Do People Really Want Community-Led Solutions?

Trust in national politics appears to be tanking across the board – both blurring and eroding traditional allegiances to the left or right.

63% of people now believe politicians are mainly in it for themselves. Most strikingly, only 5% (one in 20) believe they are in it for their country’s best interests.

Does the answer lie locally? Some polling and focus group research from New Local seems to indicate so:

Polling found trust in national politicians at a catastrophic low, with a lack of faith in Westminster to help solve the cost of living crisis, deliver Levelling Up, or address issues in the NHS.

But we also found a warmth and appetite for community-led solutions, with large proportions in favour of devolving power away from central government and towards the people living with the impact of these crises.

It’s no surprise that the idea that good decisions are made closest to the people they affect attracts broad support. Three-quarters of people polled judged community-led decisions as both better and more cost-efficient.

But can we trust this kind of research? Do people just say that they’d like more local control, that they’d like to take over the local green space, that they’d help run the school given the opportunity, because it sounds like the right, virtuous, thing to do?

What people say in focus groups is often markedly different from how they behave in practice.

For instance it’s common for people to opine in group settings that the media don’t share positive news. What sort of person would say they want more bad news? However research has shown that negative news content, in comparison with positive news content, tends to increase both arousal and attentiveness. Newsstand magazine sales increase by 30% when the cover is negative rather than positive – the death of Princess Diana and the 9/11 attacks were fantastic days for newspaper sales. In comparison, one “good news day” resulted in a 66% decrease in readership in an online newspaper.

Contributing to the local community is indeed a popular idea , upwards of 90% of people express an intention to do it but statistically less than a third of us actually do. Like physical exercise or eating your five a day, everyone knows volunteering is good for them, but a high proportion of us show a degree of inertia in walking the talk.

And when we do finally get an opportunity to exercise our democratic right locally – the results are underwhelming. Only half the people who vote in a General Election bother to vote for the local equivalent.

So, on the face of it, it could be that the ‘warmth and appetite for community solutions’ that New Local talk about is wishful thinking.

I’m not so sure.

People don’t vote in local elections precisely because they don’t see sufficient local impact. The mechanisms we employ are from the 19th Century never mind the 21st.

One of the issues with Big Government is that it very quickly moves from Big Problems to Silver Bullet Solutions in a way that local networks would not be able to. Locally, everything has to be more specific, more contextual, more nuanced.

  • There is a growing movement of asset based thinking and the rise of a community of connected care.
  • There is a role for social technologies in helping us have more open and transparent conversations with communities about local decision making.
  • There is opportunity for hyperlocal journalism to help residents reinterpret their communities instead of relying on external, unaccountable forces.
  • There is a desire for a move away from a system where ‘professionals’ cast themselves as a superhero capable of solving all of society’s problems.

It’s no surprise there is such pessimism at national level. As Matt Ridley observed, we are less pessimistic about our own lives and communities than we are about larger units. We’re not very pessimistic about our village, we are not pessimistic about our town – but we are very pessimistic about our country, and even more pessimistic about the future of our planet. The bigger the unit you look at the more pessimistic people are about it.

Our politicians at national level have shown themselves to be uniquely unqualified to prepare for a number of eminently predictable crises (pandemic, energy, health, the list goes on).

Maybe it’s time to hand over the baton?

Indeed, in periods of crisis the best way to get traction behind a new idea or alternative solution is to make it as local as possible.

Your own community is the best unit of change.


Photo by Elliott Stallion on Unsplash

From Vertical Hierarchy To Horizontal Networks: Trust Has Gone Local

The latest Edelman Trust Barometer reveals an epidemic of mistrust and misinformation.

However, beyond the headlines there are some exciting possibilities for community led innovation.

For over 20 years, Edelman has attempted to track the progress, or decline, of trust across 28 countries.

After a year of disaster and economic turbulence – the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer reveals an epidemic of misinformation and widespread mistrust of societal institutions and leaders around the world. 

A lot of this is pretty bleak reading, as you might expect. No-one emerges particularly well, with the UK languishing in the relegation places of the league of distrust.

However, there are many positives if you read beyond the headlines. Business is more trusted than Government in 21 countries and is the only institution to be considered both competent and ethical (Government and Media are viewed as neither). Edelman credit this boost to the rapid vaccine distribution and the pivot to new ways of working. These businesses, large and small, that have kept us going over the past year are now reaping the rewards.

