Armed with a broad set of principles and a loosely defined brief to address health and wellbeing issues in Camden, it was difficult to know what to expect. But as a fresh-faced policy officer, new to the council with little experience in citizen engagement, I jumped at the chance to lead on this project.

“Go and set up a Neighbourhood Assembly on health’’ they said, “see what happens.” So we did.

The Neighbourhood Assembly

In 2019, FutureGov and Camden Council convened the Camden Neighbourhood Assembly on Health and Wellbeing. This hyper-local deliberative approach married co-design with participatory processes and resulted in three ideas to combat health and wellbeing issues in the borough.

It was immediately clear how enthusiastic residents are to have a different kind of relationship with the council. Often when you mention you’re from the council, you get a standard reaction from residents. Mention you’re working on a project to put local people in charge and you get another reaction entirely.

Recruiting to the Neighbourhood Assembly got easier once we stopped talking about the process and started asking people: what about health and wellbeing matters to you and what role the council should play?

Once we explained that we’re trying new ways of working with residents to shift the dynamic and put local people at the heart of decision-making, conversation flowed. What started as curiosity and a healthy dose of scepticism, soon turned into a group of people building real relationships and trust.

No longer was I only “a council officer”. But rather, Henry, an Assembly member who cared about the work, the ideas and those involved. No longer were our members “residents and citizens” but people — friends and neighbours with a shared goal to make our local community a happier and healthier place to live. Working together, we shifted from an energetic group of individuals to a collective, focusing on ways we could affect positive change across the entire community.

I have no doubt that this partnership approach directly contributed to the Assembly’s success. An intensive programme of workshops, events, focus groups and wider engagement meant that everyone was able to demonstrate their commitment — and by the end, we were all considered equal members of the same team.

The Assembly produced three ideas that directly combat health and wellbeing issues in Camden, along with detailed road maps on how to further test and implement the ideas. These tangible ideas both resonate with the Camden community and with the Assembly. Moreover, the plans to implement them make the ideas feel more real and achievable while also sharing ownership between the Council, community organisations and Assembly members.

Why it worked

The biggest shift in my ways of working was truly giving control over to the Assembly. Anyone in local government undertaking a long term citizen-led project of this nature should avoid underestimating the demands and get used to feeling out of control. A truly citizen-led process means relinquishing power over the process, direction and decision-making. This will likely require a radical shift in culture.

Overall, the Neighbourhood Assembly demonstrated the knowledge and energy that already exists in Camden’s communities. For me, the Council is at its best when acting as an enabler of change — facilitating resident-led initiatives, removing barriers and joining the dots between local partners. I think we all have a responsibility to work in much closer partnership with residents.

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