How can local governments engage communities on the climate? Insights from Involve

Local government’s have a major role to play if we are to achieve net zero by 2050. This publication looks at a pioneering project to do just that – Involve’s Local Climate Engagement programme. We look at three ways to do public engagement on climate, rooted in our experience of doing this work across the UK for many years.

Photo by L.W. on Unsplash

Carly Walker-Dawson is an Engagement Lead within the Capacity Building and Standards function at Involve, the UK’s leading public participation charity. She leads the Local Climate Engagement programme and works directly with 16 local authorities across England in the coaching group strand. Outside of Involve, Carly has been a freelance trainer and practitioner in non-formal education for 15 years. She holds an MSc in Comparative Politics from the London School of Economics and Political Science.

The climate crisis is a complex, systemic challenge that affects us all. Alongside others, local authorities have a major role to play if we are to achieve net zero by 2050. They must reduce the 2- 5% of their local area’s emissions they are directly responsible for. But they are also uniquely placed to influence a further third of emissions through leadership in their communities and engaging with their residents.

This blog looks at a pioneering project to do just that – Involve’s Local Climate Engagement programme. We look at three ways to do public engagement on climate, rooted in our experience of doing this work across the UK for many years.

Our Local Climate Engagement Programme is working with 21 local authorities in England to deliver high-quality public engagement projects on climate policy. The programme is being delivered by a consortium of five organisations – Involve, Climate Outreach, the Democratic Society, Shared Future and UK100. The idea came from a combination of local authorities expressing a clear desire to better include their communities in climate decision-making but saying they weren’t sure where to start, and members of the public telling us that they too would like to see local engagement on climate and think it is important.

In essence, the programme provides local authorities with the impetus, incentives and support they need to engage in high quality and inclusive local public engagement in climate decision-making, placing citizens at the centre of decisions on how to achieve net zero. In practice, this is achieved through a combination of training, hands-on support, mentoring, tailored resources, and peer learning to support council officers and elected representatives.

The programme has two strands: a coaching group and a project group.

Local authority officers from the coaching group receive intensive training that equips them with the knowledge, skills and confidence to plan future local climate engagement processes. The training takes an action learning approach, meaning the local authorities use real or imagined examples of a question or issue on which they want to engage the public and go through the steps for planning this process. This is followed up with bespoke mentoring with local climate engagement experts. The project group works hands-on with public engagement experts to plan and deliver local climate engagement processes, centring learning by doing.

The Local Climate Engagement programme has been underway since September 2021. We are now looking to extend the reach of this work to other local authorities in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. We want more local authorities to benefit from the training and support that can help local authorities and their communities in their journey towards net zero. The Local Climate Engagement programme works with local authorities to demonstrate that public engagement isn’t about imposing solutions on communities but collaborating with them to create a coalition working together to reach net zero.

In the Local Climate Engagement programme we talk about three main ways that local authorities and others can engage members of the public on climate issues:

  1. Public engagement for communication
  2. Public engagement for intervention
  3. Public engagement for collaboration

The typology takes its inspiration from research conducted by the Centre for Public Impact on public engagement and its impact on climate friendly choices and decisions amongst members of the public.

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  1. Public engagement for communication

Public engagement for communication allows local authorities to tell members of their communities about the climate crisis and what the local authority or others are doing about it. If done well, by speaking to people’s values and identities, this can help support climate friendly choices as evidence suggests that it can encourage members of the public to care more about climate change and prompt more willingness to make changes.

There is broad agreement in research that simply providing people with information about climate change is not sufficient to support action on climate change. Instead, in order to communicate effectively, we need to reframe the debate and provide narratives and messengers that resonate with the identities and values of the audience. Communication should encourage members of your community to see climate change as an important and real threat that they need to take ownership of and challenge, and the messaging you use should be relevant to different target groups.

All local authorities participating in the Local Climate Engagement programme are receiving training around communications in relation to climate. In the coaching group stream, for example, local authorities are introduced to the power of storytelling, what it is and why it matters for participation and engagement, and how it relates to communication. Participants also explore the dos and don’ts of communication in relation to public trust, and the importance of framing based on segmentation research undertaken by Climate Outreach. This research, Britain Talks Climate, is designed to equip communicators with the insights they need to shape the national debate on climate in a way that draws on shared values and avoids division. It does this by introducing seven segments of British society – such as Loyal Nationalists, Backbone Conservatives and Civic Pragmatists – and explores how to engage with them on climate.

  1. Public engagement for intervention

Public engagement on climate for intervention is designed to incentivise members of the public directly to change their lifestyles to be more climate friendly. This could be changes to infrastructure such as creating cycle lanes, or initiatives such as no car days or Meat Free Mondays. The research and theory that underpins this approach – based on social psychology and behavioural choice models – suggest that whilst essential, this approach by itself has some limitations in relation to lack of public consent and issues of intervention design not working for certain groups or communities. For example, an intervention that prioritises public transport over individual car use could create new barriers for people for whom public transport is not accessible.