Interestingly the study finds that the public considers social institutions – those who operate for ‘social good’ – to be ethical, but less competent. Saying you do good is never enough – you need to be effective to be granted trust.  Indeed , trust has two distinct attributes: competence (delivering on promises) and ethical behavior (doing the right thing and working to improve society).

The most interesting finding in this years report , which arguably builds upon a trend identified in the last three years of research, is a further reordering of trust to more local sources.

People have shifted their trust to the relationships within their control, most notably their employers.

“Trust has actually gone local,” Edelman says. “Business is the most trusted institution, but ‘my employer’ and ‘my employer CEO’ and even ‘my employer publication’ — newsletter — is more trusted than media.” Whoever would have thought that company comms teams could end up being more trusted than the mainstream media? This shift is exciting, but places enormous responsibility on CEOs and their senior leaders.

In a sense, we shouldn’t be surprised that a sudden pivot to local living, working and thinking has had this effect. In a crisis, people take in, process, and act on information differently than they would during normal times.

Under intense stress and overload, we tend to miss the nuances of messages by not fully hearing information because of our inability to juggle multiple facts or not remembering as much of the information as we normally could. We also tend to focus more on the things immediately within our control – and that includes our closest relationships. Community offers people something that Government or media cannot – a sense of belonging in an insecure world.

Of course , communities now include non-place based groups such as online forums, which may not always convey news in a positive way.

As our relationships at work, with peers, with teams, and with our CEOs become more important, it seems like a time for us to rethink how we move information around the organisation and build valuable relationships that are more horizontal, more local.

Just as trust has gradually been shifting from a top-down orientation to a horizontal one, this has now gone a step further – people are turning to that which is close, local, and personal. 69% said they trust “people in my local community”.  

It would be easy to see this move to local trust as a responsibility for leaders, but in reality it’s anything but.

Yes, leaders need to shift from a hierarchical command and control model but equally we all have a role building trust at a local level.

  • If you’re sharing misinformation or scare stories on Facebook, you’re not building trust.
  • If you’re hanging around in social groups that are feeding negative thinking, you’re not building trust
  • If you’re adopting partisan views and not willing to shift your viewpoint, you’re not building trust.

We are at an inflection point where there is clearly an urgent need to look at how we communicate at the same time as a burgeoning desire from the public for business and community to work together to solve problems rather than just wait for Government.

Some of the themes we’ve discussed for some years on this blog, with my network, and many others – are now cohering. Covid-19 has accelerated everything, not just vaccine development.

Healthcare, poverty, climate change, societal inequalities, are often things we see as other people’s problems but as Edelman say – this is the time for institutions, leaders, citizens to work together, laying the groundwork for a new era of trust.

When trust is local, every interaction we have with our family, our colleagues or our community is a potential trust builder or killer.


Images in this post are from the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer

Moving Beyond Command And Control

The natural reaction of the rule maker when people start breaking the rules is not to redesign them, or seek to understand why, but to issue yet more rules.

Political language. . .is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind

George Orwell

2020 on reflection, was a great year for hierarchy.

In the early stages of the pandemic the ability shown by organisations to mobilise emergency health care, communicate messages, shift people to remote work, was a testament to the power of decisive command systems.

Following that we saw a new era of community innovation begin, reminding us of the power of social connection. People began supporting and caring for one another locally, with community led groups popping up to address immediate needs in ways many organisations simply couldn’t. ‘Let communities adopt a common sense approach’ was the defining narrative.

That seems a long time ago.

How have we have moved so quickly from celebrating the power and ingenuity of communities to blaming those same communities for recklessness and not following rules?

Some of the very same people (I’m talking social entrepreneurs and activists) who rightly attack the disempowering effects of command and control in organisations have begun to support, and even applaud, the politicians and the media in what has essentially become a behaviour of victim blaming.

An element of hierarchical control is necessary in an emergency. It’s what gets things done and keeps us safe. There are people who are naturally good at creating systems, protocols and rules rather than building relationships based on trust. These people are necessary for a functioning society, as without them we wouldn’t enjoy the health, safety, food, construction and consumer standards that we have.

However, what we have begun to see is people , not just politicians, who like rule making a little bit too much.

And the natural reaction of the rule maker when people start breaking the rules is not to redesign them, or seek to understand why, but to issue yet more rules.

