Community Blog

  • The Challenges of ‘Engaging Community Leaders’…

    Leaders for LeedsI attended Leaders for Leeds this morning – a breakfast meeting that connects a group of people who are trying to work on achieving ‘best city’ outcomes, aka make Leeds a better place to live.  I jotted down a few notes, some taken from our conversations and some capturing thoughts that I didn’t have time to express, and these form the basis of what I have written here.

    The theme of the session was ‘Engaging Community Leaders’ exploring the premise that Leaders for Leeds needs to get more and different people and perspectives into its network.  We were invited to explore what might need to happen for more community leaders to show up.  This raised a number of interesting issues in our conversation and the thoughts it prompted in me:

    What do we mean by community?  Geography? Interest group? Ethnic group? Faith based group? Age group?  Community is a weasel word.  We can utter it with gravity and credibility while conferring on it no specific meaning.  It is a broad signaller of intent, with no specific commitment or rationale attached.  I reckon what we actually mean by ‘community’ is often ‘target population’.  Except Leaders for Leeds has no ‘targets’.  We are not clear on whose voice we want in the room and why.  We don’t know whose voices are missing.  If ‘they’ were present what would they say and do?  How would that help?  Who would that help?

    ‘Community Leader’ is an equally difficult term.  Often it is little more than a media label applied to someone who expresses an opinion about a community issue.  They may lead a project, or an organisation, but do they lead a community?  Leadership is usually contested.  They might lead some but not others in ‘the community’!  We also discussed how bestowing the title of community leader can be damaging to the individual concerned and their relationships in the community.  Few are prepared to put themselves forward as community leaders.  The label does not fit.  They don’t recognise it.  Call yourself a community leader, or be called it by someone else, and you risk getting a backlash.

    We also talked about ‘community leaders’ who are appointed or recruited, either from the community or into the community, to do a specific job for a particular sponsor in ‘the community’ and how seldom they seem to become effective catalysts for lasting change.

    So why the interest in ‘community leaders’?  Is it because it is a convenient idea?  If we can find them they provide a short cut to ‘engage with community’?  Are we looking for individuals who have respect and influence in communities that we don’t?  Are we looking to extend our power and reach through them?

    Or is it because we believe in the ‘law of requisite variety‘ that says the more diverse our membership the greater the diversity of the issues that we can respond to effectively?  That we recognise deeply that unless we get more diverse membership our capacity to act as change agents is limited.

    We also heard how for one participant how attendance at Leaders for Leeds was largely symbolic. They got little from it themselves, but their attendance served as a reminder that black and minority ethnic people are here.

    Conversation then turned away from leadership and towards the  issue of power.  Are we seeking to give those that ‘organise’ in our communities more power to work on what matters to them?  Can we do that? How?  Or are we seeking power for ourselves to influence and create change in those communities by finding individuals to act as bridgeheads for us and our projects?

    We then talked about Leaders for Leeds providing access to those in power and also about providing a broader perspective of the city as public, private and third sector gather together.  The issue of access to those in power was interesting to me. Do we believe that if we can relate to them and influence them we can secure different outcomes?  Is that the game plan?  That what we need to do is persuade those in power?  Do we believe that power is essentially wielded from the top down?  Or could we conceive of Leaders for Leeds as a mechanism that serves the voices and needs of ordinary citizens – giving them power to shape their own futures and recognising how we might often need to get out of the way?  A city of 750 000 voices rather than ONE?

    For me the key challenges facing Leaders for Leeds are:

    • How do we enable small groups of people that care to have conversations that lead to action?
    • How can we encourage them and amplify their power to transform lives for those that most need change?

    (As I was pondering these thoughts and jotting them down in my notebook I then heard one young woman say “In my community many young people believe that they have to be bad or pregnant to get attention!  How could Leaders for Leeds challenge that believe, in that community?  Probably not by inviting folk to meetings – but by going there, by listening and responding, respectfully.)

