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.

 

Does Benchmarking Really Save Companies From Failure?

Even in the very best organisations, bad practice is waiting just around the corner.

In 2014 General Motors began the recall of the Chevrolet Cobalt which would ultimately affect nearly 30 million cars worldwide.

The problem was with the ignition switch which could shut off the car while it was being driven, disabling power steering, power brakes – and, crucially, the airbag.

The issue had been known to GM employees for a decade. A sixteen-year-old girl had died in a frontal crash in 2005, the first death attributed to the defective switches.

A redesign of the ignition switch went into vehicles a year later, but a simple mistake – the engineers failed to alter the serial number – made the change difficult to track later.

Ultimately the flaw would kill 124 people, and seriously injure 275 others.  Not recalling the vehicles sooner was deemed affordable in the pursuit of profit.

During this time, General Motors was leading its sector in customer satisfaction. At the same time as their cars were devastating families, they were picking up heaps of industry awards.

It’s common after the emergence of any scandal, be it VW, Oxfam, Mid Staffordshire, for us to call for tighter regulation, greater consumer controls, and transparency of performance.

But does any of this help prevent complex system failure?

The latest call is from the Social Housing Green Paper which has been published in response to the Grenfell tragedy and has been billed as a “fundamental rethink” of the system.

The government has suggested the introduction of new league tables, which would effectively name and shame landlords to highlight bad practice. The ‘power’ would shift more towards tenants and enable them to see how their landlord ranked compared with the average.

There’s also been talk of an industry wide Charter and an increasing focus on benchmarking.

Can You Benchmark Your Way Out Of A Crisis? 

Best practice and benchmarking are often just a race to be first at being average. The chances of someone else’s best practice working in a different environment is unlikely.

Not only is it unlikely but the very act of best practice and benchmarking can drive standards down. It encourages all organisations to think alike. At sector level it creates groupthink, and we all know groupthink is the avowed enemy of innovation.

Within organisations, a culture of following best practice can quickly become a culture that is frightened of doing new things. In times when we need radical solutions to big problems – trying to be more like each other is a criminal waste of time.

When Good Companies Go Bad

It’s tempting to think that tighter regulation and scrutiny prevents system failure but there’s little actual evidence it does.

There’s a problem with managing risk retrospectively: you’re always looking behind you, and often looking in the wrong places.

F1507A_IW_LOOKINGFORRISK

This graphic from a HBR study shows auditors are rarely looking at things that could bring companies down.  Policies don’t destroy companies, toxic cultures do. But cultures are rarely audited as it’s pretty much impossible to do – it’s easier to tick boxes.

When things go wrong in organisations it’s often the result of a complex web of perverse incentives, simple mistakes and a culture of people looking the other way.

It’s almost never because there’s a singular Bond villain type saying “I’m going to do this on the cheap even though it’s bad for customers and will probably kill folk”.

Redefining Trust In A Digital Age

There’s rarely a simple solution to complex problems but I see a huge opportunity for companies to rebuild relationships around principles of trust and transparency – and this won’t be achieved by charters and following a herd like regression to the mean.

The network effect of technology has created a way for people to share experiences more quickly, and to more people with more detailed information than ever before.

Today, any customer can go behind an organisation’s flattering customer satisfaction scores with a simple Google search.

To rebuild trust organisations must adopt new behaviours to reduce the gap between organisational rhetoric and the reality.

At Bromford that means pushing ourselves ever more local and away from the corporate centre – building relationships based on openness, respect, and accountability.

  • It means abandoning paternalism and the ‘we know best’ culture that has dogged the social sector for generations.
  • It means creating a culture where people do the right thing for the customer and call out inconsistent behaviours regardless of hierarchy.
  • It means establishing trust building as the number one goal, rather than the relentless pursuit of efficiency and profit.

I’m pretty sure General Motors, VW, and Oxfam would have been near the top of any industry league table.

You can’t regulate relationships and you don’t build trust with a Charter.

The market is , as Seth Godin said , begging us to be remarkable.

Who wants to win the race to mediocrity anyway?

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.