We know from the basics of design thinking that if the rules don’t match up with people’s experience and desires they create another way. Humans are endlessly resourceful and can always find a loophole.

Why do people break the rules?

Firstly, there are those who do not know what the rules are or who haven’t paid attention. These are the kind of people who get caught doing 35mph in a 30 zone. Importantly, when guidance changes over time and in different areas they are likely to get more confused and break the rules without even knowing.

Then there are those that don’t think the rules are important. This group are unlikely to experience a negative impact for breaking the rules. They aren’t necessarily selfish, it’s just if you don’t have personal experience of something, you minimise its importance. If I was 20 and still thought I’d live forever, I’d probably have been partying in Ibiza over the summer too.

The third group, and I’d suggest these are a tiny minority, are the active rule breakers. The kind of people who won’t wear a mask to a make a demonstrable social point. Have a tiny bit of sympathy though, they are merely trying to exert some personal control in a world where they feel they have none.

The vast majority of us are in the first camp. We might have broken the occasional rule but it’s because we are confused, we forgot or we’ve interpreted them to suit our personal circumstances.

Design thinking is all about understanding how people actually behave rather than how they say they do. It’s this that all the Government(s) in the UK seem to have been completely blindsided by.

And this is the weak point of command and control systems – they can never be user focussed and understand life at street level. At no point since March has there been any input from the public. At no point has there been a democratic conversation about what COVID means for our communities and what a proportionate local response should be.

I think one of the big challenges of 2021/22 will be renewing faith in grassroots innovation after a prolonged period of control and risk management. Some of us will resist loosening our grip.

As Simon Penny said on Twitter the necessary task for 2021 is to take forward the belief in the power of communities to look out for each other and get stuff done. Only by delegating resources and decision making to them will we kickstart the economy again and solve problems at a local level.

We need to thank the people who put the rules in place that kept us safe and healthy. But as soon as the pandemic is over we need them to step back. Rules tend to stick around for a long time after they have ceased being useful. Control systems are never easy to dismantle and their proponents never give up power easily.

Thwarting other people’s control is bad for us and society – as ultimately, it limits our own control.

  • Communities are decisive, creative, aware, caring and trusting. They’ll make mistakes but they’ll get along OK in the end.
  • Communities are self motivated, often reckless and need a high degree of control. Left to their own devices they can become a danger to themselves.

Which is it?

In 2021 we all need to get off the fence and state which one we truly believe in, and make that world a reality.


Image by sin won jang from Pixabay

The Regressive Power of Labelling People As Vulnerable

The paradox of employing the term of ‘vulnerability’ is that it makes people more vulnerable.

When we were children, we used to think that when we were grown-up we would no longer be vulnerable. But to grow up is to accept vulnerability… To be alive is to be vulnerable

Madeleine L’Engle

In my first week as a housing officer I was introduced to a middle aged man who lived alone. The colleague I was training with leaned over to me as we stood outside his front door, pointed to a box on his tenancy file and said to me in a hushed tone, “careful – he’s a vulnerable customer”.

After the visit I questioned why he was vulnerable. “I don’t know” came the reply, “It’ll be on the file somewhere”. I later found out that he was earmarked as vulnerable by someone at the council before he had moved in, most likely because of a short jail sentence. No-one appeared to have questioned why he was still labelled as such. So here he was , a vulnerable customer in everyone’s eyes but his own, fifteen years later.

Last year I wrote a post called The Problem With Seeing People As Vulnerable. It proposed that the word vulnerable is used far too liberally across the charitable and social sectors. The very institutions that were set up to ‘do good things’ and to believe in people are often guilty of declaring swathes of the population in need of their help and support.

I certainly don’t think my tiny voice and platform can change much but I’ve been surprised and disappointed during COVID-19 at the increased labelling of certain groups as ‘vulnerable’.

This has been accompanied by a number of self-congratulatory messages with people declaring pride in their employees for ‘helping the vulnerable’, and proclaiming their vital role ‘protecting the vulnerable’. Some claim to have made hundreds of thousands of phone calls, all aimed at identifying and supporting, you guessed it, the most vulnerable people.

Certainly there is a group of people who are at risk of severe illness if they catch Coronavirus (indeed, I’m one of them), but interestingly the official NHS letter that people receive avoids addressing them as vulnerable, preferring ‘high risk’. The NHS , credit where it’s due, is clearly aiming to make advice specific and contextual – avoiding any euphemistic labelling.

