Newham (UK) recently evaluated their Community Assemblies initiative, now known as People Powered Places. This article outlines a summary of the report’s key insights and ideas for future improvement. Read on to kindle fresh ideas for invigorating engagement within your own community!
The People Powered Places program is the London Borough of Newham’s flagship program of participatory budgeting. It started in 2018 with the aim of delivering the Mayor of Newham’s aspiration to create a culture of participation in the area, with the aim of increasing transparency and trust in local government, and including local people in the decision-making process.
Between 2021 – 2023, £1.6 million from the Neighbourhood Community Infrastructure levy has led to investment in 157 local projects. The People Powered Places program stands out as one of the UK’s most extensive local participatory budgeting initiatives.
Digital engagement hub supported by CitizenLab
Newham Co-create, the borough’s CitizenLab-powered engagement platform, has been a vital tool in facilitating resident interaction with the Community Assemblies program. It served as the stage for a whopping 16,552 resident engagements between 2021 and 2023, representing a remarkable increase from the 3,147 engagements in the 2018-2020 cycle.
Amelie Pollet, Participatory Democracy Coordinator at London Borough of Newham, explains: “One of the CitizenLab’s platform core strengths lies in its strong and extensive information-sharing capabilities. Residents can learn about the People Powered Places initiative, access minutes of working group meetings, watch uploaded videos, and see upcoming events.”
The platform goes beyond just providing information; it actively keeps residents engaged in the People Powered Places’ progress. Residents can stay informed about the overall timeline, discover upcoming events and key dates.
Amelie further highlighted the platform’s polling and participatory budgeting features, sharing that “The dedicated participatory budgeting module enables residents to easily allocate funds through a budget simulator and prioritize local projects. In addition, the ability for residents to comment on the ideas and start a discussion has sparked lively conversations and fostered a collaborative spirit.”
Example of a poll – Residents were asked to vote on the top 3 priorities for their neighborhood
Example of the budget allocation process – Residents could pick the projects they think are most relevant to implement
Reflect to refine
Newham’s team, always striving for improvement, initiated a thorough evaluation of the program’s cycles between 2021-2023. They used a mix of quantitative and qualitative methods to gain a robust understanding of the program’s effectiveness and impact.
In the words of Amelie, “To gain a rich and in-depth understanding, we conducted, among others, a series of focus groups. These involved residents who have been actively engaged in various aspects of the assemblies, working group members, and project leads across both the current and previous cycles. In addition, we sent out surveys to all users of Newham Co-create who participated in the 2022 voting phase and had participants in the in-person events fill out feedback forms.”
The Newham engagement team scored the program on seven success criteria:
- Boosted resident engagement
- Facilitated local discussions and identification of solutions
- Enhanced understanding and influence on priority setting
- Empowered voices in budget allocation
- Multi-mode participation
- Fostered local connections
- Ensured diversity and accessibility
How better to measure the impact of a program than by looking at how residents feel about their involvement in local decisions?
The figures below show that a majority of residents involved have a positive perception of the program. For residents involved in 2022/2023:
- 89% felt more connected to their local area after coming to a Community Assembly
- 85% felt that the Assemblies provide an opportunity to discuss and identify issues of local concern
- 84% felt that the Assemblies provide an opportunity to be involved in decision-making
- 82% felt that the Assemblies give a greater say in the allocation of funding locally
Amelie reflected on the results, sharing that “it is great to see the majority of residents have such a positive perception. From the number of resident contributions, it is also clear that People Powered Places is widening participation; the number has significantly increased since the first cycle. On the other hand, our evaluation shows that, to date, those taking part are not yet fully reflective of Newham’s diverse population.”
In this comprehensive review, the Newham Co-create platform was also evaluated for its role in facilitating robust resident engagement.
The platform was seen as a useful tool by both Council staff and residents. Users praised the platform for its ability to consolidate information, foster connections, and reach a broader audience. The majority found the platform easy to access and understand, especially in terms of voting for projects.
Recommendations for the future
Based on the evaluation, Newham formulated seven recommendations to improve the current 2023/2025 and upcoming cycles. We’ll highlight three, but you can read all seven recommendations in the full evaluation report.
“One of the main challenges we’ve faced with the Community Assembly program is the time crunch within a one-year cycle,” explains Amelie. “We’ve found that the existing cycle doesn’t provide ample time for projects to get delivered as effectively as we’d like.”
Amelie continues, “We’ve extended the cycle from one to two years. A two-year cycle will afford us the opportunity to plan more effectively for the long term and ensure smoother project implementation processes. This extended timeframe will also stimulate increased collaboration between Council services.”
“With this extension,” she elaborates, “we’ll be dedicating the first year to deliberation, project application, and voting. In the second year, we’ll focus on project delivery and evaluation.”
Recommendation 2: A dedicated brand – People Powered Places
“Another aspect we’ve realized needs some attention is our communication,” admits Amelie. “Since the program’s inception in 2018, it has evolved tremendously. However, residents who participated in the initial cycle might not be fully aware of these improvements. There’s also been some confusion about the program being a citizens’ assembly process, which it isn’t, given that we don’t rely on sortition and our processes extend beyond just recommendation to actual project delivery by the residents.”
“To address these issues,” she continues, “we’re transforming our communication to raise the residents’ awareness and understanding, and clarify how they can get involved.”
“One of the improvements is introducing a dedicated brand, People Powered Places,” Amelie reveals. “This branding will make it easier for residents to recognize funded projects and avoid further confusion with citizens’ assemblies, a separate initiative run by Newham Council. It better encapsulates the essence of the program, emphasizing the fact that it’s about action and project delivery by residents. To further inspire participation, we’ll also focus on project case studies that vividly illustrate the impact.”
“Thirdly, we acknowledge that our voting process needs some adjustments,” Amelie shares. “We’ve heard from some residents that they would prefer the option to vote for their favorite projects offline.”
“To ensure we’re providing an accessible and inclusive process, we are planning on extending opportunities for in-person voting in each neighborhood by organizing buzzing voting events alongside online voting,” she continues. “The CitizenLab team has already worked with us to make the ‘shopping basket’ system more intuitive and we plan to incorporate ballot boxes at our in-person events. We believe that by doing this, we’ll cater to all preferences, allowing everyone to participate in shaping their community, irrespective of their digital literacy or access. We worked with CitizenLab’s product team to be able to avoid community members voting multiple times by adding the option to ask specific questions, like the postal address, in particular phases of the engagement process. We really appreciate CitizenLab’s openness and swift response to product feedback.”
The People Powered Places program in the London Borough of Newham represents an impressive example of participatory democracy in action. With the support of CitizenLab’s platform, the program has made significant strides in enhancing transparency, fostering a sense of community, and empowering residents. As we move forward, the lessons learned and the feedback from this evaluation will serve as a valuable guide in refining both the platform and the program.
Interested to discover how your local authority can leverage our platform and enhance community engagement? Talk to us!