    So I guess it comes down to one big question for me:  Is Leaders for Leeds there to help existing power structures to cope with change?  Or is it there to help them change?  Perhaps radically?

    Not a bad bit of brain tickling from a 20 minute conversation!

    Wendell Berry’s Plan to Save the World…

    Strengthening Bottom Up…

    Whether it is more ‘civic enterprise’, community engagement or ‘Big Society’, people with power, but increasingly little money, are looking for new ways to get things done.

    The large capital infrastructure projects have not given us more inclusive communities and now we can’t afford them any way, so in some quarters at least interest is shifting from old school top down strategy to a more emergent process of bottom up development.  To processes where large numbers of people can shape their own futures and as a result the futures of the communities that they live in.

    But making the shift from top down to bottom up is far from easy….

    Over the last few years I have been developing low and no cost approaches to economic, personal and community development leading to new projects such as:

    These are my best efforts to provide an infrastructure that allows the private, public, third sector and those of ‘no sector’ to give and get the help that they need to develop enterprising projects and people, and for the development of ‘community’ by building relationships and networks around local activists.

    To bring ‘bottom up’ development to life.

    Top Down: Bottom Up…

    Top Down Development

    Top down development is characterised by usually a small number of people recruited or elected to develop a ‘strategy’ that will lead to progress.

    The ‘strategy’ is usually accompanied by a ‘plan’, where costed elements are prioritised and scheduled for delivery in the full expectation that things will, as a result, get better.

    The strategy and its associated plans are usually supported with evidence and feasibility studies showing just why this is the right course of action and how benefits will accrue and to whom.  In recent years it seems we have stopped worrying about ‘to whom the benefits will accrue’ and accepting that the trickle down fairy will ensure that any wealth and wellbeing created by the plan will be enjoyed by all.

    Top down development is also characterised by:

    • delegation down a chain of command to manage implementation – this is not always well managed
    • fierce discussions about the correct allocation of scarce resources – this can divert us from real issues and burn millions
    • disputes about chosen methodologies and the viability of alternatives – as everyone tries to get a piece of the planning budget
    • piloting and subsequent rolling out of schemes and plans – a belief that what worked elsewhere can also work here, and there….
    • attempts, with varying degrees of honesty and legitimacy, to encourage participation in the top down planning process – phrases like consultation, co-production and engagement are used liberally.
    Top Down Development is really the only way to manage large infrastructure development projects.  It is a characteristic of electoral democracies where we vote in a small group to develop our strategies. It is also a characteristic of feudal and despotic states.

    Bottom Up Development

    Bottom Up Development is characterised by people using their power to develop their self interest. Remember self interest is not selfishness but means ‘self amongst others’. One of the important lessons from top down development is that often the best way to develop ones own self interest is to look after the self interests of others.

    Sometimes bottom up development is also characterised by groups of people coming together when they have shared self interests.  In bottom up development this coming together around common cause requires little engineering. It sometimes just happens.  But it can be supported and encouraged. It is often discouraged.

    Bottom up development is characterised by:

    • Individuals working in their own self interests in the way that they see fit
    • Individuals looking for  the resources that they need to make progress
    • Individuals pondering their options
    • Individuals coming together around common causes – forming associations and organising in order to increase their power
    Bottom up is the only way to really get large numbers of people engaged in their own development and developing agency in their own lives and communities. Bottom up is about life in a participative democracy.

    Bottom Up AND Top Down

    Both bottom up and top down processes of development are necessary in a modern society.  Top down to plan and provide the infrastructure required and bottom up to allow individuals and groups to use it effectively.  Nearly all development work is done in a top down way.  It is my contention that we need to invest significantly in bottom up development and its relationship to top down, if we are to build communities full of active citizens.  If we are to encourage civic enterprise.

