Social progress is about the expansion of freedom, not the growth of services – Cormac Russell
Our digital networks, Twitter, in particular, are unparalleled listening tools.
I follow thousands of accounts, many organised into lists so I can get a sense of what’s going on in innovation, technology, health, housing – and the social sector generally.
Right now – I think there’s an interesting development happening that’s worthy of comment.
- It appears organisations risk becoming more siloed. Whilst digital connects us in ways never before possible – whole sectors are still just talking to themselves.
- This sense of disconnection is being made ever more visible – to the public, to patients, to tenants of social housing.
Social media isn’t the great leveller we thought it might be – but it’s certainly a great revealer. It’s not shifting the balance of power — but it’s shining a torch on where power is held and how it behaves.
A couple of weeks ago I was on holiday flicking through Instagram. By complete chance, the algorithm had placed two photographs directly above each other.
- Firstly was the imposing black husk of Grenfell Tower – a monument to the dead and ignored.
- Next to it was a picture from a sector awards ceremony, with a champagne bottle placed in front of some happy smiling ‘professionals’, celebrating how good we are at engaging communities.
I’m not naming the sector (you can probably guess) but it’s kind of irrelevant. We’ve all been there and done it, and celebrating success IS very important – but our digital behaviours are now being represented and recreated in contexts we are not even fully aware of.
The Problem With ‘Professionals’
What social media does very effectively is highlight where friction occurs. Nowhere is that friction more evident than when people in housing, health and social care cast themselves, often unintentionally, as professionals and experts to be listened to.
This behaviour can give off the impression of an exclusive club, populated by those in the know, who are using their exclusive access (and exclusive language) to solve problems and design services on behalf of citizens.
The professionalisation of the social sector – conducted in a such a public way -immediately places one group in a position of power and influence:
Empowering words, but disempowering actions.
The digital age is disrupting the accepted rules of discourse. No longer is a relationship solely between citizen and institution. What was once a fairly binary one to one relationship behind closed doors is now conducted within a much wider social and public context.
Engagement Versus Empowerment
Across the social sectors, practitioners and organisations play many different roles in the implementation and diffusion of the ideas and projects that they seek to promote. Some of these roles can serve to empower communities, while others can actively disempower them.
As Phil Murphy commented engagement isn’t a destination, it’s a route to empowerment. Services are sometimes a means to an end but rarely an end in themselves. There are few things that happen in communities that can’t be solved by communities themselves.
We can’t continue adopting a deficit mindset where the answer to everything is:
- More Government intervention
- More resources
- More services
- More ‘professionals’
We need to move away from focussing on what’s wrong, and seek to solve problems with communities not for communities.
If we continue to behave as a professionalised class – organising ourselves into deeper sector silos, talking to each other and forming policy on behalf of other people – we’ll bring about our own demise.
We’ll see a ‘Brexit-Effect’ – with the neglected and unheard looking for an opportunity to get back at those who had never listened to their grievances or invited them to the top-table.
People can clearly see where the power is held.