Dean Russell: Local government can use charities as trusted partner and critical friend

Charities and volunteer groups can be the bridge between individuals and local government, says our columnist

Dean Russell
Dean Russell

In recent months, I have heard the same phrase crop up repeatedly in my role as a councillor: "How do we help hard-to-reach groups?" It is a regular source of discussion on a local health and wellbeing partnership that I chair. The NHS and various volunteer, patient and political groups are all wrestling with it, yet none has found the answer.

The emergence of localism has changed this from an abstract challenge to an immediate concern.

Localism is not just about devolving power; it is also about helping communities speak up for those whose voices are not often heard and creating stronger links between local people and decision-makers that enable this to happen.

The key to a strong community is the 'three Cs': compassion, communication and collaboration. Without these, it is impossible to reach marginalised groups and make a difference.

But some organisations, including charities and local government, fully appreciate the powerful role that even tiny charities can play in achieving this, simply by sharing their experiences on the ground.

A local police community support officer attended one of my recent council surgeries. He explained that all kinds of methods, including leafleting and the internet, have been used to access hard-to-reach groups, but that face-to-face meetings have often proved the most effective.

Local authorities, however, don't have time to meet everyone, so there is a vital role for 'brokers' - that is, charities and volunteer groups - to play. They can be the bridge between individuals and local government.

We are known as a nation of complainers, but the reality is that we don't complain enough. I heard an expert say on TV recently that homeowners needed to complain more to hold energy companies to account.

It is hard to get the wider public to stand up and campaign for a better deal, so imagine how much harder it is for vulnerable people to feel comfortable voicing concerns and believing something will be done.

This is why charities have such an important role as ambassadors for the hard-to-reach. By working with organisations such as local councils for voluntary service, charities can provide a stronger link to local government, which must ensure it listens.

Campaigns can be a vital part of this. In 2007, the National Union of Students ran a Facebook campaign to get the high-street bank HSBC to reverse its plans to introduce charges on student overdrafts. The campaign not only succeeded, but also led to HSBC sponsoring an NUS report on wider student experiences.

Sometimes charities might just need to put themselves forward for seats at the decision-making table - and at the same time local government must work harder to make those seats available.

The key thing is for charities to be clear about what they do and the insights they can provide. They can't just complain: they need to be both a trusted partner and critical friend of local government.

The partnership I chair is beginning to show what can be achieved when groups come together to solve common problems.

It isn't easy, and it takes time, but it is the responsibility of organisations such as charities, which are often closest to vulnerable or marginalised people, to encourage collaboration and communication - and the duty of decision-makers to listen with compassion to what is said.

Dean Russell is European social media director, Lewis PR, and a Conservative district councillor

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