    City of Dreams…

    I’m a street sweeper in your city of dreams
    Yeah, I’m a street sweeper in your city of dreams
    Sweepin up the paper cups between the limousines
    Street sweeper in your city of dreams
    Thousands of windows, I’m scared of what I see
    Thousands of windows, I’m so scared of what I see
    People wired up to telephones, plugged into tv screens
    Thousands of windows, I’m so scared of what I see
    Lookin at the sky above, higher than these neon names
    I’m lookin at the sky above, higher than these neon names
    You can’t buy and sell the clouds, they aint among the commodities we trade
    Lookin at the sky above, higher than these neon names
    I’m waitin for the city of god
    Yeah, I’m waitin for the city of god
    When what is will be what was
    Waitin for the city of god
    I’m a street sweeper in your city of dreams
    Yeah, I’m a street sweeper in your city of dreams
    Sweepin up the paper cups between the limousines
    Street sweeper in your city of dreams

    Company Town?…

    Enterprise, community and complexity….…

    Enterprise, community and complexity.  Slippery words.  But behind the slippery words are concepts that offer the possibility of progress.

    Lets start with ‘enterprise‘.  First, empty your mind of all those misconceptions that I must be talking about ‘business starts’, ‘cash flow forecasts’, ‘profits’ and ‘Dragons’.

    I am not.

    I am talking about enterprise as a measure of ‘agency’ in one’s own life.  The extent to which an individual is able to recognise what ‘progress’ (another slippery word) means for them and to take action in its pursuit.  This is what I mean by enterprise.  It is the product of clear self-interest (I know what I want) and power (I have the confidence, skills and knowledge to take organised action in its pursuit).  An enterprising person is one who is clear on what they want from their life and actively pursues it.  An enterprising community is one which has many such people – because they are valued and supported.

    Being enterprising does not make you a good person.  It just makes you someone who is acting in, what you believe to be, your own self-interest.  If self-interest is ‘enlightened’ then it is likely that the resulting ‘enterprise’ will make a positive contribution to community.

    If we are serious about developing ‘enterprise’, rather than managing the outputs that most enterprise funders are looking for, we need to concern ourselves with the development of self-interest and power.   We are in the realms of person centred facilitation and education.  Not business planning.  This is an enormous shift both in what we do, and how we do it.   Helping people to clarify their self-interest and find the power to pursue it requires very different structures and processes to a typical business start-up programme.

    It is worth noting that if you have money, there is a fair chance that at some time you will have hired a coach to help you with the difficult and personal work of clarifying self-interest and gaining the power you need to pursue it. And if they were a good coach they would not have manipulated you towards their preferred outputs – but would let you work on your own personal agenda.  If you have little or no money the chances of you ever having access to such a potentially transformational relationship are slim to none.  The relationship that you have with various ‘helpers’ is likely to be one where they try to manipulate you ‘back to work’, towards a ‘healthy diet’  or some such policy goal of funded output.

    Over the last few years I have spoken with many enterprise educators, policy makers and practitioners and they have all accepted that this conception of enterprise has merit.  Not only will it help us to get more business start-ups, but it will also help us to get large numbers of people acting in pursuit of their own wellbeing – however they define it.  But, this is not the work that gets commissioned, at least not by enterprise funders.

    How does this concept of enterprise  fit with ‘community’?

    I choose to think of ‘community’ as a property that emerges when people and groups learn to negotiate their self-interest with the self-interests of others.  Community is what the world of complexity science would call an emergent property.  If this is correct then it raises serious questions about approaches which attempt to offer short cuts to community (building community centres and one stop shops for example) without addressing the preconditions necessary in a complex adaptive system (such as society) for its emergence, namely, lots of folk whose self-interest is properly understood and who have the knowledge and skill to use networks, associations, mutuality, reciprocity and generosity to pursue it.

    Community emerges when people learn how to associate and collaborate in pursuit of mutual self-interest.  When they recognise that the best way to achieve their own self-interest is to help others to achieve theirs.

    A beautiful by-product of this is a raised awareness of the importance of difference.

    If I learn how to associate and collaborate with someone who has different skills and knowledge, or a different cultural heritage to my own I am likely to gain more opportunities than if I associate with people who are pretty much the same as me.  Associations across race, gender, age and so on often provide the key to opportunity and are a precondition that will allow strong communities to emerge.

    With difference comes both opportunity and resilience.

    Visions of the Anointed or Civic Enterprise?…

    Vision of the Anointed is the title of a book by Thomas Sowell, an American historian, economist and social commentator.   The anointed are usually a small group of ‘professionals’ and ‘political leaders’, or ‘campaigners’ and their work frequently follows a well trodden path:

    1. They identify a crisis – a situation that, if not addressed, will lead to disaster
    2. They propose policies and interventions to ‘solve’ the crisis that they believe will lead to a positive set of results
    3. The policies are implemented and the results are usually (always) mixed.  There will be both benefits and detriments associated with the implementation of policy
    4. The anointed defend the success of their vision and the policies and impacts that sprung from it.

    We can see this dynamic playing out now with climate change, peak oil, low carbon economics, the benefits culture, anti social behaviour, drug misuse and so on.

    This archetype for social change is based on an assumption that the problems of society can be identified by the anointed and can be resolved by their vision.  Where does this leave the ‘unanointed’.  Those of us who aren’t involved in the process of identification of problems and development of vision?  Well we can adopt several positions. We can:

    • support the vision and plans of the anointed – become their followers
    • attempt to influence the anointed so that their visions and plans take some account of our vision and values
    • oppose their vision and plans – become their critics – point out their detrimental effects – and seek the anointment of a different group
    • blame the anointed for the ongoing existence and, in many cases, worsening of problems

    In each of these cases we are giving power to the anointed.  Even if we oppose their plans, we will argue for the ‘anointment’ of a different group of leaders with different values and different visions.  Power remains with the anointed – whether they are on our side or not.  Their social policies too will have benefits and detriments.  We are relying on an anointed group to take responsibility for our success as individuals and as a society.  We can then sit back and hurl either brickbats or bouquets – depending on our values and beliefs.  WE are off the hook. We call this politics.

    In my work I accept that their will always be an anointed and they will always be developing and implementing policies.   Some of which may work for us.  Some against.  With the dominance of the current economic growth paradigm you are more likely to benefit if you are economically active – especially at higher levels.  If you have money to invest you are likely to benefit even more.  Of course we can vote and we can take part in the processes that shape their visions.  The strategic plans of the anointed may be necessary – but they are not sufficient.

    We should not rely on them to make our lives better.  They do not hold the keys to progress for us.  We hold them, if we have the courage and confidence to recognise it.  Often though we collude with the anointed as they unwittingly ‘put the leash’ on our enterprise, creativity and civic participation as they envelop us in their plans.

    An approach to social policy and change that relies on the ‘vision of the anointed’ is like an ‘old school’ business that says to its employees – come to work, do as your told, work hard on implementing our cunning plans and policies and we will see you alright.  Just comply.  Don’t think.  Just do.  We have clever people in the boardroom who put us on course.  Compliance and order are the key organising values…

    Many modern organisations have recognised that in fact with ‘every pair of hands a brain comes free’.  The organisation is turned upside down.  It is employees in the frontline who are asked to be enterprising and innovative in making things better.  The brains in the boardroom find ways to keeping this innovation and enterprise ‘on mission’.  Their job is to facilitate the emergence of strategy from a social process involving many brains.  They don’t have an elite planning ‘cathedrals of the future’ developing blueprints for others to implement.   They instead manage a messy bazaar of ideas and innovation helping all the market traders to promote their ideas and  form allegiances for progress.  They value a culture of enterprise over compliance.  They build chaordic systems.

