Unlocking the potential of communities, individuals and organisations

We have heard from our members a profoundly optimistic message that there are great strengths and sources of expertise within individuals, communities and institutions, if only these can be unlocked by putting our propositions into action.

Building on strengths is better than focusing on weaknesses.  Even in the most difficult circumstances people and communities have much to offer. They are well placed to come up with the solutions, and to take action accordingly. Defining people by their ‘needs’ or deficits, and doing things for or to rather than with them, creates dependency. Creating conditions where people can flourish on their own terms sets them free.  Yet overall design and funding of public services still tend to favour deficit models and the voluntary sector often colludes with such practices.  However, ‘asset-based approaches’ are gaining increasing recognition, for example by the Christie Commission in Scotland and, in England, in the health sector.

Within our own network, strong examples have emerged and have been explained in different think pieces published on our website.  Jane Slowey, formerly the Chief Executive of the Foyer Federation, and Polly Neate, formerly Chief Executive of Women’s Aid, explain here and here how these organisations have put this approach into practice in their work in transformative ways.  Steve Wyler, a Board member of Groundswell, describes how people with experience of homelessness are often best placed to help other homeless people.   

Mass participation is better than centralised power.  This reflects our belief that more decisions should be made by larger groups of people with a shared interest or expertise in the subject, starting with those whose voices have not been heard: ‘no decisions about us without us’.    

Local is better than national.  National blueprints don't work. This is because governments can set out national aspirations, but cannot dictate how their plans will be received and implemented locally. People need the power to shape the places they live and work in, and this will only happen when governments stop trying to organise community life from the centre.

Our literature review reveals that we are one of the most centralized countries in the developed world.  One response to this has been greater decentralisation of power in England, or ‘localism’. However, when this simply replicates the structures and culture of central government at a regional or even local level, most people remain excluded. Participatory budgeting, citizen’s juries, and community organising are examples of methods which have been developed to involve more people in decision making, and to attempt to shift the balance of power.

The Kirklees Democracy Commission, which one of our members, Andrew Mycock, chaired, recognises this problem and its recommendations provide a basis for renewing local democracy from the very grass roots up through more effective engagement.  

Our discussions, and also our review of the literature on the subject, have highlighted other limitations of localism.  At worst, enabling local communities to take back control can create a licence to ‘bully the powerless’. As the organisation Friends Families and Travellers explained to us, shifting decision making on travellers’ sites from central government to local councils has resulted in an almost complete halt in provision, leaving thousands of families with no legal right of abode.

Neither localism not mass participation in decision making is a guarantee of fairness, and we have considered the role of specialist agencies in tackling exclusion.  As cell member Andy Gregg from Race on the Agenda summarised the discussion in one of our cells, ‘What is needed is specialist agencies that are capable of working with the whole person and committed to the whole of their community and that understand inter-sectional approaches – individuals are never just reducible to one identity or one set of protected characteristics. There is also a need for generalist or mainstream agencies who can pull in both extra skills and resources, but also who recognise the need for communities to self-organise from time to time if exclusion and discrimination is to be properly challenged.’

Our members’ direct experience is that putting the Better Way propositions into practice can unlock new energy and resources locally. We heard from activity in Hastings, Taunton and Coventry, where in places which have suffered many unsuccessful attempts to tackle inequality and deprivation, communities of residents and front-line workers are taking action, in line with the Better Way propositions, pushing at the boundaries of conventional thinking about communities and services:

  • The Heart of Hastings Community Land Trust is taking a mass participation approach to tackling dereliction and building community capability in the Ore Valley.
  • A micro-provider network in Taunton has created opportunity for local self-employed care providers to provide services to local people in their community for a modest fee, with accreditation from Community Catalysts, keeping skills and wealth circulating within the community. 
  • A ‘mind the gap’ initiative in Coventry takes public sector leaders and decision makers out of the ‘dead spaces’ where decisions are usually made, into walk-and-talk sessions in parks and city centres with front line workers and residents.

We also know that organisations as well as communities and services can be transformed by the Better Way propositions and become beacons.  In discussion, we have started to build a shared sense of what makes for a Better Way organisation- eg clarity of purpose; an ability to describe desired change; deep listening to service users/customers and other stakeholders; walking the talk in everything we have control over; generous and collaborative leadership where the common good is put before institutional interest; a practice of sustainable development; permeable models which allow users, staff and others, to play different roles at different times; honest story-telling which may include for example a collective-impact narrative which acknowledges that positive change is usually the result of several agencies working together; and radical transparency which provides insight into the benefits and dis-benefits produced by an organisation.  

We have also concluded that the scaling up model is wrong and we should stop defining success by size but rather by the extent to which we are building the conditions for human relationships to flourish – ‘good rather than big’.

A question to explore further is how best to encourage organisations to align their principles and behaviours along these lines while avoiding the kinds of standard-setting or quality assurance mechanisms which too often produce ‘gaming’ rather than real change - and which in any case others might do better. 

Another concern is that we become too focused on improving and preserving existing organisations when real change may be generated in other ways, and by very different groups.  Indeed, we should be encouraging the breaking down of institutional walls and boundaries – permeable platforms may well represent a better future than many current organisational models. 

Over the next year, we will further explore through our network how best to unlock these energies in effective ways at local level and in organisational practice.