is the step-by-step guide to what we did which hopefully you will find useful:
Principle 1 – Will it make a difference?
In the course of planning things we felt we needed to address whether the timetable militated against quality and effective engagement, and in respect of the users of Communities First services and projects, did so for a group for many of whom being listened to is a seldom occurrence: might we be actually legitimising a process that risks paying lip-service to communities? We decided that we were well-placed to improve the overall engagement process. Other questions we posed ourselves were:
- Will people’s views inform which Communities First activities are retained in the new approach to resilient communities?
- Will any punitive impact on communities of the phasing out of Communities First be mitigated?
The alternative of not running focus groups would certainly have reduced people’s ability to influence.
Principle 2 – Ask the right people
A programme which allowed for staff to discuss their views was essential as the online questionnaire wasn’t relevant to their experience; it needed also to provide ‘safe space’ at a time of great uncertainty for people whose livelihoods rely on Communities First. The EIA required us to engage with people from protected characteristic groups; yet this is a sector that traditionally the Support Service has not worked closely with. Our community development values however mean we recognise the need to work with those organisations who have the trust of such people – so-called ‘gatekeepers’. So we engaged with Diverse Cymru, Stonewall Cymru, Cytûn, Women Connect First, Race Council Cymru, and the youth services of Caerphilly and Neath Port Talbot.
We were indebted to WCVA policy colleague Dave Cook for facilitating engagement with WCVA’s Equalities and Human Rights Coalition (EHRC) that enabled access more broadly across the equalities sector in Wales, and from which several policy workers attended a workshop as a precursor to the focus groups with individuals with protected characteristics.
Lastly, in order to complement the online survey we planned focus groups with users of Communities First projects and services, which allowed for much more depth to discussions about their experience of engaging with and being supported by Communities First. We were indebted to Communities First clusters and lead delivery bodies in Merthyr Tydfil, Rhyl and Newport for their support in arranging these. In Newport we met people supported by a Sustainable Livelihoods Approach (which you can read about in this blog), and for one of the focus groups here crèche provision was available to participants.
Principle 3 – Give everyone a chance
A ‘chance’ in this context was having the time to take part, making things fun, changing the format of the engagement to suit participants, or piggy-backing existing events. We did all this except for giving people enough time; because of the overall timetable many focus groups were sprung on people at short notice. However, we made available the questions to focus groups in advance to help with preparations and to de-mystify the process a bit.
In Aberbargoed with a group of young people facilitated by Dynamix, Phill Burton brilliantly helped them understand the term resilience with an old Nokia 3510 that will live long in the memory.
We also provided a range of facilitation and scribing support to clusters who wished to carry out their own #TalkCommunities consultations in Cardiff, Newport and Barry.
Principle 4 – Work with other organisations
As already stated we worked with a range of organisations. Not only were they better-placed due to the relationships they had with specific groups and areas they helped us increase our capacity to deliver; over 20 focus groups in a 7 week period – with Christmas in the middle – is no small feat. So we were pleased to commission the third sector organisations Race Council Cymru, Diverse Cymru and Women Connect First who ran focus groups with older people, migrant workers and a group of women from ethnic minority communities.
Principle 5 – Talk and write clearly
Phill demonstrated this principle brilliantly with his antique Nokia, but in other ways we strived to make information understandable to people. We insisted that the topic guide contained time for discussion about people’s interpretation and definition of ‘resilience’. The questions were made available bilingually in English and Welsh. We asked focus group facilitators to provide a simple re-cap of the Cabinet Secretary’s original Senedd statement to aid people’s understanding of what is being discussed. In one focus group, in Wrexham, an interpreter was used to help people whose first language is Portuguese contribute. In two service users focus groups support staff, including from Communities First, were on hand to support people to contribute and understand what was going on; we fully recognise that a focus group is not something people will be familiar with or confident in attending and so we often referred to them simply as chats.
Principle 6 – Make it easy for people
This boils down to removing barriers for people to contribute: interpreters, using local and accessible venues, working with/through familiar and trusted organisations, and taking the engagement to them were all among the ways we did this. Another brilliant example was how we worked to help young people contribute.
In two consultation events in Caerphilly borough Dynamix re-phrased the question Do you think the 3 E’s on their own will bring about ‘resilient communities’? as:
“What do we need to build a strong, resilient community?”
And quite literally invited the young people to use Lego to build that community. Youth workers were on hand to help elicit ideas and with spelling but the young people really threw themselves into this task.
In another instance, in Neath Port Talbot’s Afan valley, secondary school pupils had hour slots year group by year group to share their views on resilient communities and the implications of the phasing out of Communities First. School-based youth workers helped facilitate a smooth running order throughout the school day that helped ensure effective consultation, but which also did not disrupt pupils’ learning either.
Principle 7 – Help people learn and develop
Critical reflection is at the heart of effective community development practice and on reflection we could have done more to ‘hardwire’ learning and development into the programme of focus groups. That said, a couple of Communities First staff told us that they had not participated in a focus group before and so were now much clearer on what they comprised and their suitability to engagement in their clusters. Many participants in the equalities focus groups stated they had learned new things about Communities First:
“I didn’t know till today that Communities First was funding my English classes – if that goes then I’ll be in even more trouble than I am now…I didn’t know until today how many things Communities First funded – it will really affect us when they stop.”
Principle 8 – Time and Money
Due to the short timetable, the key with the #TalkCommunities focus groups was to fully maximise the available time. For every two hour focus group there’s a couple of days afterwards writing-up the transcript. It could not be simply a case of scheduling several focus groups over the period of time available. We had to manage the capacity of the facilitators and scribes too. Though it was important to have consistency across the focus groups, with too small a cohort of facilitators and scribes we would not have the capacity to service them all.
But we also recognised the need to cover costs of travel expenses, refreshments, childcare, interpretation and hire of accessible, local venues to maximise participation in the focus groups.
Principle 9 – Tell you what has happened after taking part
This is a tricky one. Having completed each focus group we made sure we explained to the participants what our next steps would be.
People will have their own views on the influence their comments had. The Cabinet Secretary confirmed in February that he will phase out Communities First by the end of March 2018. He cited, among other things that the focus groups and wider engagement highlighted, the potential impact of withdrawal of funding from third sector providers.
It goes to show though that just because the focus groups finished and the transcripts were submitted ahead of the mid January deadline does not mean the task is over. Meaningful engagement requires us to remain in touch well beyond the ‘face to face’ activities.
Principle 10 – Doing it better next time
Well this blog is part and parcel of the reflective review process! But we reviewed routinely throughout the programme: we tabled a draft report of an equalities workshop with the EHRC; we adjusted the topic guide after our experiences with the first couple of staff focus groups; facilitators and scribes liaised with each other to share their learning; we reviewed equalities attendance data to ensure any demographic gaps were identified (we never, for instance, adequately engaged with enough people who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender); we recognised we probably had too much of a presence in clusters in the cities of south Wales and so made sure in the final days of the programme that a greater presence was made in the likes of Wrexham, Rhyl and the Afan valley. Although the additional couple of weeks in January 2017 for time to contribute to the #TalkCommunities engagement process were extremely helpful, with more preparation time and a longer timetable for delivery we certainly would have taken more focus groups other parts of Wales.
However, the equalities focus groups evaluated well with participants and all reports had very few, if any, corrections to make suggesting scribes accurately recorded people’s contributions.
So all in all, we are pleased with what we have achieved.
Many thanks to everyone who helped out. In true acceptance speech tradition there are too many to single out but hopefully you know who you are and how valuable your contribution was.
*As of March 31st 2018, the Communities First Support Service has closed. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org with any queries relating to this.