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Commentary Article September 28th, 2022
Cities • Delivery • Innovation

Conversation, culture, and collaboration: building community hubs in Redbridge

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.@CPI_foundation has been working as a learning partner to @redbridgelive. @ejanderton shares how the council are developing community hubs to help strengthen relationships with the local community.

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"The process of inviting a group to review qualitative data, and ‘making sense of it’ through spotting patterns & noticing what surprised us, led us to conclude that the essential “how” for the community hubs programme is collaboration." @ejanderton

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What key insights has @ejanderton learned from working with @CPI_foundation? ☝️ Relationships & trust are crucial, ☝️ Always ask 'who's missing from this conversation'?, ☝️ Many people want to contribute, but need support.

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Partnering for Learning

We put our vision for government into practice through learning partner projects that align with our values and help reimagine government so that it works for everyone.

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For the past year, CPI has worked as a learning partner to the London Borough of Redbridge. This work focussed on supporting Redbridge to develop community hubs in the borough, which are part of the council’s efforts to reimagine and strengthen its relationships with the local community. In this piece, Ed Anderton, Learning and Evaluation Lead, shares his reflections on their journey and some of the lessons they’ve learned so far.

Redbridge is a fairly typical outer London borough. It’s home to 300,000 people, with a rich diversity of cultural backgrounds and broad differences in prosperity and access to opportunity. As one of 32 London boroughs, technically it is all one place. But in reality, Redbridge is a complex tapestry of places. It has overlapping boundaries, intersections and barriers - both physical and emotional – which represent different people’s experiences of where they live.

A similar tapestry is evident across the more than 2,000 people who work for the London Borough of Redbridge – “the council”, as it’s known by colleagues and local people alike. Different individuals and teams work with and experience the people and places of the area in very different ways: housing, home visits for the elderly, parking, homelessness, libraries, supporting families in crisis, children in the care system, vulnerable adults, or someone who just needs a new bin.

Forging connections and collaboration across Redbridge

The Community Hubs programme was established to develop spaces where these tapestries could be stitched together, strengthening each other by forging greater connections and trust across the whole. These are (or will be) physical spaces – five community hub buildings spread out across the borough, and a civic hub to be developed within Redbridge’s civic and commercial centre in Ilford.

However, we have set out on this journey with the awareness that the buildings alone cannot achieve the three key aims of the programme: changing the relationship between local people and the council, improving access to support and services, and maximising the impact of the council’s resources. Instead, the programme is founded on the idea that these three are interdependent: to maximise the impact of council resources, we must draw on the energy and contribution of local people, and support colleagues and partners to connect and amplify each other’s work.

What we believe will allow us to achieve these aims is how these buildings are developed. To support us to articulate this, we enlisted the help of colleagues from CPI, Ruth Ball and Toby Lowe. They have worked with us as a learning partner over the past year or so, helping us to build the structures, processes and cultures to help us learn as we work. Ruth took the lead in running a series of insights interviews with a range of our council colleagues and other stakeholders, asking them what they wanted to learn from the programme, and how they thought we could best support them to learn.

These interviews provided the raw material for sense-making workshops, which involved the whole hubs team. as well as colleagues from outside our team who provided an invaluable perspective from outside our ‘bubble’. The simple but powerful process of inviting a whole group to review a collation of qualitative data, and ‘making sense of it’ through spotting patterns and noticing what surprised us, led us to the conclusion that the essential “how” for the community hubs programme is collaboration.

Along with terms like partnership and innovation, collaboration can easily become something which everyone agrees they want more of, but no one is quite sure exactly what it is – and no one wants to be responsible for making it happen. Therefore, it’s crucial everyone has a clear definition of collaboration to work with. Through further sense-making, conversations and testing with colleagues, partners and local people, we identified and agreed on four key elements for collaboration:

  1. Increase inclusion – who needs to be included in this conversation?

  2. Generate shared insight – what are we learning from our work together?

  3. Co-produce solutions – how are we using that learning to improve what we are doing?

  4. Develop infrastructure – what are we creating to make it easier to collaborate?

This has given us a checklist we can refer to for every activity we’re leading as the programme team, and helps us keep collaboration central to how we’re developing the hubs. It’s also something we can share with colleagues, to encourage and support them to ask these questions in their work.

