‘The Impotence of All Governments…’

A provocative phrase used by Jeremy Paxman last night to describe the inability of any government to effectively manage an effective path through the current economic crisis.

But we could extend it to many other areas of our lives.  The impotence of governments to:

  • build the affordable houses that we need
  • provide the stable macro-economic climate in which trade can thrive
  • keep significant numbers of our citizens, young and old, out of poverty
  • equip people with the skills and attitudes required to thrive in the 21st century
  • reduce carbon emissions to a level that mitigates the risk of significant environmental trauma
  • provide affordable, sustainable and efficient mass transit systems

Here in Leeds we have got to the point where all political parties see the construction of a new station at Kirkstall as some kind of triumph.  Building one station that will serve a few thousand people in a city of nearly 800 000.  A new station that will provide the key infrastructure link to enable further private sector development in that area of the city.  I just hope that any future planning application gets the balance of affordable housing right, otherwise I suspect we will see the poor once again displaced in the failing policy of economic cleansing that provides the blue print for so much of what passes for ‘urban renewal and regeneration’.  The ‘partnership’ between the local authority and the developers will no doubt be tested as one side pushes for more affordable housing and community amenities while the other pushes for a more profitable plan, while holding their twin political jokers of ‘job creation’ and ‘development’.

I suspect the only people that should really be rubbing their hands are the directors and shareholders of the construction companies and to a much lesser extent, perhaps mopping their brows with relief, will be those get to pick up their shovels on yet another construction hurrah.

So if government is pretty impotent then what are the alternatives?  What might work to help us tackle some of these long  standing and seemingly intractable problems?

Well, for me the future is ‘Bottom Up’.  It is about the engagement of large numbers of people in figuring out what really matters most to them and then forming associations around common cause.

The challenge will be to form associations rather than factions, but this is the process of ‘civic enterprise’ and done well strengthens democracy while building a much more powerful citizenry.  The role of elected officers and other public servants in working with these civic associations, enabling them and supporting their work wherever possible and helping them to add value to the democratic process may be crucial.  Representative democracy is creaking.  Perhaps a more participative democracy where different associations learn to creatively negotiate their collective futures provides a way forward.

It is about governments, national and local, no longer pledging to lead us to the promised land through judicious policy development, 15 year Visions and glossy manifestos tied to the electoral cycle and recognising that now their job is to help all of us to build the kind of communities that we want to live in.  The job of community development is our job and not theirs.

Bottom Up Is The New Black!

Think this is all hopelessly naive?

Then pop along to a Friday Picnic, A Cultural Conversation, Latch, Canopy, Progress School, Elsie, TEDxLeeds, LDF2011, Simon on the Streets, Ideas That Change Lives, PACES, Innovation Lab to name just a few where bottom up is becoming the new black.

From Words to Actions…

…has been a theme that has taken up a lot of my thought and practice for the last few years.  Seeding conversations on ‘things that matter’ seems to be quite a straightforward and affordable task. But helping to get from words to actions proves to be a much more challenging.  And, when all is said and done, perhaps it is what is done that really counts.

More conversations leading to more actions… In part it is just a numbers game.  If 1 in a 100 conversations spawns some planned action than perhaps we just need to have more conversations.  But so often when we try to have more conversations we just repeat the same old conversations.  Groundhog day. Different conversations leading to more actions… So it is not just more conversations that we need. But different conversations too.  Conversations that will help us to play with new ideas and new possibilities.  And we can learn how to have such conversations and get better at them.  But we can also encourage them just by talking with different people with different perspectives.  And the challenge of finding different people welcoming them into a convivial conversation, helping them to find their voice and really hearing them should not be under-estimated! But still this is not enough. Building teams to get from words to actions… You perhaps have had the most inspirational conversations exploring the art of the possible in whatever field matters most to you. How things could be different.  Better.  Changed.  Before you go back to your current reality and the coping mechanisms that you use to pretend that really things are not so bad. Because as well as seeing the possibilities for ourselves, many of us need the support of others who have also glimpsed the possibility and are prepared to act in its pursuit.  Finding ‘common cause’ matters not just for the reassurance of not being alone but for very practical reasons of sharing workloads, accessing skills and other resources, maintaining conversations and so on. But the chemistry and physics of the team is vital.  Too often we find a bunch of idealistic dreamers with not real change management disciplines struggling to turn words into actions.  And building a team that constructively manages the tensions between idealists and pragmatists, artists and project managers is not easy. Feeling the force…. But what we are really talking about here is building power.  The power to act. Individually and collectively.  The power to develop ideas, choose from options, plan, resource, implement, observe, evaluate and adjust.  Building enough power to overcome those who would really rather things stay as they are.  And I suspect that very few of us do power well. Helping… And then there is the question of making sure that the powerful team of activists with dreams, visions, plans and resources has a community around them that knows how it can help.  That can smooth the way, make introductions, encourage, advocate and assist.  I think as a community that we sometimes struggle to find the good people, the great projects, and when we find them we are not that clear on how we can help, what difference we can make.  And this is in part their problem (most of us are not very good at being helpable) and part ours (we don’t really understand the practicalities and dynamics of helping).  There is much that we can do to become a much more helpable and helpful community. Because trying hard is not enough… This one is a toughy. Lets face it, many of us have been trying hard for decades in some cases to ‘make a difference’.  And to say the least the results are often disappointing.  Few of the indicators that we really care about move very far in the direction that we might like.  And in order to carry on we shirk our accountability for resultsand instead just point to the fact that we are trying our hardest. But perhaps if we held ourselves and others to account more for results than for effort we might just find ourselves some more effective ways of working.

