Collaboration & Engagement: How and why we created this section
The Collaboration & Engagement section is in some ways totally different from the other sections in the scorecards. Instead of examining one of the emissions sectors, it looks at how councils can communicate their work and engage with residents, businesses and others to enable local climate action. These are all key ways for councils to influence area-wide emissions that the Climate Change Committee highlighted in their Onion diagram, so we knew we should have a section dedicated to it.
However, this section provided us with a good problem. The best council collaborations and engagements are place-based and often based on years of development, so there are about as many ways to engage with the local communities as there are councils. That is a great thing for the sector, but it’s not so great when you’re trying to come up with a single, quantified metric for what good looks like! To respond to this challenge, the Collaboration & Engagement section sometimes has broader criteria that acts as an umbrella for the diverse approaches councils may take.
For example, councils who embed climate change into their health partnerships will be awarded equally to councils that embed health experts into their climate change work. Whilst these two approaches have different pros and cons, it’s unlikely that councils will do both and doing one well can make a massive impact on ensuring the health implications of climate mitigation and adaptation are considered in council climate action.
Speaking of doing things well, another difficulty we had with this section is how to differentiate between doing things well and doing them poorly. For example, we can’t measure the difference between a council taking an active or a passive role in a network or as a member from the outside. We decided, therefore, to weight the importance of this question (question 4) as low because both active and passive participation will be scored the same. We expect that councils who do take an active role in working with networks will be better at taking climate action more generally, so their hard work will show in their overall score.
Partaking in Participation
The question which I spent the most time worrying about is Q5, which has two parts and deals with how councils engage with their local residents to influence their climate action. In many ways these questions are the beating heart of the Collaboration & Engagement section. Climate policy which really works, which ‘takes people with us’ and works towards a future filled with more hope than dread, must be informed by the people who are affected by it. Without that, ambitious policies are impossible.
However, we are again faced with the same issue of measurability. There are so many ways to do climate engagement, including climate assemblies, embedding residents into climate change committees, regularly engaging with existing climate action networks or running a series of ward-based workshops to capture the opinions of those who aren’t already engaged climate activists. No approach is definitively better than the others all of the time, and councils won’t and can’t do all of them, so for this question we have to score all these types of engagement equally.
We also can’t easily see exactly how good the engagement work is, and how far it climbs up Arnstein’s ladder of Citizen Engagement. We know that some people will have experienced frustrating or tokenising engagement with their council, and there may be points awarded for schemes that you feel aren’t deserving. However, as there is no definitive way to distinguish between best practice and bad practice we decided it was better to include an imperfect question rather than deleting it and understating the importance of resident engagement. This question will provide us with a snapshot of all of the different approaches councils use and this may mean we can ask a more refined question in the future.
For the other parts of this engagement question, we will reward councils for taking a more transparent and strategic approach to engagement by developing publicly available climate engagement strategies, subjecting their climate action plan to an equalities impact assessment and specifically engaging those most affected by both climate change and its mitigation. Who is most affected by the climate emergency will vary by council area. For example, that may be people who live in houses that aren’t insulated enough to maintain lower temperatures during summer heatwaves, diaspora communities dealing with the emotional trauma and financial support for natural disasters, or groups of marginalised people with lower institutional trust who aren’t accessing council climate initiatives and are being ‘left behind’ as a result. We can’t speak for what any council needs as well as they can, so we want to see evidence that the council is thinking about who is most affected in their area.
Who’s talking to who?
One of my favourite questions is Q3, which asks if the council has lobbied the government on climate action. The inspiration for this question comes from last year’s Council Climate Action Scorecards, which found that 60% of council climate action plans made a commitment to lobby higher levels of Government when they came across limitations of legislation and finance that impede them from taking action on the climate crisis.
We know that this is a really difficult financial time for councils, who have experienced real-term budget cuts of up to 40% in the last decade and are still recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic. The climate emergency is urgent, but we know it’s competing with so many other urgent issues. This question encourages councils to try to influence national policy to unlock local climate action, and the more councils do this the more likely we will see national policy changes.
Most lobbying happens behind closed doors, so we have decided to use a Freedom Of Information request to ask councils for this information. The exciting thing is that once we publish the Scorecards results we will be making all of our FOI requests public using WhatDoTheyKnow, so everyone will be able to see a part of council politics that often happens behind closed doors.
What’s for sale?
The last question I want to highlight is the question about high-carbon advertising. This is the only question in this section that uses public data, which will be provided by Ad Free Cities. The first city to pass a motion to ban high carbon advertising was Amsterdam in 2021, and we are starting to see these motions picking up steam in the UK. This is such a practical and symbolic way to use council influence to prevent overall carbon emissions from occurring.
We have heard some concerns from officers about whether this is an appropriate question for rural and district councils because the information is provided by Ad Free Cities, and because some councils have a very small amount of advertising space. Any council can pass a motion to ban high carbon advertising no matter the amount of ad space they have, as it still sends a clear message about the power of advertising and what kinds of advertising should be prohibited. There is a strong precedent for these symbolic motions, such as councils like Manchester City Council being a member of the Nuclear Free Local Authorities even though it is unlikely anyone would even propose a nuclear power station or nuclear waste storage site in such a densely populated area. The more councils that pass motions to ban high carbon advertising, the more likely it is for the Government to step in and introduce cigarette-style limitations to the types of adverts we are exposed to.
What we had to leave out
We considered asking more questions about how councils communicate the work they’re doing. For example, how they are using social media or newsletters to engage with people and whether they run climate engagement events such as Go Green weeks. However, these activities can be low in impact compared to the questions we decided to ask. What’s more, in the worst case scenario these activities can sometimes act as a kind of greenwash when councils prioritise appearing ‘green’ without doing the less glamorous but more effective climate actions.
We didn’t include a question that specifically measured climate assemblies and instead chose to integrate them into the more general engagement question. This is because climate assemblies, while popular with the public and able to generate interesting policy ideas, are expensive and time-bound, so some councils can’t afford to run them and others used their engagement budgets on climate assemblies instead of other engagement work.
More broadly, we would love to see the increased uptake of excellence standards in council climate communication and engagement, such as Plain English accreditation for climate documents, or the communication of externally accredited science-based targets in annual reports.
Overall, we hope this section succeeds in its aim to award good work without flattening down the natural diversity and complexity of council collaborations. We loved talking to local campaigners, engagement experts and council officers to understand the story from every side. Thank you so much to everyone who spoke to us.