The simple but powerful process of inviting a whole group to review a collation of qualitative data, and ‘making sense of it’ through spotting patterns and noticing what surprised us, led us to the conclusion that the essential “how” for the community hubs programme is collaboration.

What we’ve learned so far: the importance of building relationships and shared governance

Alongside collaboration, learning is key to our work. A culture and practice of learning runs through each component: it is the active ingredient which brings the whole process to life. At its roots, learning lives in conversation: giving people the gift of time and permission to connect as humans, whatever “place they’re coming from”.

In practice, this can be challenging: an over-stretched colleague fire-fighting through their daily tasks, a parent anxious to get answers to their questions, or a community leader striving to get funding for their passion project, is likely to struggle to find time and space to learn. However, our learning from the past 18 months, summarised in this report, is that despite some constraints and barriers, lots of people want to contribute and connect through conversation, and will do so if they are supported to take part.

For local people and community groups, the work of six community organisers in the Hubs Programme team has been the central source of such support. Their brief is to engage people in an open conversation about their aspirations for their area, and how a hub building – and the kinds of activities, atmosphere and support the hub could host – could contribute to the changes they wish to see. One key aspect that has enabled these conversations to meet the four collaboration elements listed above is time.

The role of the community organiser is a long-term engagement, designed to allow for the development of strong relationships and to include a wide range of people, places, and perspectives. Through a combination of hard work – putting in hours walking streets, attending community events, visiting people where they are – and creativity – developing collaborative projects and showcases, in which local people are given the lead – the community organisers are laying the foundations of trust and shared understanding upon which each hub building can thrive.

Complementary to this is the Community Hubs programme’s governance: the structures through which the programme is overseen and directed, learning shared, and decisions made. The Hubs Programme Board is an unapologetically large and diverse group, including senior leaders in council services, strategic partners, as well as resident and community representatives, who are invited to contribute on equal terms in discussing the progress and direction of the programme.

What’s next?

In our next phase of development, the Hubs Programme Board will be complemented with area working groups. These will involve local people working with the hubs team, colleagues and other organisations in each hub area to co-produce and test new ways to support and meet needs. The insights, enablers, and barriers to progress identified by each of these groups will then be shared with the Hubs Programme Board, to identify how we – collectively – might respond to clear the path for the next cycle of activity and learning.

At the moment, the activities we are planning have a strong focus on reducing the impact of poverty. This is a long-term strategic goal for the council which will require a swift and coordinated response in the coming months. As well as responding to immediate pressures, our role will be to distil the learning along the way, informing the development of durable infrastructure which encourages and enables collaboration.

Some of this infrastructure will be tangible, such as improved systems and processes, to make it simpler to meet and connect with each other, and put more of the most relevant and vital data into the right hands at the right time. However, we are also interested in cultural infrastructure: the attitudes, behaviours and expectations of everyone who makes up ‘the system’ we all work in.

We believe that a culture which experiences conversation, curiosity, and collaboration not as ‘nice to haves’, but as an essential foundation of ‘doing the work’ will produce and sustain the transformation that the Community Hubs programme was created to support. Of course, we are not alone in this belief, which is founded on a growing number of comparable programmes and approaches – you can find many case studies on the Human Learning Systems (HLS) website, and we also take inspiration from the work of New Local, We’re Right Here and The Relationships Project.

A culture which experiences conversation, curiosity, and collaboration not as ‘nice to haves’, but as an essential foundation of ‘doing the work’ will produce and sustain the transformation that the Community Hubs programme was created to support.

Participating in the HLS learning community, coordinated by colleagues at Collaborate CIC, has also allowed me to connect and share with fellow travellers from across a wide range of local authorities, all keen to learn from and support each other. It’s been a highly encouraging, energising and inspiring experience. If you’re interested in plugging into this community, HLS Week is taking place in October, and you can register to take part here.

We’re excited to be a part of this growing community of people seeking to build better ways for us all to live and work together, in whatever places we find ourselves. The key insights we’re taking with us into the next phase of our work are:

  1. Relationships and trust are crucial - and building them takes time

  2. We need to keep asking ourselves ‘who’s missing from this conversation’?

  3. Many people want to contribute - but need support, consideration and patience to make it possible

If you would like to find out more – or have some learning you would like to share with us – please get in touch: Ed Anderton, Learning and Evaluation Lead,

Written by:

Ed Anderton Learning and Evaluation Lead for the Community Hubs Programme, London Borough of Redbridge
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