How we label people is very important. Researchers began to study the cognitive effects of labelling in the 1930s when Benjamin Whorf proposed the linguistic relativity hypothesis. According to his work, the words we use to describe people aren’t just idle placeholders; they determine what we see.

Simply put, if we describe a group of people in a certain way it can influence the actions or decisions we take towards them.

This potentially increases the likelihood of othering, a social process, rooted in relationships of power through which ‘the poor and vulnerable’ are treated as different from the rest of society.  Seeing people as fundamentally different from ourselves makes it easier to blame people for their own and society’s problems – so that they themselves become the problem.

What’s my particular problem with vulnerability?

The term ‘vulnerable’ as used by the social sector conveys weakness. It implies a lack of agency or that the person has an increased likelihood that they might come into harms way. It implies that they cannot be expected to assume the same responsibilities as other , ‘normal’, people.

It can of course be used correctly – to define a category of people who deserve special protection or consideration. In the vast majority of cases that I see it is not used in that way. Frequently the use of ‘vulnerable’ as a descriptor of people is curiously non-specific and often applied to huge groups of people who are anything but homogenous. We rarely hear what it is that people are vulnerable to, how this vulnerability is produced, or by whom.

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

As a designer, the most common piece of advice I’d give organisations is to resist putting people into boxes. The vulnerability box is perhaps one of the most dangerous of all as it:

  • Promotes a deficit mindset and encourages organisations to rush in and fill the gap with more ‘services’.
  • Leads to bad decisions – by putting disparate groups of people together in one convenient box.
  • It labels people and changes our behaviour towards them – reinforcing distinctions between the deserving and undeserving.
  • It overlooks the root causes of any vulnerability and indeed the role of the state and other institutions in perpetuating that vulnerability.
  • It presents the problem as if it stems from individual traits , life choices or misfortune.

Indeed, the paradox of employing the term of ‘vulnerability’ is that it makes people more vulnerable.

Ultimately though it’s a clumsy label as we are all vulnerable at points in our lives. Our current values and ideals portray vulnerability as undesirable and dangerous to our wellbeing when in reality, the opposite is true – our vulnerability is one of our assets. It allows us to connect with one another and to heal any division.

Perhaps if we stopped labelling others as vulnerable we’d be better placed to do just that.

Can We Really Trust Communities To Use Common Sense?

There have been a few positives amidst the devastation of the COVID pandemic.

One is that it has reminded us of the power of social connection. People have begun supporting and caring for one another locally, with community led groups popping up to address immediate needs in ways organisations simply can’t.

Common Sense Is Nothing More Than a Deposit of Prejudices Laid Down in the Mind Before Age Eighteen

Albert Einstein (or Lincoln Barnett)

There have been a few positives amidst the devastation of the COVID pandemic.

One is that it has reminded us of the power of social connection. People have begun supporting and caring for one another locally, with community led groups popping up to address immediate needs in ways many organisations cannot.

It’s also reminded us that social media – despite the many benefits – simply can’t fulfill this function. Your thousands of followers are worthless compared to the handful of people you really can rely upon.

As Michael Lee Stallard and Katharine P. Stallard have written – a lack of sufficient connection is dangerous because social connection is a primal human need. Connection is also a “superpower” that, as the neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman says, makes human beings smarter, happier and more productiveMeta-analysis research found a 50% greater likelihood of survival for the participants of studies who had stronger social relationships.

These powerful connections have meant that we’ve largely abided by the new social contract and disproved the Hollywood stereotype of how humankind would behave in a dystopian global emergency. Rather than mob rule, looting homes and hitting people over the head for a can of baked beans, we’ve queued politely outside supermarkets and applauded key workers from our doorsteps. Additionally, people appear to have begun to reevaluate their relationship with the largest social institution ,the NHS, accepting their own role in prevention through personal responsibility.

So far, so good.

Communities appear to have a hell of a lot going for them. In fact this could be the time to make the move away from focussing on what’s wrong, and seek instead to solve problems with communities not for communities. This might be the moment for organisations to finally address important issues about the redistribution of power including greater transparency, collaboration, participation and accountability.

And yet, there’s a counter narrative that has emerged during the second half of lockdown, that people and communities simply can’t be trusted.

The call from the prime minister to apply “good British common sense” has attracted both criticism (it’s vague and confusing) and praise (from others who argue that people will act responsibly given the chance).

