A blog post by intern Megan Arnold

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This week I’ve been doing an internship with Devon Community Foundation as part of the Professional Pathways course with the University of Exeter. As someone who is interested in the charity/NGO sector and specifically in research work, I was particularly interested in this internship which gave me a chance to give report-writing a go. I was tasked with writing a report (with help from Nicola, of course) about local democracy in Devon, in the context of a national and local trend of decreasing trust in politics and political parties. Having studied international relations for three years, I’ve done a few research essays now, but this is my first time writing a non-academic report and I’ve enjoyed the challenge of writing for a different audience (without a word limit!!)

Having said that, sitting down to actually start the research was a bit daunting, there was a lot of information to look at, and I didn’t have much prior knowledge about local government nor about Devon as a whole county, having largely stayed in Exeter for most of my time at university. So I started trying to research Devon’s politics: the different levels of government, what they all do, as well as the different regions in Devon and how they differ when it comes to factors such as deprivation and a sense of belonging. This initial research then led me to look at some studies and reports published by think tanks and government bodies. The Edelman Trust Barometer was particularly useful as it provided some interesting statistics I could use to support the ideas about national disengagement from politics.

My next task was to look into some of the data surrounding the issue. Fairly early on it became clear that turnout would be a very useful measure of political engagement in Devon as  it is a clear indicator of formal participation and it tends to be very well documented for each set of elections – the Electoral Commission keeps spreadsheets on their website for public access. After some searching through the different data sets and temporary confusion at the unusually high turnout rates in the May 2015 local elections (it turned out the general election was on the same day), the May 2017 local elections seemed to be the best candidate for the analysis.

I then looked at how the turnout rates in each district related to their levels of deprivation. This is where the research got slightly more difficult; the geographical areas for the deprivation data didn’t correspond with electoral district boundaries, meaning that often there would either be multiple deprivation values for one electoral division, or the deprivation value was for an area massively bigger than the division, therefore making the values less accurate.

What resulted was a graph which clearly shows a lack of correlation (using the values available) between deprivation levels and turnout rates, despite such a relationship being proven in other regions of the country. I also looked at the ‘Voice and Participation’ value of the Co-op Community Wellbeing Index which posed a similar problem in that the index would often cover entire towns rather than certain areas within towns, again resulting in no visible correlation. However, there was a weak correlation between a community’s sense of belonging and turnout rates, possibly indicating that belonging varies less within a town and varies more between different towns and divisions.

I then started to look at real-life examples in Devon. The Devon Live website was very useful for this, providing lots of stories from across the county about instances of local political involvement that wouldn’t necessarily be picked up by national press. There were a lot of elements to Devon politics that I’d never thought about – the role of independent councillors and organisations, the variety of attitudes towards local councillors, the effect being a region full of safe Conservative seats has on funding and the existence of ‘watches’ online which inform the public about local issues.

Finally came the writing! Even though I’d already done lots of research towards the report, I still had to do more during the writing process, although being able to copy and paste all the statistics I’d found definitely made the process quicker. The report and my internship aren’t quite done yet – on Monday we take a trip to Totnes to meet a member of an independent group standing for councillor positions – but this week so far has been a real insight into the research it takes for an organisation such as DCF to work effectively and I think I’ve learnt a lot about Devon politics and report-writing.

Keep an eye on our news feed for Megan’s finished report and how it informs further conversation in this area for the Devon Community Foundation team.