Summary of cell discussions on Better Way and Place, February and March 2018
Does place matter any more?
In the age of digital platforms and widely available travel most of us are connected to many communities, but it seems that place remains important. Place and personal contact cannot be replaced by the internet; and it is where the deepest and most lasting bonds are forged.
Local and national
Our proposition states ‘local is better than national’. Community life is where human relationships can best flourish, and imposition from the centre rarely works when dealing with complex social problems, as it inevitably produces standardised and transactional behaviours, and reduces the potential for people to discover their own solutions.
But that doesn’t mean that we can or should ignore the national dimension. For the local to function well, we need local action to be supplemented by a national system capable of sharing and promoting ideas, encouraging challenge, developing common standards, and providing validation – with all of this guided and informed by evidence from local practice.
The risks of localism
Localism is not necessarily benign. Local institutions can be guilty of hoarding power just as much as national and international agencies. And communities, at their worst, can be divided and dispiriting places, resistant to change, dominated by elite groups, hostile and oppressive for outsiders and minorities. At the local level, the quality of leadership, especially in the public sector, is generally weak, failing to attract real talent or younger generations.
One response to such problems has been managerial – attempts to professionalise local administration, with armies of paid managers (relatively wealthy) doing things for communities (relatively poor). We have seen a movement away from neighbourhood and community levels towards larger geographical regions, in attempts to create economies of scale, centralising political and executive power most recently with directly elected mayors. But this shift from localism to devolution leaves place behind, replicates the national command and control culture, and reintroduces many of the behaviours which leave people feeling they have somehow lost control.
Places under stress
There are many places across the country where deprivation is high and the local infrastructure is failing to cope, let alone improve things. In a time of austerity this is getting even worse. But while we need a strong and effective local infrastructure, especially where problems are most acute, we should not underestimate the untapped strengths that exist in even the poorest places. The answer is not to send people in to ‘intervene’, but rather to take steps to realise local capability and invest in the people who live in these places and create the conditions for them to design and manage their own local infrastructure.
Sometimes organisations themselves may be the problem?
Organisations can often ‘hoard power’ and create command and control barriers between themselves and those they serve. Power can corrupt but it can be important to understand the emotional drivers too. There may be anxiety about getting too close to those with whom one works, or fear of being attacked when something goes wrong. They may also suffer from a lack of aspiration and lack of belief that they can make fundamental change happen. Too narrow a focus on targets may lead to a loss of fundamental purpose.
What might Better Way places look like?
We have heard about places where people, including in some cases those involved in the Better Way network, are attempting to operate according to the Better Way propositions. Examples can be seen in Coventry, Taunton, Stroud, Frome, Doncaster and elsewhere.
This is partly about local institutions, including voluntary agencies, doing far more to build contact and credibility with local people over time, doing things ‘with’ rather than ‘for’, and a willingness to operate across traditional sector boundaries, identifying common cause, while recognising that all communities are highly complex, with multiple competing interests. Networked rather than command and control organisations are likely to work best.
Sustained community connector or community organiser activity, as well as activities to build community ownership, and spaces for people to come together to understand each other and make decisions together (such as participatory budgeting), alongside mechanisms to encourage transparency and challenge, all seem essential for real progress to be made.
Democratic institutions would be strengthened and community based organisations would help give voice to local needs and concerns and provide a challenge function.
We would have a better understanding of ‘subsidiarity’ – of where activity best takes place and how local activity is supported by national and regional actions.
Local organisations would have high aspirations to solve problems, not just service them, and to create stronger communities, and would have the tools to deliver this eg through better feedback mechanisms, ways of spreading experiences and greater front-line autonomy which encourages a ‘journey of discovery’.
There would be a better understanding of where local adds value and of what has been called ‘context’ as well as ‘content’ skills and knowledge. Community organisations and activists often have lived experience and connections that make them more effective than national organisations. The concept of ‘professionalism’ would be reconfigured to include ‘kindness’ and relationship building.
Ways would be found to get more resources for local activity, for example local giving organisations, crowd sourcing and commissioning that recognises the value of local.
What needs to change?
Big is not necessarily better than small, and often the reverse is true, as large organisations are more likely to become disconnected from their communities and more inclined to self-protection. So we should stop talking about scaling up whenever we see an example of good local practice and talk about ‘spreading’ instead. And large organisations would do well to consider whether they can let go, providing much higher levels of autonomy to their constituent parts.
We need to make a better case for localism and the power of place to drive positive change. Some national problems cannot be overcome without a much greater emphasis on local action (homelessness for example) and agencies working in fields where this applies need to be brave enough to say so, and change their operating model, even if that threatens the current way of doing things.
Some problems cannot be tackled only at neighbourhood level. The challenges of migration and climate change for example need concerted action at international levels. Perhaps the best future will come from greater emphasis on the local and the international, and less on the national.
That said, there is a still an important role for the national, which needs to be better understood and articulated.
Some issues to explore further
- National ways of measuring quality often underplay the value of local organisations and some of our members are going to explore how to change this in a cross-cell working group.
- Can national agencies with strong public brands (and the ability to attract resources on a big scale) reposition themselves to act in service of the local, rather than dominating from the centre?
- How can we get more funds into local activity eg through local giving organisations or crowd-sourcing?
- How can we better promote organisational and professional behaviours that avoid ‘power hoarding’, including by understanding the emotional drivers of behaviour, and redefining what it means to be professional?
Notes of the discussion within individual cells: