Better Way London cell 4: 8 March 2018: Is ‘local better than national’?

Local and national

We started by considering the relationship between local and national action. The national it seems needs the local, and vice-versa. 

  • On the one hand, national programmes require effective local delivery. In the field of mental health, for example, the Five Year Forward View for Mental Health is a national plan, which needs to be locally applied.  Moreover, national agencies such as the NHS rely on strong local operations to provide the flow of evidence to make good national policy.
  • Equally, 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. Children’s play is one example, where play activities in neighbourhoods in every part of the country are at risk of marginalisation, and national activity is needed more than ever to promote the benefits of play, to understand and develop play skills, and to promote quality standards.

However, the relationship between the national and the local can be tense and problematic.  In respect of the national plan for mental health services, flexibility in local delivery is in principle allowed, expect in respect of psychological therapy, where highly standardised models of Cognitive Behaviourial Therapy are imposed, and this results in difficulties for both commissioners and providers. Elsewhere, as in Individual Placement and Support services (IPS), assessment systems have been established to ensure local ‘fidelity’ to national models.  But such mechanisms can produce ‘gaming’, with some people (those less likely to recover) excluded from services. Generally, this national framework is producing a growing gap in mental health service provision: those with low level support needs can get help, and so can those with very acute support needs, but the framework makes little available for those in the middle, and this is feeding the rising homeless and prison populations.

At the same time loss of national standards for qualifications on play has meant it is now hard to get funding for training.

There is evidence to support both seeking fidelity to a national model or alternatively setting a set of parameters.  In the end, the group thought principles were better than targets because targets can be gamed.. 

Power hoarding and how to share it

The behaviour of many national organisations can be problematic. Power to achieve social change is not necessarily about growth or size, but many national organisations still behave as if it is, and seek to hoover up work from local organisations, leaving a mess behind.   Many organisations ‘hoard power’.

We explored the idea that most institutions behave on the basis that ‘you can’t trust people’ and design systems and rules accordingly, and that the larger the organisation the more likely this is to happen, as managers become more remote from the people they are serving. 

Some of this may derive from anxiety.  Practitioners and managers may seek to put barriers between themselves and the people they serve as a way of erecting defences against it, according to Armstrong and Huffington (Working Below the Surface: The Emotional Life of Contemporary Organisations, Tavistock Clinic Series, 2004).  One extreme example was when the local council sent its staff home to escape confrontation with the angry residents of Grenfell Tower, rather than sending them out to help.

Public pressure can distort behaviours, where senior politicians, CEOs of public bodies and charities, are held personally to account for everything that goes wrong.  Pointing the finger is perhaps an inevitable accompaniment to public money, but it makes it much harder for prominent organisations to ‘let go’ of their command and control culture. The pressures are perhaps especially intense at national levels (although community leaders can also experience this type of pressure).   This in turn can generate organisational anxiety and defensive command and control measures to try and avoid it.  When leaders are women, the public criticism turns to misogyny, and this can be extreme when women make even innocuous public statements.   A network of peer support can be important.

Devolution does not necessarily stop ‘power hoarding’, it just happens at a different level.  In Scotland, for example, most power is still held at national and local authority level.

Some organisations work in completely different way, avoiding management structures altogether and acting as a ‘network’.  This doesn’t always work well, as evidenced by experience of CND in the past, and the management of non-hierarchical institutions can be very time-consuming.  But it can be a powerful technique for sharing power not just within but outside of the organisation. We heard from one organisation which operates on a national and indeed international basis and operates according to the insight that everyone has power: power is not something to give away from the centre, and the question therefore is how to create sparks and energy and build confidence among others. This however means that the level of organisational visibility is low - a difficult business model, as low visibility and a generous approach to attribution makes the case for investment and funding much harder.

We heard how a loss of national government funding can sometimes produce beneficial consequences.  Government funding can shift the balance of organisational effort in national bodies towards the achievement of relatively narrow contract targets, and away from the activities which actually add most to frontline efforts, for example responding to ‘general enquiries’ and thereby providing bespoke  services, tailored to the actual needs of the front line. 

National organisations are often at their best as convenors and connectors, creating the conditions for sharing to take place across local organisations, helping them learn from and stimulate each other, rather than attempting to determine what they should be doing.   Umbrella organisations should see themselves not as trade bodies but as ‘systems leaders’.

Are organisations themselves sometimes the barrier to social change? ‘Ideas not organisations’ says Charlie Howard, founder of young person’s charity MAC-UK, in a heartfelt blog.  But she goes on to say, ‘The important question is what’s the alternative? How do you grow a team of brilliant people and get the money to be able to pay them, if you don’t have an organisation?’  Should we perhaps formulate the proposition ‘small is better than big’, and encourage large organisations to implement a radically federated model, where the (big) whole really can be more than the sum of its many (small) parts.

Spreading not scaling

Robin Murray, advocate of a co-operative economy, who sadly passed away recently, used to say that ‘spreading is better than scaling’.  We need an organic rather than an industrial approach to building critical mass for social action, he argued, and he focused attention on the need to understand the interface between the grass roots and the system. This is where the most positive change can take place, he believed.  It can be where conflicts occur that the most interesting things happen.

Peter MacFadyen, who founded Independents for Frome and who played a prominent role in the takeover of Council by independent councillors, and the flowering of community life in that town, has published Flatpack Democracy, a ‘DIY guide to creating independent politics’, which is designed to help other communities take a similar approach. One example perhaps of an attempt to encourage spreading rather than scaling.

Leadership that brings about social change is often not about dominating or hoarding power but about creating ideas that others want to follow.  Fairtrade, for example, was a ‘magnetic idea’.  The expression of vulnerability can be a starting point, as it can help create an enabling environment in which people can connect in a genuine way.  This insight starts to change how we define what it means to be ‘professional’.  Safeguarding issues are important but perhaps we should be moving toward a model of kindness versus being impartial and cold. 

Some issues to explore:

  • Can we better define the role of national standards or aspirations in a way that supports local activity?
  • Can understanding the emotional drivers of organisational behaviour and social change help to stop ‘power hoarding’?
  • How can power be better shared and what does this mean for being ‘professional’?