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

Top-Down Approaches Hit The Poorest First and Worst

The cost of lockdowns, poor energy policy and new sustainability initiatives are conspiring to hit the poorest first and worst.

I’ve just got back from Sri Lanka, a country that has had a lot to contend with since I was last there in 2017.

In 2019 a series of bombs ripped through churches and hotels on Easter Sunday, killing at least 290 people and injuring hundreds. Tourism collapsed overnight. One year later and the pandemic hit and the world went crazy – with a series of lockdowns causing the bottom to drop out of the travel industry.

Not many tears are shed when the travel industry suffers, particularly by the more extreme climate activists. What people forget is that many countries and communities depend on tourism. Revenues in Sri Lanka were estimated to have fallen to by $2.5 billion a year during the lockdowns, relative chump change to an economy like the UK, but pivotal to some countries.

And then, with the pandemic finally over the Sri Lankan Government officially declared the worst economic crisis in the country in 73 years.

So far this year the country has cancelled school exams for millions of students after running out of printing paper, hospitals are stopping surgery and as I started writing this post the shops over the road from us were contending with 13-hour electricity blackouts.

As the basics slip out of reach (the header photo was taken by me of a queue for kerosene) and even school buses can’t afford to run, Sri Lanka sits on a precipice.

A badly managed economy hasn’t been helped by the introduction of some ill-thought out initiatives.

In 2019 President Gotabaya Rajapaksa unveiled his grand vision for Sri Lanka: it would embrace sustainable food production and become a world leader in fully organic farming.

Problem was, not many of these new food production techniques had been fully tested. The ban on pesticides led to immediate protests by the farmers who complained about the lack of preparation to switch to an organic farming mode at such short notice. The general public became angry due to food inflation caused by the low yields. Though the policy has been reversed (sustainability rightly goes out the window when people can’t feed their kids) it’s too late, the effect of the ban will reduce the rice harvest in 2022 by an unprecedented 50%.

As much of the world struggles with an energy crisis there are lessons for many of us here. Lessons of self serving leaders creating policies completely out of touch with the requirements of normal folk. Lessons of people becoming obsessed with switching to new and unproven solutions that are not fully tested or evaluated.

Policies rarely succeed or fail on their own merits; rather their progress is dependent upon the process of implementation as well as their timing.

Across the world we now face an energy crisis at the exact same time as we should be addressing a climate crisis. This is a failure of planning and an illustration of the lack of strategic foresight that exists in much of our leadership.

Innovation rarely happens in one great leap, but rather in a series of incremental steps. The first solution is rarely the perfect one.

More forward thinking economies will often accept that rather than resist what may be an imperfect step-change solution. For example, in the United States fracking is seen as an innovation, but in the UK is seen as something to be avoided at all costs. As Matt Ridley has written our instinct is often to resist innovation, as with coffee, margarine, GM crops and fracking, though it’s a retrograde step.

The successful introduction of behaviour change has to be carefully timed.

How can you convince people to upgrade their heating systems at the exact same time as their fuel bills soar out of reach?

How is it a good idea to introduce a ban on buy one get one free offers on cheap food just as as the cost of living crisis peaks?

A lot of these sort of policies smack of the work of middle class think tank types who have little grounding in the world of the poor or working class. This is nothing new. Throughout The Road to Wigan Pier, first published in 1937, George Orwell  laid bare Britain’s north-south divide. This is a passage from Chapter 5, and if you exchange ‘since the war’ for ‘since the pandemic’ and adjust the prices for inflation this could be written in 2022.

Trade since the war has had to adjust itself to meet the demands of
underpaid, underfed people, with the result that a luxury is nowadays
almost always cheaper than a necessity. One pair of plain solid shoes costs
as much as two ultra-smart pairs. For the price of one square meal you can
get two pounds of cheap sweets. You can’t get much meat for threepence, but
you can get a lot of fish-and-chips. Milk costs threepence a pint and even
‘mild’ beer costs fourpence, but aspirins are seven a penny and you can
wring forty cups of tea out of a quarter-pound packet. And above all there
is gambling, the cheapest of all luxuries. Even people on the verge of
starvation can buy a few days’ hope (‘Something to live for’, as they call
it) by having a penny on a sweepstake. 

There’s a reason that many Government’s introduce policies banning BOGOF offers, mandating calorie counts on menus, phasing out cheap fuel sources or introducing taxes on sugar or alcohol. They look good and it is a lot easier to do those things than tackle the big elephant in the room. Poverty.

Whether in Sri Lanka or in the UK it would be an interesting social experiment if the people most economically disadvantaged by new policy measures were involved at the outset in the design of them.

But I guess that would be a bit too radical.

Why Do We Believe In Silver Bullet Solutions?

In folklore, a bullet cast from silver is often one of the few weapons that are effective against a werewolf or witch. In business, the “silver bullet” is a simple, but sure-fire solution to a complex and/or chronic problem. Once you use it, the problem goes away completely.

Why do we believe in silver bullets?

In folklore, a bullet cast from silver is often one of the few weapons that are effective against a werewolf.

In business, the “silver bullet” is a simple, but sure-fire solution to a complex and/or chronic problem. Once you use it, the problem goes away completely.

On Wednesday evening I was invited to do a talk to a group of leaders assembled by Greenacre Consult. One of the best questions I was asked was ‘why, given it’s seemingly so obvious that exploring problems and starting small makes sense, are we so enamoured by silver bullet solutions?’. I gave a rather long and rambling answer – ironically searching for a silver bullet response – so thought I’d put some thoughts down here.

Silver bullet syndrome is the belief that the next big change in tools, resources or procedures will miraculously or magically solve all of an organisation’s or persons problems. Once you recognise Silver Bullet Syndrome you will see it everywhere. In management reports, in public policy, in recruitment campaigns, in advertisements.

If only we had a person like this our problems would be solved. If only you followed this particular diet your weight concerns would go away. If only the public did this instead of that, this damned virus would disappear.

I believe there’s a strong link between how our businesses are organised and their propensity for silver bullets. In 1909, Frederick Taylor published “The Principles of Scientific Management.” In this, he proposed that by optimising and simplifying jobs productivity would increase. Taylor’s philosophy focused on the belief that making people work as hard as they could was not as efficient as optimising the way work was done. This optimisation focus arguably led to the creation of narrow specialised teams and what Phil. S. Ensor later termed the functional silo system. The contention from Ensor was that these siloed teams were indeed efficient at repetitive tasks but imposed a very damaging learning disability on the organisation.

There are many advantages to silos but they can mean we become focused on narrow organisational fixes rather than exploring the underlying symptoms. Chasms emerge resulting in people not seeing any problem in context and cross organisational problem solving can break down. Through the silo system, as every function focuses on its own objectives and KPIs the ground is laid for the emergence of silver bullet solutions.

In an era of management fads and leadership worship it’s also bizarrely easy to sell these one-shot solutions. It’s soothing for us to believe that organisational tourists can arrive to save your business by doing a perfectly pitched PowerPoint with a clearly articulated way of getting from A to B, without any actual evidence.

Pitching up and saying that an organisation most likely can’t solve this problem on their own, that you need everyone’s creativity and input, that the first solutions you come up with will almost definitely fail – isn’t so attractive.

The idea of a silver bullet is appealing. That new Exec hire, that restructure, that new change tool, will solve it. We are all optimists really, and we want to believe that the world is simple.

We all want the fastest and easiest solution to any problem, but as Chris Bolton and Matt Wyatt have observed, silver bullets should actually be called silver boomerangs – because they just keep coming back.

Complex problems are hardly ever solved with shiny exciting bullets. As Matt Ridley writes – breakthroughs emerge when we have a “willingness to put in the hours, to experiment and play, to try new things, to take risks— characteristics that for some reason are found in young, newly prosperous societies and no longer in old, tired ones.”

This applies to our organisations, not just societies.

The way to solve our greatest and most persistent problems isn’t glamorous at all – it’s actually quite mundane. Success is best achieved through a multitude of individually unimpressive small shots rather than a single bullet.


Photo by Itay Mor on Unsplash

Community Is The Most Powerful Unit Of Change

We are less pessimistic about our own lives 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.

– Matt Ridley

Sometimes, the best way to get traction behind an idea or initiative is to make it as local as possible.

Your own community is the best unit of change. For instance, solving homelessness across the UK is a wicked problem that seems unsolvable. However, making sure no-one on your street is at risk of homelessness seems eminently achievable.

Some of this is just that our brains can’t easily comprehend how to solve massive problems. Counter-intuitively, the bigger the problem the less inclined we may be to help out.

That’s why charity appeals often feature a single distressed child (or animal) rather than featuring thousands. In one study to explore this the psychologist Paul Slovic told volunteers about a young girl suffering from starvation. He then measured how much the volunteers were willing to donate to help her. He presented another group of volunteers with the same story of the starving little girl — but this time, also told them about the millions of others suffering from starvation.

On a rational level, the volunteers in this second group should be just as likely to help the little girl, or even more likely because the statistics clearly established the seriousness of the problem. “What we found was just the opposite,” Slovic says. “People who were shown the statistics along with the information about the little girl gave about half as much money as those who just saw the little girl.”

In my last post I outlined three reasons we fail to solve problems, but there’s an important fourth one: sometimes we simply try and approach them in ways that are too hard to comprehend. We go way too big when we might be better off starting really small.

As Matt Ridley explains in this conversation with Jordan Peterson, optimism plays a hugely important role in innovation. And we are most optimistic about our own community – making it fertile ground for solving local problems.

One of the reasons that frugal – or jugaad – innovation thrives in parts of Asia is because it concentrates on local solutions, solved using simple means, with a spirit of eternal optimism.

Jugaad is a Hindi word that roughly means ‘solution born from cleverness.’ It’s usually applied to a low cost fix or work-around. In a culture where people often have to make do with what they have it’s an improvised or makeshift solution using scarce resources.

Anyone who has been to India or other parts of Asia will have seen examples of jugaad on a daily basis.

In case you’re new to the word I’ll give you four pictures, two of which I took myself in Cambodia.

Building a house with discarded cola bottles:

Making tea using an iron:

Tea-making-iron-jugaad

Attaching an extra seat onto mopeds (or attaching literally ANYTHING onto mopeds):

IMG_7492

Bike + Tuk Tuk + Wifi:

Screen Shot 2016-01-21 at 06.40.48

Partly this is a result of austerity. In an era of abundance there isn’t much desire for the simple fix. Scarcity drives creativity in ways abundance cannot.

Frugal innovations are extremely context sensitive and it’s understood that local people are the ones best placed to understand their needs and address them – almost the opposite of how large scale change is managed in organisations.

Most organisational approaches to change or transformation are carefully structured. Agile or lean are process frameworks, whereas jugaad is void of process altogether. 

My personal belief is the best way western organisations can adopt jugaad thinking is by directly channelling it into communities themselves. Any frugal revolution needs to be driven by people – not from your boardroom.

As an ex-colleague of mine William Lilley said a few years ago: Everyone has a story to tell, everyone has strengths beneath the conceptions that you have of them. But if you’re curious enough, you may just find that the answers you’ve always been looking for are there, often right beside you.

There is a massive untapped reservoir of skill and talent that we choose to ignore because we think we could do it better as professionals.

It could be that a lot of our problems are sitting there waiting to be solved by our colleagues and communities.

We just need to give them permission, and get out of the way.

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