“If we do not respond to people and communities’ desire for power, we will lose our legitimacy and waste the potential of the many ways they can have agency over what matters to them. If we do not continually, bravely work to build trust, we will lose the essential foundation for everything we do.” – Civil Societies Futures
I’ve had a week of fascinating conversations, all linked by one theme, the apparent reluctance of many of our institutions to cede any sort of meaningful power and decision making to communities.
Part of the problem is the social sector is a field of business that profits from past societal failure. The entire premise relies on reaction.
When your business model is founded on profiting from being reactive – there is little incentive to change.
There’s also a very real question about skillsets and mindsets. During my conversation with Lizzie Spring it became apparent that at some point we shifted from entrepreneurial community based models (think: the birth of the social housing movement for example) to ones based on efficiency and the accumulation of wealth.
Necessarily this has forced organisations to be more ‘business like’ with career pathways for ‘professionals’. It’s hardly surprising that communities feel organisations have become more distanced, remote and less accessible.
A couple of weeks ago a consortium of housing providers tweeted an animated GIF showing a lonely looking person peering out of a desolate block of flats. The tagline read something like ‘Housing Associations provide services to some of the most vulnerable and hard to reach people in the UK’.
What on earth are we trying to say?
A number of tenants jumped on the tweet and pointed out – quite rightly – that it is the institutions themselves that are hard to reach not the people they serve. It was deleted by the following day.
It would be easy to write things like this off as the mistake of junior comms person but this attitude speaks of something far more fundamental: that organisations have become disconnected from their original purpose and are happy in their role as rescuers of people.
In today’s world of rising demand and scarce resources the doing, not just the talking, needs to be new and different. You can’t change a relationship without actual changing your behaviour.
A new report from Adam Lent and Jessica Studdert sets out a compelling case for a deep shift in public services based on a completely new relationship between citizen and state. This relationship rejects the hierarchical and transactional mindsets of traditional service models which all too often bypass people’s assets and capabilities.
It highlights the risk of seeing citizens only as atomised consumers – something the digital transformation zealots are actively encouraging. This consumerism only leads one way – to a growing sense of alienation and frustration with public services and the state.
The report goes on to state this isn’t inevitable. There is a huge opportunity to change.
Our communities want change – and they know what’s not working. This appetite for power and influence is a once in a generation opportunity to reconnect with people and establish entirely new relationships.
We mustn’t all focus on housing the homeless. We mustn’t all focus on filling prisons or A+E departments.
We have to move to a more preemptive model that builds on what is already there rather than seeing our organisations as curators of the worlds problems.
The conversations I’ve had this week, and the grassroots innovation that some organisations are fostering (notably in Wales), fill me with a lot of positivity.
The modern social entrepreneurs aren’t waiting for permission from regulators or consensus from their industry body. They aren’t bothered about awards or being seen at industry events. They never look at benchmarking. Many of them aren’t even paid or employed in the social sector.
They know that the way we have become organised is dysfunctional – and they are forging ahead with relationships first and services last. They are working with communities as equals rather than as professionals.
They might not know what works yet but they are clear about one thing: not returning down a path to paternalism and disempowerment.
This incremental change can build and gather momentum – becoming massive change for the entire social sector.
No-one is stopping us.
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