    Person centred and responsive work helps people to recognise the limitations of the anointed and helps them to recognise that the best hope for making things better, in ways that they value, lies less in engaging with the anointed and more in engaging with their own sense of purpose and practical association, collaboration and organisation with their peers.  It lies in their own enterprise and endeavour.  From a collection of enterprising and creative individuals emerges a diverse and sustainable community.

    When we talk about encouraging civic enterprise, I think we are talking about shifting the balance of power from implementing the visions of the anointed to empowering the ambitions of the citizen.

    If this analysis has any truth to it then the implications for leadership and its development are enormous.

    The Specious Notion That Everybody Has to Earn a Living……

    “We should do away with the absolutely specious notion that everybody has to earn a living. It is a fact today that one in ten thousand of us can make a technological breakthrough capable of supporting all the rest.

    The youth of today are absolutely right in recognizing this nonsense of earning a living. We keep inventing jobs because of this false idea that everybody has to be employed at some kind of drudgery because, according to Malthusian Darwinian theory he must justify his right to exist. So we have inspectors of inspectors and people making instruments for inspectors to inspect inspectors. The true business of people should be to go back to school and think about whatever it was they were thinking about before somebody came along and told them they had to earn a living.”

    Buckminster Fuller

    An imaginary open letter: To those who would ‘engage’ us……

    To those who would ‘engage’ us…

    We are already engaged.

    We may not be engaged with you, or in what you think we should be engaged with, but none the less we ARE engaged. The things that we are engaged with offer us what we are looking for, perhaps consciously, perhaps not. Our chosen ‘engagements’ give us some combination of love, power and money.

    There is a fourth thing that some of us get from our preferred engagement, and that is freedom from pain. Freedom from the pain of hope denied. Freedom from the pain of optimism dashed. Freedom from the humiliation of yet another ‘failure’. This pursuit of freedom from pain is what you label ‘apathy’.

    We may choose to engage with you, and your agendas, if you offer us what we want. Unless we see possibilities for this our engagement with you is likely to be short lived and will change nothing. It might be enough for you to tick the box called ‘community engagement’, but little more.  Love and fun might attract us for a while, but it is making us powerful that keeps us engaged.

    Many of us who you find ‘hard to reach’ or ‘difficult to engage’ have ‘been engaged’ with people like you before. We have been sold false hope and have suffered the pain of having that hope dashed when you let us down, or when you run out of funding. Your reputations go before you. Sometimes even your promise of cash can’t persuade us to engage…we know that there is no such thing as a free lunch.

    You might pay us to move our muscles, or answer your questions, but you cannot buy our hearts and minds.

    If you want to encourage us to change what we engage with, then you need to understand us, understand what we are looking for, and understand where our engagement is likely to take us. It is this ‘where it leads’ that is often the hardest part of the story for us to explore. Some of us have learned to live for today and let tomorrow take care of itself. But, if you can really offer us something that provides us with a genuine shot at a better future….

    Often your approach appears to us to stand on the premise that you have the right to engage us in what you believe to be good for us. You impose your sensibilities and priorities. Or you impose the policy objectives of those who pay your wages. You force us into a parent child relationship.

    Imagine that a powerful outsider came and tried to persuade you to live your life differently. To give up some of the things that you enjoy. To ‘persuade’ you to work on a project of their design.  How would you respond? With enthusiastic compliance?

    Perhaps instead of seeking to engage ‘us’ in your decision-making processes, or in co-creating your services, or in spending your budgets, you should instead seek to engage yourselves in our agendas, our decisions, our opportunities. You should put us as individuals and communities at the heart of your endeavours.

    Before you seek to engage us in your agendas, perhaps you ought to spend a bit of time trying to engage yourselves in ours? Not by pushing your way in with your authority and your money.

    But by winning an invitation. By being ‘helpful’.

    So, the next time you sit down to write your engagement strategy, just think about what you might need to be like for us to invite you in.


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