Last week Paul Twivy former CEO of the Big Society Network wrote an article in the Guardian explaining why he believes that the government’s flagship policy died an early death. His analysis provides food for thought for anyone involved in working with local communities. The biggest problem was probably timing – it was hard, if not impossible, not to see Cameron’s enthusiasm for citizens running their own libraries as what Twivy describes as nothing more than a “fig leaf for the shrinking state and spending cuts”. As CEO he quickly identified the challenges that the Big Society presented but made the mistake of speaking truth unto power and as a result was, he alleges, told by Steve Hilton “never to speak about the Big Society in public again” – a bit like asking the MD of British Gas not to mention the word “gas”. Unsurprisingly, and to his credit, he resigned.
Doomed to fail
Since then he has been running Your Square Mile, a movement designed to empower and enable people to make real changes within their local areas. 16 deprived areas were identified and, by the sounds of it, significant resources expended on increasing contact both between citizens and local authorities and between neighbour and neighbour and on building the confidence of local people in their ability to make a difference. But here is the depressing statistic: 90% of the projects initiated failed “almost immediately”.
Millions of pounds have gone into buildings such as community centres but often without consulting the residents about what they wanted. Millions has been poured into charities but often charities that operate in silos for one cause or one ethnic group only. Some councillors are admired for their tenacity but the majority of them appear to be invisible in between elections. Many people are simply unaware of local assets. Many community groups and charities are fragile and expend huge amounts of their energy staying alive. Most people don’t know the basics of how their area works, how to pull the levers of change.
This dilemma is reflected in the frustration that those who provide services to the public often express when we talk to them. Major engagement projects take time and energy and often a lot of money and may achieve a short-term goal but all too often the goodwill, interest and commitment that came with the big money evaporates within months and you are back where you started. Could this be because, just like the Big Society, this sort of engagement work is seen as something that is done to people rather than something they do for themselves – with the public sector acting like a rather patronising Big Sister trying to get Little Sister to engage with unloading the dishwasher. As my four year old regularly hollers across the kitchen: “I want to do it by my own!”
If at first you don’t succeed – why not just go home?
Another reason Twivy believes these projects have failed is because of “the lack of confidence of the leaders who have stepped forward in all good faith”. This feels a bit patronising too – a lack of confidence is usually the result of several things: lack of experience, lack of relevant skills and lack of support. It can also be the result of bad experiences. If you try your hardest but you feel like you are making no difference, why would you be confident? You are much more likely to feel disengaged and frustrated. Some people pick themselves up and try again but many don’t. And even the Robert Bruces amongst us can end up cursing the spider. Perhaps the people Twivy is talking about were perfectly confident but just being realistic. Perhaps they had reached the very logical conclusion that they might as well go home and do something more useful with their time.
The good news is that the public sector does finally seem to be waking up to the idea that the “third leg of the stool” – the People – is essential not just in developing services but also in helping to tackle the combined challenges of seismic social change and financial austerity. But it is a lot easier to talk about this sort of thing than to make it work and even harder to sustain it beyond the celebratory conference and photoshoot. This week I found myself in three different situations where the professionals were wringing their hands wondering how they are going to find the Right (Real) People for the job. In each case, within seconds of saying that it is always the Same Old, Same Old People, someone else has shudderingly expressed their concerns about ending up with the Wrong People.
Even the “right people” need developing
What is missing from this conversation is the recognition that The Right People are not going to simply knock on your door and ask for a job and be all you have ever dreamt of. Most people take years to develop the confidence and skills to run community projects or speak in a room full of jargon-spouting experts. It takes a lot to deal with the snail like pace of public bureaucracy or to stand up to the professionals when you disagree with them. It is hard not to feel inadequate when you don’t quite understand the system or to feel patronised when they don’t bother to explain things properly. Last week I found myself the only lay person in a room full of 45 senior medics. I wanted to speak up and tell them they were missing the point on an important issue but in the end I didn’t. I am nearly fifty. I have been doing this for over 20 years but I was still intimidated into silence – and I sensed they would not really hear what I had to say anyway, though I am sure they would have smiled and nodded kindly at me whilst checking their Blackberries.
Finding the Right People in the world of public involvement should be just the same as finding the Right People in the world of (paid) work. They need to be recruited imaginatively for their potential and their passion and then trained and supported. They need to start where they are comfortable and be challenged to move onwards and upwards – to develop their skills, expertise and knowledge. They need appraisal and feedback from their bosses, colleagues and peers. They need rewarding and incentivising. They need to know that there are recognised pathways within their communities and well beyond that they can follow if they are up to it. And here’s a thought: why is the attention always on the weaknesses of the lay people who need to be “inducted”, to fit in and learn the ropes – isn’t it time professionals were trained and supported to work with the lay people too?
A bunch of dummies?
Sitting in a room full of hardened NHS patient representatives the other day, I was amused when one suggested that the easiest way for the organisation to fulfil its current demand for lay representation on its multitudinous committees would be to order a large box of inflatable patient reps in a range of colours and genders which could be given to any committee chair who requested a “lay person”. The inflatable figures could be trained to provide simple answers to questions such as “and what is the patient view on this???” Well, it might be worth a try – if only to get those Chairmen to sit down and think a little harder about what these people are really there for and what exactly they want to do with them.