For example, one area of work that some of the local authorities taking part in the Local Climate Programme are focusing is on low traffic neighbourhoods. These initiatives are highly contentious, in part down to the coordinated national campaigns that organise against them. While the benefits on air quality and emissions levels for low traffic neighbourhoods are obvious, their introduction can also decrease the number of road accidents, expand public space and make residential areas more pleasant, inclusive and safer for people to walk and cycle. However, research on low traffic neighbourhoods in London, showed that some people believe that their introduction is inequitable due to a perception that they favour well-to-do residential areas, while poorer residents see a negative impact or no improvement, and risks accelerating the gentrification of neighbourhoods. While research does not substantiate these claims, it is important to give space to members of the community to share their concerns, engage in dialogue, be presented with unbiased information, and be part of the decision-making processes on how to tackle emissions from transport. And this is what local authorities in our programme are doing.

  1. Public engagement for collaboration

Collaboration for public engagement on climate focuses on opening up decision-making to allow members of the public to help shape climate strategies, policies, services or interventions. There are many ways of doing this taking into consideration different resources, timescales, and costs. This type of engagement helps with problems around public consent, intervention design and fairness. In the last few years, many local authorities have moved beyond traditional consultation methods to engage local people using a diverse range of techniques from citizens’ juries and assemblies, to crowdsourcing and community conversations. These are all examples of collaboration in public engagement.

Related to this idea and also falling under ‘collaboration’ is how local authorities can help engagement led by others to thrive, such as by supporting public engagement led by community groups, businesses, or other public sector organisations in a locality. This aspect of collaboration goes beyond just funding and considers other areas of support such as how the local authority reacts to issues raised by members of the community through others’ initiatives or proactively supporting a community group’s work on climate related initiatives. This can also help local authorities to hear from groups they don’t often hear from. Members of easy-to-ignore groups that are wary of engaging with a local authority directly may feel comfortable contributing to an engagement exercise with an interest group or faith group, for example.

Enabling collaborative public participation on climate enables local authorities to build a deeper understanding of local preferences, aspirations and needs. This supports the development of policy that is more likely to achieve public buy-in, is better communicated, and is more likely to work better from the beginning. Not only can this help a local authority work towards their net zero targets, but it can save time and money, and cultivate credibility. We hear from officials and locally elected representatives alike that a considerable barrier in their work is lack of trust between themselves and members of their communities. Trust in local authorities can increase if interventions better meet people’s aspirations and needs, are communicated in ways that emphasise benefits important to communities, and if people think the decision-making process has been fair and has listened to people like them. Another advantage is that it allows local authorities to reach beyond those they most often hear from if they use methods that reach out to less heard groups. This builds trust and is a key step in achieving a fair transition to net zero. We have found by offering a space for members of a community to have a dialogue and be genuinely heard, public engagement can also build healthier communities and stronger relationships. This is especially important on an issue with implications for people’s everyday lives such as climate change.

An example of where a public engagement initiative on climate has benefited the local authority and local community alike is the Our Zero Selby public engagement project, a precursor to the Local Climate Engagement programme. Our Zero Selby was part of an ambitious national project, The Local Just Transition Challenge, that we ran in partnership with Forum for the Future, and with involvement from two local authorities, Selby District Council and North Yorkshire County Council. The initiative was developed to demonstrate how communities and citizens can benefit from the transition to a net-zero economy when they are put at the front and centre of planning for their future. Our Zero Selby started with a crowdsourcing phase aiming to reach people in their capacity as local residents and input of people in their professional capacity, for example as local business owners, farmers, or public sector employees.

The engagement methods used included community conversations, online and offline surveys, pop-up stalls and old-fashioned meetings to seek people’s input on five themes: buildings, nature, food, travel and waste. The citizen crowdsourcing reached over 550 residents, aged between 14-65+, across a diversity of demographics in relation to geography, education attainment, socio-economic background, interests, and entry level to the topic of climate change, and generated hundreds of individual insights across the five themed areas. The resulting list of ideas went forward to a series of community decision-making events early in 2022 where members of the local community decided which projects they would most like to see taken forward.

Participants at the decision making events were given a baseline and post-event questionnaire which showed that, following the events, 97% of the participants reported feeling there is a lot that can be done to tackle climate change in their local area. While 69% believe that they are able to influence decisions that are made about their local area, this was up from 33% at the start of the process. Astoundingly, 100% of participants felt like tackling climate change is important, and 97% felt like tackling climate change will have wider benefits for the community. Although this project focused on the impact on citizens and communities, the local authorities involved reported that Our Zero Selby provided a unique opportunity to listen to and engage with residents from all backgrounds and that they were inspired by the level of interest evident, community commitment and willingness to work together.

Many local authorities across the UK have set themselves ambitious climate targets, showing real leadership on the issue. However, to meet these targets, they will need to look beyond those areas they have immediate responsibility for, and engage residents and stakeholders on the changes that can be made throughout their communities. To do that well and really have an impact, a combination of all three approaches above needs to be part of local authorities’ plans. While this may seem daunting, the prize is massive – a shared endeavour at all levels of government and communities to tackle the climate crisis.

And, if you’re looking for support, we are here to help. Get in touch to find out how, or to ask any questions you have about the programme, or how to engage the public on climate, please contact Carly Walker-Dawson at [email protected].

The Local Climate Engagement programme is generously supported by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation (UK branch) and the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation.