Transparency and Trust: The fundamental principles of engagement

Moving plans forward in the current environment is unprecedentedly complex. It has always been a challenge to balance different interests. What has changed is how the public views trust and more specifically, how effectively the public can express its mistrust. Digital campaigning, a high-speed news cycle and the proliferation of smartphone cameras that bring instant updates can all amplify mistrust and bring it to very wide attention locally and nationally. The threshold for adding your voice is very low - it takes seconds to sign an online petition and minutes to set one up, for example.

For significant plans to make progress in this environment, their promoters must build and maintain trust. To do this, they need to engage far more effectively and transparently with the public than in the past. Not only that, but the nature of what they need to communicate is more complex, as local authorities struggle to create new ways of delivering regeneration and development through co-production with local residents and through partnerships with both for-profit and not-for-profit partners.

A further element in the backdrop to this complexity is the ongoing squeeze on public finances. Referring to a scheme in her borough, the outgoing leader of Haringey council argued passionately (1) that inaction was not an option and that given the financial crisis of local government, a partnership with the private sector was the only viable and positive way to deliver regeneration. The public, though, seems unconvinced which had lead for now to suspension of these plans.

All over London and beyond, the ground has been shifting in favour of greater transparency and a stronger dialogue with local people. The Mayor of London is responding by consulting on giving tenants a far greater voice in estate regeneration. The Grenfell Tower catastrophe casts a terrible shadow, highlighting the disastrous consequences of tenants being ignored.

There is a strong positive side to these trends: there is greater appetite for civic involvement, and the same technologies that help public mobilisation also enable constructive public engagement. Using technology enables more people to be reached and their views to be expressed. A digital platform can lay open the decision-making processes and enable a more iterative process of developing plans. It is this openness and the iterative plan-making that can help build greater trust - and lead to better outcomes. This does not mean that the outcome will please everyone - but rather that the trade-offs are much clearer and can be shown to be based on wide engagement.

Commonplace is being used widely to achieve the goal of a more open and trusted planning process. In Catford, South London it has been deployed for about a year, obtaining views on what people value locally and what they would like to change. This consultation preceded the appointment of a masterplanning team (currently underway) and will inform their plans. Over 9,000 people have visited the Commonplace website and contributed over 10,000 comments and agreements with comments. This has created a wealth of data - all of which is visible through an open website - https://catfordtowncentre.commonplace.is.

Once engagement is completed, Commonplaces continue to be hosted, sometimes for years. They remain easily accessible as a site of reference. For example, Commonplaces relating to developing "Mini Holland" schemes in Waltham Forest are available over two years after the consultation ended (please visit https://miniholland.commonplace.is). If your road is being changed, you can look up what comments and suggestions were made and compare them to what is actually happening. If there is a discrepancy, you can easily ask for an explanation. This is a very far cry from typical consultations, where you can't see your comment or other people's comments during the consultation or once it is completed, You need to search carefully for a report which may or may not be readily available after a year or two.

For the developer - private or public - this is a new standard of accountability - the provenance of a decision can be readily traced to the public's voice. Using digital tools is not the whole solution.  However, it does present, a major opportunity to take a different direction in establishing, growing and sustaining trust. The very willingness to be open to this level of scrutiny offers a chance to reset relationships around local development - a reset, which is desperately needed.


.(1) Claire Kober "Haringey’s development plan is not privatisation" - letter to The Guardian 20 January 2017 accessed 2 April 2018 at https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/jan/20/haringeys-development-plan-is-not-privatisation

 


David Janner-Klausner

David Janner-Klausner

Co-founder and director of Customer Success