Yesterday I was at the launch of a substantial report about “official” work in neighbourhoods, published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, on how councils can take forward government policies to decentralise control, promote active citizenship and maybe help realise big society.
The language was of good partnership working, civic responsibility, maximising the opportunities in devolution, community leadership roles for local councillors … and professionals working on this for years.
However, success also depends upon the less official matter of how far citizens are prepared to do more for their neighbours, and how councils can encourage people to engage more in providing local services formally or informally.
As Liz Richardson of Manchester University, the author of the report says, the key issue is about attitude as much as policy:
The big lesson is about trust and risk – transfering more control means you have to trust people that little bit more to do things by themselves. Sometimes they’ll mess up, sometimes they won’t. There has to to be some way of keeping that accountable, but allowing space for it to happen.
Liz has been working with Mick Charlton and other officers, councillors and residents in Bradford, where the council already had an impressive record of neighbourhood working before the coalition government developed big society policies.
JRF have been working there since 2004, so it is an ideal place to explore the issues in depth. As Mick explained in the interview, there have been two-way benefits of sharing ideas with researchers.
Earlier in the week I spent a day with a team of community builders at Forever Manchester, exploring how social reporting could help their work in local neighbourhoods – as explained here.
The talk there was of getting out and talking to people, making connections, helping people find skills and resources in the community … and aiming to be able to move on from the neighbourhood within a year or so once new networks were developed.
In London Mark Parker is telling the story of his work with a team of community organisers in Southwark. It is mainly on the street, rather than committee rooms, and in Noticing the unusual suspects Mark makes a distinction between those well-versed in the official world, and the unofficial connectors, a term he attributes to Cormac Russell. Mark writes:
Community leadership needs to be both horizontal and vertical. Some people are eager to speak their mind to the powerful and will tackle the problem they encounter head-on. These folk seldom have time for a deepening relationship with their neighbours and can be criticised as speaking for themselves alone. Others are the glue that link together people and places in any community. They are often well-known locally – in the street or on the block – either as that kind old lady (and often they are women) at No 6 or that old busybody! They hold a great wealth in social capital and are seldom seen at community meetings. Yet their role in bringing people together is vital.
So is there a divide between official, top-down, and unofficial bottom-up, as it is often characterised? I don’t think that’s a helpful way of thinking about it (and certainly not one promoted in the JRF report … they just couldn’t cover everything, and the full report has more about the community perspective).
We need both parts of the system, with more side-to-side connections and networks both in agencies and in communities.
Where the JRF research, and the community organising and building experience do join up, is in the focus on the importance of neighbourhood workers, builders, connectors – whatever they may be called.
Local service delivery is complex, and so are communities. We need the joining-up people. If we agree that, what becomes interesting is the philosophy, and style by which they work, which is something I’ll return to later.
Here’s the key points from the JRF report:
- Neighbourhood workers are key to co-ordinate partners and services, broker agreements and solve problems creatively.
- Active citizenship could be strengthened by tapping into the pool of ‘willing localists’.
- Transferring more control to communities requires new mechanisms to share risk and reward between public sector bodies and communities.
- Councillors can play a community leadership role, and be honest with constituents, tackle difficult issues head-on, and mobilise the wider community.
- Central government could offer support, guidance and leadership for action at the local level on the shared challenges facing local public sector organisations and local government.
- Working in Neighbourhoods, Active Citizenship and Localism. Lessons for policy-makers and practitioners. Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
- Southwark Organising
- The Anatomy of an Asset Based Community Builder by Cormac Russell