So which is it? Because if our organisations wish to bestow more responsibility on communities, and recognise citizens themselves are closest to the problems that matter, surely we need to trust them to do the right thing?

Instead, the media has delighted in recent weeks at finding examples of communities wilfully breaking the social contract. Admittedly, right from the early days of the lockdown there were some limited examples of what Douglas Murray calls “outbreaks of the irrational mind” – such as stockpiling toilet rolls or attacking 5G masts.

Now though, as we slowly emerge from isolation, there has been an increase in stories designed to highlight the inherent stupidity of people. Photos shared online seem to show people standing much too close together in public and generally being irresponsible.

It’s always worth remembering when stories like these enter mass circulation that you are not always seeing an accurate version of the truth. For example, there have been cases of photographers using effects that compress images, unfairly representing the local community.

Additionally stories only go viral when they portray uncommon behaviour. The rules of viral media dictate that the content needs to be either funny, touching or profoundly stupid. I always try and remember before sharing or commenting on viral stories that what is on display is not an accurate representation of real life, rather it is an outlier.

You can argue that examples of deviant behaviour give us the opportunity to ‘course correct’ and remind us of the importance of following a social code. However the cynic in me feels that these examples become all too convenient tropes to be used by the hierarchical and status obsessed to justify why communities need more rules, less autonomy, and more state and social sector sanctioned services.

Deep down most people are reasonable and can use their common sense to do the right thing.

By way of example , yesterday I was talking to a neighbour comparing and contrasting two different approaches to distributing food boxes to older people. One is thriving and has delivered thousands of packages, one is floundering and has scores of undelivered donations.

The difference? The latter has become obsessed with minimising risk through finding the ‘right’ volunteer that has the right DBS check, has access to a suitable vehicle and can meet an exhaustive set of hygiene standards.

The other by comparison has kept it simple, tapping into existing community networks and giving people guidance but basically trusting them to be sensible.

The lesson here is to take a street level view of lockdown as described by Charlotte Kiri in this wonderful post. As she says:

What’s happening at street level is not based on a relationship that assumes that one party has a provision and one has a need, and because the acts taking place are small and frequent and over a small distance, daily and undramatic there is hope that these relationships will sustain and strengthen into whatever world we find ourselves in beyond this lockdown

You should never waste a good crisis, and it would a terrible shame if our new normal reverted to seeing people as passive and needy recipients of services.

The pandemic has shown that all the reports of the decline of trust are incorrect.

We’ve actually shown remarkable trust in our leaders, both at national and local government levels. We have calmly listened to the experts and followed their advice and changed our lives as a result.

So now is a time for the social sector to repay that trust, showing that we trust our communities to do the right thing , to act with fairness and empathy and to use our collective common sense for a common good.


Photo by United Nations COVID-19 Response

How Can We Move From Demand Led Service In The ‘New Normal’?

In the early hours of Good Friday I found myself undergoing emergency surgery after a complication during an earlier test. Even in the midst of some pretty intense pain I was unwilling to go to hospital – a mixture of fear of contracting a certain virus and some overly optimistic thinking about my super human ability to recover without any professional intervention. It was probably Karen wilfully ignoring my instructions not to call an ambulance that saved my life.

Eleven days later I was discharged from hospital after major surgery and two COVID-19 tests. Family and friends were unable to visit so I had a lot of time for self reflection, and to observe from the inside how systems operate during periods of genuine crisis.

The term crisis is overused.  Every day the news is filled with stories about war, terrorism, crime, pollution, inequality, and oppression. There’s a health crisis, a housing crisis, a climate crisis , and a social care crisis. So many “crises” they have to jockey for position in order of seriousness.

What the COVID-19 crisis has done very effectively is to say “hold my beer” to the others – becoming the defining crisis of the moment.

One of the most interesting things about my experience of hospital was the apparent disconnect between the media reporting of what was happening on many wards, and my own actual experience.

Family expressed concern for the health workers without PPE at the same time as staff told me there wasn’t a problem. People told me the system was in meltdown when my observation was of staff continually adapting to new working practices based upon the evidence and experience of the previous day.  Even if the system was in ‘crisis’, at a local ward level people were pulling together and solving problems in new ways. Freed of some of the usual ‘rules’ people were succeeding despite the system rather than because of it.

