In John McKnight’s ‘Building Communities from the Inside Out’ is a chapter on ‘Providing support for asset based development: Policies and Guidelines’. John may not be the greatest crafter of a punchy headline on the planet, but he does understand the process of community development – and the content of this section is right on the money.
In a section called ‘Precautions for all Governments’ he points out the problems that governments and other institutions of the state have in working with what are often small, simple and informal community development groups. He suggests that often, in trying to play its role, government ends up ‘dominating, distorting and demeaning’ the work of local people. McKnight offers a few principles that can help government officials (council officers, RDA employees etc) to avoid this ‘overbearing propensity’.
- Remember that government workers and programmes are public servants. A servant supports and does not control. A servant never suggests that an employee might ‘participate’ in the servants’ work. The servant finds how best to serve the employer.
- Understand the limits to government. If it replaces the work of citizens and their associations it will not create a healthy society – but a dependent one. The community will look to government to solve local problems and government will be unable to fulfil this role. Local problems will worsen. ‘Secure, wise and just communities are created by citizens and their associations and enterprises, supported by governments making useful investments in local assets’.
- Let local people who do the work take the credit. Don’t send the mayor to ‘cut the ribbon’. Let those that did the work have the glory. Send the mayor to thank them.
- Don’t replace local associations and institutions with new systems and agencies. ‘One of the most significant causes of weakened local citizen initiatives, associational work and institutional capacity has been the introduction of new government sponsored structures and organisations. As new organisations appear in the neighbourhood with impressive buildings or offices, lots of money and well paid outside professionals (sounds familiar?) they unintentionally but necessarily replace some of the power, authority and legitimacy of local groups. Although they assert that they are there to strengthen community, they are likely to replace community initiatives.’
- Government representatives should ask “What do you local people think we should do to support you?” rather than “We have this new programme we are bringing to your community.”
- Ones size does not fit all. Characteristics of local projects are diversity, proliferation and informality. Government and bureaucracy however is more often characterised by uniformity, standardisation and formality. They usually seek to develop processes and systems that will ‘fit all’. This approach is structurally and culturally ‘at odds’ with creative local initiatives that are vital to community regeneration.
One of the challenges that I believe government (local, regional and national) and its agencies has to address is how best do we make our expertise and professional ‘knowhow’ available to community groups? Instead they appear to be have succeeded in co-opting the expertise and knowhow of community groups to deliver governments’ policies programmes and targets on dependent and disempowered communities.
Time for a change methinks.