Thursday, April 22, 2010

From the Front-Line of the Big Society

A Tuesday evening in April.. Arrive at the local school on an estate I represent to find 50 people from the community have given up Eastenders to come and talk together about how to improve their area. I am late so skulk in and slide silently into my seat. The format is the one you’ve seen a thousand times with a desk at the front with councillors, the local copper and a minute-taker from the council then row after row of seats.

Fifteen minutes in, it doesn’t feel great. We are still on the constitution and elections to the new committee. Most people don’t understand what is going on. There’s a silence impatience and a few of the older folk are starting to drop-off. Then the questions. “Why isn’t the Council/police/authorities doing that or that?” “Why haven’t we got a community centre?” “Who is going to clear the leaves this year?”.

The format lends itself to this perfectly. The passive citizens in the audience, those “responsible” at the front. Like 95% of the audience, I am getting both bored and impatient. A question comes up about the county council. I am invited to speak in “response”. I then take a small risk. I tell the audience that whatever they believe about we at the front could do for them was, by and large, an illusion. We can’t do that much, and that the best thing they could do was to set up not a residents association to harangue the system but a residents action group that just decided what to do then do it. I then offer an initial £2.5k to the best ideas and ask them to split into groups for 20 minutes to share their ambitions for the estate and asked the assorted heads at the front to each join a group.

Things warm up very quickly and, for a while, I could hardly hear above the buzz from the groups. People were enjoying the task. Sure the moaning was still there, but given the invitation to do stuff rather than to complain, most wanted the former.

This was evidenced during feedback when a spokesman for each of the six groups came to the mic and spoke. These contributions were all of a really high quality. Eloquent, measured, considered and brief. The meeting had found its voice. People had all, on some level, had a chance to speak. The line between the responsible and the community had been blurred as person after person volunteered not only good ideas but also a public commitment to help make them happen.

Had we not chopped things around – and I thanked the Chairman afterwards for permitting the change-tp-plan – I am not sure how things would have ended. We would have heard less and what we did hear would have been a lot less positive. As things are, we are moving forward with optimism and a feeling that it is up to us what do do next.

Two observations here in relation to the Big Society. The first is that there is, within people, a desire to contribute to the well-being of their community if there is an easy and co-ordinated way of doing so. We simply struggle to get simple mechanisms formd properly in most communities. So it is right of Cameron to press on this. But whatever one does, it has to be them driving it, not people like me.

Second is about formats. Whoever came up with the row-of –chairs approach to meetings and slipped it into the national DNA did us no favours. It kills any potential stone dead. I was surprised, if I m honest, that Council `community development’ officers who do this sort of thing for a living don’t have the insight to know this and are happy to sit at the front having turds thrown at them. It clearly doesn’t work.

As it is, we are in a better place. In a month’s time we are meeting to talk about how some of the ideas generated this evening can be made happen. Sure I will continue to try to get holes in the road fixed but my main role here, I hope, will be to support what folks want to do, not do it for them.


London Rebuilding Society said...

Your anecdote provides a cheerful reminder about how well local politics could/should function. But I'm not so sure Cameron's Big Society provides any answers about how to realise a vibrant associational society. The Conservatives seem to envisage a bunch of diligent, go-getting, 17th century New Hampshire Purtans gathering in the local town hall before heading out to ford a river or something.

What the social enterprise sector has learnt is that big society requires a big state. The role of the state has to change but its not a zero-sum game between the size of civil society and state.

We clamour for access to public contracts, better legal and financial infrastructure, and the capacity building mediatory institutions that only the state can provide. Cameron's rhetoric renders the debate superficial - I'd stay away from it...

Anonymous said...

I've worked in international development in the UK for 10 years and your facilitating approach is very familiar. We wouldn't be able to conduct most meetings without the opportunity for all participants to have their say. However, I tried it at the PTA meeting a few months ago and it failed because people just wanted to have a go. Subsequently it was derided as a "corporate" approach and I am no longer chair of the PTA. One member just wanted to bake and sell cakes. It takes a particular approach to broaden the involvement of individuals in society. If this makes society bigger then it needs to be done in a respectful way that enables invovlement without predicting or prescribing what the outcomes will be.