In my last three blogs (here, here and here) I explored some of the issues and challenges around Bishop Desmond Tutu’s famous quote about pulling people out of the river, finding out why they are falling into the water in the first place, and then taking action to stop them. But what if we could stop people getting to the water’s edge in the first place? Or once there we created, in collaboration with community, a strong barrier that prevented people falling in? Where in the future, only the most determined, those who deliberately climb the barrier to get to the water, are those we need to pull out pf the river? Where we might find ourselves in a situation where we’re doing a lot without doing a lot?
For too many years (decades?) public services have been doing their best to fix what is broken and wrong in families, individuals and communities. The ethos of ‘You Said, We Did’ has I believe led to a culture of client dependency which has become damaging to communities, who through no fault of their own are slowly losing their ability to act as responsible and active citizens. We appear to be continuously pulling the same people out of the river time and time again. To what extent are we failing them and the communities they are part of?
In serving people’s needs in this way we are ignoring the active and responsible citizens that already exist in our communities as well as those who have the potential to become such?
An example of this came from the Chief Constable of Gloucestershire Constabulary, Suzette Davenport, who recently attended one of my workshops on Problem Solving in Community Safety I’m running in Gloucester for police, council and housing officers. Suzette described how she had recently been to a meeting where partner agencies discussed the case of a woman who had for years been a drain on the health, council, police and housing resources as a result of her mental health and other complex ‘needs.’ Every day they would receive numerous calls from this person, which invariably led to vast amounts of resources being allocated to their many ‘problems.’
And then the calls stopped.
The woman concerned hadn’t been seen for a while and attempts to contact them had failed. The service providers presumed that she had eventually died as a result of her lifestyle.
As the Chief was aware that this individual has had some contact with a voluntary organisation called Treasure Seekers that provided support to individuals with mental health needs, the next time she visited them she mentioned this individual to their manager. The manager’s response? ‘No, she’s not dead, she’s with us.’ It transpired that Treasure Seekers had managed to engage with this individual and were making good progress with her through a number of programmes delivered entirely by volunteers.
That a community led service could succeed where service providers haven’t sounds like the perfect partial solution to the overwhelming demand services like the police are suffering. However, whenever I mention the availability of similar resources in communities to service providers I’m often met with replies such as: ‘but they’re not qualified; they’re not subject of risk assessments like us and what if something goes wrong – we’ll get the blame.’ Which then prompts me to question how they see their role, as a service provider looking for needs to find solutions to, or as citizen enablers, who support and enable others to find community led solutions by building on what is strong and already working?
I believe communities and the individuals within them have many of the answers and solutions to today’s complex problems and in that respect they aren’t qualified in the same way as service providers. Their ‘qualification’ is how they are uniquely aware of what the issues are in their communities and how to prevent them occurring in the first place.
When we recognise, enable and support the inherent abilities within our communities we nudge ourselves ever closer to becoming a part of the community as opposed to being distant and apart from it. How we go about building this path is the challenge.
In my workshops delegates start by exploring the concepts that underpin Appreciative Inquiry and Asset Based Community Development as well as traditional methods of problem analysis (with a focus on analysis mostly from the ‘offender’s’ perspective). From here we build upon this knowledge by exploring concepts, principles and techniques underpinned by:
Asset Based and Appreciative Inquiry led conversations
How to redesign ‘meetings’ through vision setting techniques such as ‘World Café’
Redirecting budget and grant funding into the heart of communities through techniques such as small grant ‘gifts’ and Participatory Budgeting
All of these models, if used authentically (not as a means of cutting service provider budgets) and at the speed of trust (it might take some time to reverse the current culture where service providers are often seen as distant and only needed when something goes wrong) have the ability to catalyse and enable communities to slowly move away from the client dependent relationship that currently exists.
This is the path that will take us directly into the heart of communities and beyond stale conversations based on, “You Said, We Did.’ Instead we will find ourselves in a more meaningful place where our relationship with our community is more collaborative, and where the conversation is based more around, ‘You Said, We Said…. How can we support you?’
The police, council and housing officers I’m working with in Gloucester and Mansfield have already reported back changes in how they are doing things now. Through a nudge in culture from public servant to citizen enabler they’re already seeing the benefits as demand on them is reduced.
As one officer recently said of a drugs issue in this neighbourhood, which is now being prevented and resolved mostly by citizens, using this mindset enabled him to resolve the problem by, ‘doing a lot without doing a lot.’
Surely this is a concept worth exploring?