x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Engage people to improve their lives

As Gulf states' populations expand, the municipalities that serve local residents have an opportunity to develop excellent community services.

Governments ought to provide parks, libraries and community and leisure centres to improve the lifestyles of citizens.
Governments ought to provide parks, libraries and community and leisure centres to improve the lifestyles of citizens.

Gulf states enjoyed substantial economic development during the past two decades and have improved and expanded the overall delivery of government services. For example, the UAE was rated highly in the World Bank's annual World Governance Indicators report last year in terms of government effectiveness. But as development continues and the population expands, local governments will need to learn how to better provide community services and engage the people in their communities in doing so.

The success of GCC governments to date was in part a testimony to the region's visionary and paternalistic leadership. However, it was also a reflection of the GCC's stage of development. In their early years, some Gulf states understandably focused on basic needs of society such as physical infrastructure, schools and health facilities - investments that generated significant economic benefits and created jobs for their citizens.

The next wave of economic and social transformation will require even more from governments to improve the lives of their citizens: they must continue their commitment to national growth while also defining a new focus on local government services tailored to communities. Some GCC municipalities are already good at handling infrastructure such as local roads and public transport, sewerage, water, land use planning and development control.

But one area that remains lacking is community services. These provide cultural opportunities and recreational facilities that meet the needs of residents of all ages, abilities, incomes and interests. Although they vary between municipalities, they might include parks, sports and physical activity developments, arts, libraries and heritage services, events and festivals, community and leisure centres, local theatres, museums and beaches.

The importance of these services cannot be overstated. Providing a diverse, high-quality system of cultural and recreational facilities is a critical role for local government. Such activities support the quality of life for residents, make cities more appealing to them and help to attract and retain local businesses. In addition, quality recreational facilities and programmes help combat obesity and encourage active, healthy lifestyles.

Different countries have different models for providing community services. Western countries, for example, favour a mixed-economy model that combines public and commercial sources of income and relies on close links with public agencies, local firms and the local community. Local governments cannot successfully design such programmes in a vacuum. To deliver high-quality services, local governments should engage the community to determine what it needs.

Traditional forums in the GCC include the majlis, or "gathering places". However, this approach is steadily becoming more difficult to maintain as populations grow and government affairs become increasingly sophisticated. Furthermore, citizens' expectations are rapidly evolving as globalisation and the proliferation of digital media provide them with new ways to engage and interact. As such, local governments need to embrace modern approaches for interacting with the public.

They should first improve the flow of information to the public through a variety of means: fact sheets; town hall meetings; and online presences. Next, GCC municipalities may want to explore public consultation on key community projects and initiatives. Workshops and focus groups are excellent settings for these kinds of interactions; surveys are also effective when the population is fragmented. Call centres, which allow the general public to air their concerns, are another option.

Ultimately, local governments may decide to extend their community activities to outright collaboration, in which the public is a key contributor in the delivery of the services. For instance, residents may act as community volunteers or neighbourhood watchdogs. Local governments in the GCC have a major opportunity to improve the wellbeing of their people through the delivery of tailored community services. By strongly engaging the community in the design and delivery of these services, they can expect a ripple effect of benefits.

Samer Bohsali and Leila Hoteit are both principals with Booz and Company

Examples of excellent community services programmes from around the world can serve as models for the GCC. For instance, New Deal for Communities (NDC) is a UK scheme that puts communities at its heart, making engagement a key part of its structure and practices. The programme, led by the central government and delivered at the local level through municipalities, provides services in disadvantaged areas plagued by low educational attainment, poor health, high crime rates, poor job prospects and substandard housing. With a budget of about £2 billion (Dh10.94bn) intended to transform these communities over a 10-year period, NDC brings together key agencies such as the police and education and health authorities, in addition to non-governmental organisations, volunteers and community representatives. NDC partnerships with local communities ensure that the community's members have a voice. Each partnership is overseen and managed by a group of residents and agency representatives called the "partnership board", which makes the strategic decisions implemented by the NDC. The board is composed primarily of residents, and those residents not on the board have access to resident committees, focus groups, interviews and regular neighbourhood forums to give input on the planning, design and delivery of services and programmes. Based on this input, NCD partnerships develop projects in six key areas: education; culture and leisure; health; unemployment; housing and the physical environment; and crime. These have included: educational after-school clubs and adult education for skills training; park refurbishment; provision of basic medical equipment in community centres; and the development of a Neighbourhood Watch scheme. Such efforts have borne fruit; NDC areas have shown reductions in crime rates, greater academic achievement among students, increases in residents' satisfaction with their communities and improvements in the unemployment rate. Such an approach could be customised to address the GCC's unique challenges. The region has one of the highest rates of diabetes II in the world; community services programmes could help tackle the sedentary lifestyles and unhealthy diets that have exacerbated this problem with physical activities in parks and beaches, as well as education in community centres. Unemployment among nationals could be partly addressed by the provision of learning opportunities for adults in easily accessible, community-based facilities such as community centres and libraries. These facilities could also supplement the educational system by offering programmes to develop young people's skills. Finally, these programmes could help to bring social cohesion to ethnically diverse populations by offering events and activities in publicly accessible locations. * Samer Bohsali and Leila Hoteit