The NHS is brilliant at coping with an emergency , both at scale and at the individual human level. I simply couldn’t fault my experience, from the operation to the recovery to the after care. The people ARE heroes. It’s not the time to pick fault with the system , but where it often falls down is in some of the basics. These are often things that are less urgent to professionals , but more important to us as citizens , such as communication and keeping us informed of progress.

This is not limited to the NHS , far from it. It’s a symptom of systems that are designed to be reactive rather than pre-emptive. They tend to be designed from a ‘service’ point of view – managing demand – rather than through person centred design, the principles of which are the opposite of service led design.

During my stay, staff noted how demand had dropped. People simply weren’t coming to Accident and Emergency anymore. The country had either stopped having heart attacks and strokes or were delaying reporting them.  This drop in demand isn’t limited to the NHS. Other social providers are seeing similar trends. The phenomenon has also occurred across the US and in parts of Asia.

So why has the system been able to manage demand, something that’s been a problem for decades, in just a matter of weeks?

Obviously , fear is playing a part. In a lockdown scenario people’s priorities have a major shift. Things that would once be major causes of anxiety get reordered in the face of a common enemy.

That said , there is something to learn from how the latent and underused power of community has been leveraged to protect our most precious resources.

People have begun supporting and caring for one another to an unprecedented extent, with community led groups popping up to address immediate needs in ways our organisations simply can’t. It is neighbours that have shown themselves to be the most useful support network in a physically distanced world.

YouGov have reported that only 9% of Britons want to return to life as normal after the end of the lockdown. 40% of people say they feel a stronger sense of community since the virus shut down normal life, while 39% said they had been more in touch with friends and family.

What this seems to indicate is that far from communities resenting a shift away from a passive provider-consumer relationship – they actually desire it. They want a greater say, they want more power to influence local decisions.

There’s a danger here of being overly optimistic as Simon Parker has warned. “Simply willing a better world is not enough. You have to dive into the complexity, dance with the system in its full, messy intractability”.

System change never comes easy. It means thinking beyond individual sectors and requires the whole system to work together, through health, housing, employment and social care. There’s opportunity here if we are brave enough. 

That said , a lesson so far from COVID-19 is that the best currency for change is local. People are discovering their neighbours for the first time, spending less time travelling to soulless business parks , and spending time and money where they live.

Powerful forces will resist any attempt to make this a new normal. It’s not how capitalism works.

However my recent experience has led me to believe that the organisations that emerge stronger from this crisis will be ones who have abandoned doing things to people, and moved to seeing themselves as equal partners with communities.

That requires making a move from telling to listening.

A move from obsessively managing demand to leveraging the skills in the community.

A move from filling the gaps with more services to closing the gaps through social connections.


 

 

Image by Queven from Pixabay 

Putting The Needs Of The User Before The System

Are some countries more innovative than others?

Certainly many have tried to measure it, with the UK being outperformed by the likes of South Korea, Israel and Finland.

As the CEO of Pfizer, Albert Bourla has said, the role of Government when it comes to encouraging innovation is crucial: “We need to make sure that we change the way that we operate so that we can remove bureaucratic processes. Innovation and bureaucracy, like water and oil, they don’t mix well together”.

Government regulations can have both positive and negative effects on the innovation process. How can we get the balance right?

Last week I was in Newport, Wales, hosting a couple of workshops at the Future Generations X Conference.

Wales is a country that is putting its money where its mouth is when it comes to innovation and collaboration. It is attempting a seismic shift in the way that public services are required to think and operate.

In 2015 it enacted the Well-being of Future Generations Act which requires public bodies in Wales to think about the long-term impact of their decisions, to work better with people, communities and each other, and to prevent persistent problems such as poverty, health inequalities and climate change.

The ambition is to take the big ideas in Wales and across the world that can be adopted, shared and advanced across all public services.

That requirement to think differently about the wellbeing of future generations has all sorts of practical impact on day to day decision making.

  • What is the future generational impact of evicting a family from their home?
  • What is the future generational impact of jailing a father?

These are big complex problems and there are no easy answers.

The people attending my workshops spoke of the genuine challenges of collaboration at scale, of moving away from top down funding arrangements and targets where performance indicators drive the behaviors rather than the users.

Changing structures that have been set up with the specific purpose of measuring predetermined outcomes is never going to be easy.

When a target is set by someone sitting in an office who has never met an actual customer how on earth can we expect the outcome to be what the user actually wanted?

However, there is an acceptance from the top of Government that shifting behaviours towards a genuine user focus is the way forward.

