The Social Sector Must Rebuild Trust Through Equal Partnerships


This is a edited version of an article originally written for Inside Housing


There is a growing realisation that many of our social institutions and public services have run their course.

Communities need something different from what’s currently on offer.

We could be at the tipping point, the moment when future relationships between citizens and institutions become placed in a wholly different context.

There are a number of factors that seem to be converging. There’s the post-Grenfell concerns about safety and cost cutting, there’s the global decline of trust in institutions, and there’s an increasingly vocal public discourse emerging that highlights individual social sector service failures.

Combine all this with a perception that many social sector organisations have become untethered from their roots in the community, and you have the perfect storm.

Tipping points are not reached by just one factor alone, rather a series of connected incidents that suddenly bring about widespread change.

It’s necessary to note that this is not just a crisis limited to the one individual sector. The Civil Societies Futures report outlines how the world has changed, with people becoming more unequal, more disconnected from power and more divided.

The message here is clear: if we do not respond to people and communities’ desire for power, we will lose our legitimacy and the essential foundation for everything we do.

Back in March I took part in a discussion hosted by Inside Housing with Lizzie Spring. There was a lot I took away from the conversation but it can be condensed into two main points.

Firstly, the language used by ‘professionals’ is damaging to relationships built on trust. 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. It implies a them and us, and reinforces an already unequal distribution of power.

Secondly, the core problem many organisations senior staff and Boards appear to struggle with is an entrenched inability to trust citizens. As Lizzie has said “I can’t consider trusting them, when my own intelligence, experience and expertise are discounted.”

We need to move away from focussing on what’s wrong, and seek to solve problems with communities not for communities

Let’s not underestimate the extent of the change that the social sector must embark on to address this. To be trusted means being trustworthy – and to achieve that you can’t dodge the question about power.

As Simon Penny writes for Bromford Lab, there are important issues to discuss about the redistribution of power including greater transparency, collaboration, participation and accountability.

If we don’t talk about power we’ll just continue to address the symptoms, rather than tackle the root causes of mistrust. We risk encourage providers to seek comfortable solutions to things they should be doing anyway rather than address deep institutional dysfunction.

Hierarchical and status-obsessed cultures necessarily militate against relationships based on equality, empowerment and collaboration. These organisations don’t share power, they accumulate it.

There’s often no way for citizens to contribute or influence organisations other than ways set out by the organisation itself. When only one partner sets out the rules of engagement the game is set for a very unequal relationship.

The most important thing all organisations could do right now is simply demonstrate they see themselves as equal partners. Importantly that demonstration should only be through actions, not through a carefully coordinated communications campaign.  

There will be no silver bullet to these problems.

The answers may include exploring alternative models of management. They may include more radical models user involvement – perhaps using emergent technology to move to complete transparency, with people able to shape decisions at both local and strategic levels.

We are seeing change though. A conversation is beginning to happen on equal terms in shared spaces like social media. We need to take that conversation further into our communities and into our offices, not hidden away with one party excluded.

Traditional participation methods have failed us.

Involvement on the terms set out by the NHS, by social landlords, or even by Government, is no longer the only game in town.

 

If We Don’t Develop Different Relationships, We’ll Lose Our Legitimacy

If we do not respond to people and communities’ desire for power, we will lose our legitimacy and waste the potential of the many ways they can have agency over what matters to them. If we do not continually, bravely work to build trust, we will lose the essential foundation for everything we do. – Civil Societies Futures

I’ve had a week of fascinating conversations, all linked by one theme, the apparent reluctance of many of our institutions to cede any sort of meaningful power and decision making to communities.

Part of the problem is the social sector is a field of business that profits from past societal failure. The entire premise relies on reaction.

When your business model is founded on profiting from being reactive – there is little incentive to change.

There’s also a very real question about skillsets and mindsets. During my conversation with Lizzie Spring it became apparent that at some point we shifted from entrepreneurial community based models (think: the birth of the social housing movement for example) to ones based on efficiency and the accumulation of wealth.

Necessarily this has forced organisations to be more ‘business like’ with career pathways for ‘professionals’.  It’s hardly surprising that communities feel organisations have become more distanced, remote and less accessible.

CHC Trust Presentation (1)

A couple of weeks ago a consortium of housing providers tweeted an animated GIF showing a lonely looking person peering out of a desolate block of flats. The tagline read something like ‘Housing Associations provide services to some of the most vulnerable and hard to reach people in the UK’.

What on earth are we trying to say? 

A number of tenants jumped on the tweet and pointed out – quite rightly – that it is the institutions themselves that are hard to reach not the people they serve. It was deleted by the following day.

It would be easy to write things like this off as the mistake of junior comms person but this attitude speaks of something far more fundamental: that organisations have become disconnected from their original purpose and are happy in their role as rescuers of people.

CHC Trust Presentation

In today’s world of rising demand and scarce resources the doing, not just the talking, needs to be new and different. You can’t change a relationship without actual changing your behaviour.

A new report from Adam Lent and Jessica Studdert sets out a compelling case for a deep shift in public services based on a completely new relationship between citizen and state. This relationship rejects the hierarchical and transactional mindsets of traditional service models which all too often bypass people’s assets and capabilities.

It highlights the risk of seeing citizens only as atomised consumers – something the digital transformation zealots are actively encouraging. This consumerism only leads one way – to a growing sense of alienation and frustration with public services and the state.

The report goes on to state this isn’t inevitable. There is a huge opportunity to change.

CHC Trust Presentation (2)Our communities want change – and they know what’s not working. This appetite for power and influence is a once in a generation opportunity to reconnect with people and establish entirely new relationships.

We mustn’t all focus on housing the homeless. We mustn’t all focus on filling prisons or A+E departments. 

We have to move to a more preemptive model that builds on what is already there rather than seeing our organisations as curators of the worlds problems.

The conversations I’ve had this week, and the grassroots innovation that some organisations are fostering (notably in Wales), fill me with a lot of positivity.

The modern social entrepreneurs aren’t waiting for permission from regulators or consensus from their industry body. They aren’t bothered about awards or being seen at industry events. They never look at benchmarking. Many of them aren’t even paid or employed in the social sector.

They know that the way we have become organised is dysfunctional – and they are forging ahead with relationships first and services last. They are working with communities as equals rather than as professionals.

They might not know what works yet but they are clear about one thing: not returning down a path to paternalism and disempowerment.

This incremental change can build and gather momentum – becoming massive change for the entire social sector.

No-one is stopping us.


 

This post has been inspired by conversations this week with Lizzie Spring, Shirley Ayres, Serena Jones, Chris Bolton, Ena Lloyd and Pritpal Tamber. Thanks guys

The full slide deck on rebuilding trust as featured at #CHCGOV19 is featured here