The Problem With Seeing People As Vulnerable

Now, more than ever, it’s easier to exist within a bubble.

We spend a lot more time communicating through screens than talking face to face.

Our digital social networks are powered by algorithms designed to feed us information confirming what we already believe.

I started writing this post just before dawn on the day of the UK election result but didn’t publish it as I was interested to see what the reaction would be.

Would people accept that this is something that’s been coming a long time?

Or would people, because of the social bubble effect, be surprised? 

Far from being aberrations, or even reactions, the rise of populism and the latest election results are simply the logical conclusion of the path we’ve been on for a long time.

An era of hyper-consumerism, of seeing billionaires and paid professionals as the ones to solve social problems.

An era in which organisations and brands come first and communities last.

An era in which there’s a lot of talk of giving communities more power but precious little evidence of it. Where the resources that are meant to trickle down rarely do so.

Arguably we’ve viewed citizens only as atomised consumers rather than through the lens of neighbourhoods, This individual consumerist approach has only led one way – to a sense of alienation and frustration with public services and the state.

There’s a positive here – people want change.

There are huge opportunities for our organisations and institutions. However if we fail to respond to people and communities’ desire for change, we’ll eventually lose our legitimacy.

The Problem With A Deficit Mindset

Unfortunately the reaction to the election result , largely but not exclusively from the centre and the left, has shown a profound misreading of the problem.

‘Who is going to look after the vulnerable now?’

‘How will they cope with five more years of this?’

Nobody likes being vulnerable, but our organisations and institutions are all to prone to defining people’s entire lives by it.

They can’t cope.

We need to look after them before they do themselves some harm.

Despite our talk of vulnerable communities and customers we don’t often hear precisely what it is that people are vulnerable to, how this vulnerability is produced, or by whom.

In truth, no group of people is inherently vulnerable. If people are experiencing vulnerability in a particular situation that vulnerability is often produced by other people, institutions or circumstances.

If your organisation defines anyone as vulnerable it’s useful to consider your own role in the production and perpetuation of that vulnerability.

Defining people as vulnerable is the first step to removing their agency and self determination.

Over the past few years in our work at Bromford we’ve been trying to step back from seeing people as problems.

About six years ago we had a hunch – without much evidence at the time – that if we simply believed in our people and took away all of the bureaucracy they’d have conversations with residents and make the right decisions. We switched our model. We retrained our ‘managers’ to become ‘coaches’. A crucial part of that was to stop looking at people as problems to be solved and instead to see their skills and life experiences.

This still emerging relationship rejects the hierarchical and transactional mindsets of traditional service models which all too often bypass people’s assets and capabilities.

The Challenge And The Opportunity

The reason our organisations and our politics will often reject these models is that they threaten the existing order. Hierarchical and status-obsessed cultures militate against relationships based on equality, empowerment and collaboration. Most of our organisations don’t share power, they accumulate it, often at a very senior level.

If we don’t talk about power and how we redistribute it we’ll just continue to address the symptoms, rather than tackle the root causes of mistrust. We’ll just seek comfortable solutions rather than address deep institutional dysfunction.

Deficit based thinking sucks the life out of communities.

If you were part of a community that other people are defining as vulnerable, as continually needing help, you’d be pretty insulted.

If other people said you were incapable of making the correct choices because you’re not in full possession of the facts , you’d surely vote for something else.

What we’re seeing is a huge desire for something else.

Something different.

We don’t know what that looks like yet but that’s one of the reasons it’s a bit frightening and a bit exciting.

The most important thing all organisations could do right now is simply demonstrate that we see ourselves as equal partners with communities rather than as supreme rulers of the vulnerable and the needy.

There’s a once in a generation opportunity here if we are brave and bold enough to embrace it.

Published by

Paul Taylor

I’m a facilitator, innovator and designer. I work with organisations to identify problems and solve them in ways that combine creativity with practical implementation. I established Bromford Lab as a new way for the organisation to embrace challenge and adopt a ‘fast fail’ approach to open innovation. Nearly everything the Lab works on is openly accessible at www.bromfordlab.com. I'm a regular contributor to forums , think-tanks , and research reports and a speaker or advisor at conferences and events.

4 thoughts on “The Problem With Seeing People As Vulnerable

  1. Such an interesting issue and you set it out well Paul. I just listened to Hilary Cottam talking about this while discussing her book Radical Help. Wendy Stephens referred to the risk of us slipping back into this vulnerable individual/service delivery relationship in a call yesterday. And then I finally read a brilliant piece by Roger Harding about his vision for the Labour Party: https://medium.com/@Roger_Harding/a-party-that-works-and-wins-for-working-people-will-need-to-understand-us-first-4ab058260363

    One section talks about the importance of speaking to people’s pride and dignity. Check out the last sentence:

    “People need meaning and sense of pride but the right are better at speaking to it, with messages along the lines of ‘you’re amazing and you’re being mugged off by these people over here’. That resonates — in many working class families people will tell you they’re proud and strong but also struggling, hard-up or feeling like they’re ignored and invisible. Labour hears that but for whatever reason communicates back using terms we never use about ourselves. Try talking to my single mum and others like her about being the ‘most vulnerable’ and see how far you get.”

    1. Thanks John – I love that line” Try talking to my single mum and others like her about being the ‘most vulnerable’ and see how far you get.”

      That resonates on a lot of levels and I think also speaks to the tenants on Twitter who get (rightly) furious when they see housing professionals winning awards for helping ‘them’.

  2. Enjoyed reading this blog update, thanks
    “If we don’t talk about power and how we redistribute it we’ll just continue to address the symptoms, rather than tackle the root causes of mistrust.”

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