The challenge here is simple to say but complex to achieve: putting the needs of the end user before the system.

All of this means investing in people and giving them the space to think differently.
It means giving them permission to challenge preconceived practices and ‘rules’.
It means taking a different attitude to risk and learning from failure

This theme is developed by Russell Webster citing a report by Professors Chris Fox and Kevin Albertson. The recommendations are specifically about probation services but I’d argue apply equally to almost all public sector innovation.  It recommends:

  1. Developing innovative ecosystems where a mixed economy of public, private and Third Sector organisations collaborate together for the greater good.
  2. A collaborative approach where different partners work together in pursuit of shared value.
  3. A co-created and personalised approach both at the system level in terms of service design delivery, and at the individual level in terms of more personalised services.
  4. A system which fosters localism in order to foster innovation.
  5. Greater investment in a broader understanding of evidence.

As I wrote last week pre-emptive change doesn’t lend itself to conventional approaches to governance. It’s likely to need adaptive or visionary models of change, rather than heavy-handed, top-down approaches.

What’s happening in Wales seems like a genuine attempt to move away from ‘simple but wrong’ approaches to public policy. It’s a huge ambition and I’m sure it will be a rocky road but I wish them well.

Putting the needs of the user before that of the system sounds simple but is in fact hugely complex.

But no-one ever thought doing the right thing was easy did they?

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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.

a short post about death

Even during the most pivotal moments of our lives we are only a few minutes away from being digitally distracted.

Twelve to be precise.

We check our phones for new messages every 12 minutes

Four weeks ago today we were just arriving in Ubud, Bali on day six of a planned 3 week trip.

Within a minute of framing a perfect shot for Instagram I got a text from Karen’s sister asking me to call her immediately.

You know it will be bad news.

Her mum had passed away suddenly, only a few hours after we last spoke.

When you get news like that your immediate response is one of confusion.

You can’t become numb as you need to take control.

Your mind cycles through thoughts ranging from the profound to the prosaic – and even to the selfish.

“How do you tell someone their mum is dead and that they are never going to see them again?”

“We’re 8000 miles from home. What do I actually need to do?”

“This trip is really over, right?”

“On the positive side, thank god we haven’t unpacked yet.

In these intensely human moments of crisis you realise how much technology is ever present.

  • Insurance companies offer to organise a flight for you ‘if you can wait 24 hours’,  when you can organise one yourself in just minutes.
  • Websites continually push barely literate chatbots at you when you just need a bloody phone number.

And as always it’s the people who really make the difference. You can go digital by default all you like but you can’t digitise human kindness.

  • The Indonesian Airbnb host who stops eating his dinner to drive you immediately to the airport.
  • The flight attendant who bravely attempts to ‘override the system’ to try to get you a couple of seats next to one another.

8000 miles feels a very long time when you’re just trying to hold things together.


Death is in our faces almost everyday – we hear about it on the news, we watch TV shows and movies featuring loads of it. But when it comes to the ‘everydayness’ of death, the sheer normality of it, we’d rather not talk about it.

We are obsessed with prolonging life and looking good. Society is urging us to eat healthier, exercise harder, buy more things – anything to put off the inevitability of death or even thinking about it.

Western culture keeps death at a distance. It’s just not for everyday conversation.

12 months earlier I’d been in a very different community in Sulawesi, Indonesia. In Tana Toraja, death is life and part of a longer spiritual journey. Families keep the mummified remains of their deceased relatives in their homes for years – and traditionally invite them to lunch on a daily basis – before they are eventually buried in ceremonies that go on for days.

The funeral we were invited to in Sulawesi was a great celebration of life, much like a going-away party.

It was an occasion in which the entire family of the deceased, and all the members of the village take part. During their lives, they all work extremely hard to accumulate wealth. But unlike in the West, they don’t save their money to buy consumer goods.

They save for a good send-off in death.


The funeral of Karen’s mum, Anita, on Wednesday was very different from the one in Tana Toraja. They don’t tend to make animal sacrifices in Stoke-On-Trent. And the funerals last for mere hours.

It was a beautiful send off though. A wonderful celebration of life and family.

Unlike a Torajan funeral where you’re literally invited to take selfies with strangers, everybody politely kept their phones away. Protocol meant we had to resist that 12 minute temptation to check.

Technology does have an important part to play though in how we grieve in a digital age.

We share our memories on Facebook and swap stories and recollections of our loved ones. We even share recollections with the profiles of our loved ones. Researchers say before the end of the century there could be as many as 4.9 billion deceased users floating around the internet. Our virtual selves and their associated memories will become as numerous as our real bodies.

That said, I made a commitment this morning to spend a little less time on my phone. Karen nearly fell out of bed in shock. I’ll repeat that commitment here as a public statement of intent.

We have an endless gift for caring if we allow time for it.

Sometimes we really need to disconnect in order to reconnect with what matters.

The Problem With Professionals

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’s this:
  • 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.

Dissonance

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.

Sooner or later they’ll want to take some of it.

Reshaping Organisations Around What’s Strong – Not What’s Wrong

“ECONOMICS ARE THE METHOD: THE OBJECT IS TO CHANGE THE SOUL”

This (pretty chilling) quote comes from Margaret Thatcher in 1981 – and ushered in an era that promoted the belief that social progress is achieved through the accumulation of wealth or status.

Earn more, consume more, and you’ll be happy. 

The legacy of this is still with us today, with our value to society often seen in purely economic terms.

In the social sector, many of our organisations have been unwittingly shaped by this philosophy.

The less you own the more likely you are to be a problem. The lower your educational attainment, your income, the more insecure your background, the more likely you are to be a drain on services.

This is called deficit-based thinking, and it is rife.  Our organisations support it without even knowing.

  • We talk of the ‘ageing crisis’ – which is only really a crisis if you believe that people have outlived their economic usefulness.
  • The talk of a ‘housing crisis’ invariably means people being unable to get ‘on the housing ladder’. If you don’t own – you aren’t on it. You’re not progressing.

Increasingly though there’s evidence of a disparity with wealth, achievement and happiness. The UK is one of the richest countries in the world – but also one of the loneliest.

screen-shot-2018-03-20-at-7-55-52-am

Finland is now top of the world for happiness, according to the World Happiness Report 2018. Nordic countries take four out of the five top spots – and some of the world’s richest nations appear much further down the list.

Finland has a high GDP but also high taxes which fund social programmes. There’s less competition at work and better support for those without a job. There’s a strong culture of strengths-based thinking , and of encouraging communities to identify and mobilise existing but often unrecognised assets. The services that do exist are organised around the user.

As Andrew Humphreys has written – public services in the UK are often compartmentalised along lines that bear no relation to the needs they are supposed to meet or the value they are meant to deliver. If public services aren’t designed backwards from the value that people need from them, then they will have been designed forwards from the aims and objectives of those in charge of them.

It’s nearly seven years since Bromford began its journey from a pretty paternalistic top-down service to focus on strengths and what’s working in our communities.

When we began, one of the most common challenges we had from colleagues was “Why are we expecting our customers to contribute to communities? I don’t do anything in mine.”

Our language wasn’t very nuanced- as people saw organised ‘volunteering’ as the only way someone contributes.

Obviously, this is nonsense. If you live in any community that depends on the interaction with other human beings (that’s all of us – right?), you by definition must contribute to that community in some way.

That contribution cannot be viewed solely through categories of age, health, or wealth.

A few years ago I met an older guy in the Philippines who told me he was the most sought-after person in his village – even though he hadn’t ‘worked’ for over 20 years and lived a very frugal existence.

His strengths were his age, his experiences and his connections which could be brought together to help people. The Fili culture has a word for this mindset – “Bayanihan”. The word came from the tradition where neighbours would help a relocating family by literally carrying their house and contents to a safer location.

More generally the word has come to mean a communal spirit that makes seemingly impossible feats possible through the power of unity and cooperation.

The term bayanihan has evolved over time – being incorporated in many projects that depict the spirit of a cooperative effort involving a community of members.

At Bromford we are focussing on the ‘irreducible core’ of service that our communities must receive from us.

The services we currently have that replace, control or overwhelm unity and co-operation will become obsolete. One of our organisational design principles is that we should think community first, services last.

There’s a lot of talk of strengths-based thinking but I see comparatively few organisations who are having these difficult conversations and beginning to cede more power to communities.

There are things individuals need and that communities can do that are irreplaceable – that can never be done by organisations or Government.

Building our organisations around communities, around what they truly need rather than what we want them to need, is truly disruptive.

It means moving away from focussing on what’s wrong, taking a very different view of our purpose and being a lot less essential than we think we are.

 


Image via Pen Mendonca

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