I will be running a workshop on ideas for helping to get From Words to Actions as part of Leeds Summat on November 26th from 12-1pm in The Shop Space in the Lower Foyer of Leeds University Union.  It would be great to see you!

Observations on Regeneration

When we base ‘regeneration’ on realising rent values in areas where the poor currently live, but the rich want to, we push poor people out. We don’t solve any problems we just re-locate them to areas where escape from those problems is likely to be made even more difficult.

My best efforts to ‘make a business of improving people through enterprise and effort’ have resulted in endeavours like Progress School, Elsie, Innovation Lab, Community Conversations, Enterprise Coaching and so on. All of these are designed to be accessible to anyone who is looking to make progress for themselves.

The sad truth is that we have wasted millions on telling people that their future lies in self employment and entrepreneurship without ever taking the time to listen respectfully to who they are and what they want.

I have yet to see a regeneration programme that is centred on a respectful engagement of, and response to, individuals who are seeking to make progress without making prior assumptions about means.

I have yet to see a programme that takes seriously the need to help individuals build networks to make lasting changes in how they operate (these networks provide the bedrock for that holy grail we call community).

I have yet to see a programme that recognises that the poor are in every neighbourhood.

I have yet to see a programme that accepts this is long term work. I do remember an RDA director saying that we should not expect too much from an £80m public investment in a Leeds regen project because we are only 15 years into the project….but this is not a defence that is generally accepted!

Our communities are full of ‘outsiders intervening’ and I see this as a major problem. Professional ‘experts’ shipped in to sort out the locals. If people don’t want to be helped we should leave them alone.  And we should only work where we are invited; where individuals really want us to help, because they have seen the value of our work. And how many of the mainstream providers offer services that are valued by those they are purporting to help? Very few in my experience.

We do know how to make progress on this stuff and the approaches are affordable and replicable. The key barrier to their development is that the beneficiaries of these approaches have little power, financially or politically, to compete effectively with the mainstream regeneration lobby. Those that influence investment in regeneration are those that control landbanks and their professional service firm partners. Just look at the sponsors of any regeneration conference or local enterprise partnership ‘summit’ and you will see who can afford to invest now to profit later. And they wont be talking about person centred approaches to change. They will be talking about building infrastructure and moulding people to meet the needs of employers (they call this ‘the skills agenda’).

And they wonder why our communities are not more enterprising!

Is it possible to reap a dividend from the success of others? I have much sympathy for the idea. However the journey to ‘break-even’ is often a long one, certainly months if not years. More likely decades before any consistent ‘dividend’ is generated. Few of us doing this work can afford to defer our payments for that long!  If you want a quick return on your investment you work with those that already have money and have the shortest journey to break even. Peter Jones and Doug Richards and their ilk are not daft in who they pitch their enterprise products to.

In the current system it is almost impossible to realise any value from working on the enterprise agenda with those that most need our support.

The Great Regeneration Resurgence…?

One impact of ‘austerity’ is that the government is investing less in ‘regeneration’, that mysterious process that brings uPVC windows and doors and new kitchens and bathrooms to some of our most deprived communities and/or takes neighbourhoods where only the poor and desperate choose to remain and turns them into ‘aspirational addresses’.

It seems to me that the former is usually led by a local authority in order to avoid the embarrassment and penalties that come with failing to provide ‘decent’ homes (better to provide no homes at all than homes that don’t meet the official standards).  The latter is usually led by the private sector and rests on the belief that we can smarten the neighbourhood up, displace the incumbent residents and replace them with brighter, shinier people.  With people who earn more money and pay more tax.  Who can afford larger mortgages and higher rents.   All sorts of ‘indicators’ move in the right direction (the neighbourhood is healthier, wealthier, greener, more beautiful) and we can claim progress as ‘jobs are created’ in the construction phase and the ‘community is regenerated’.  Profits are generated as houses are transferred from the poor to the rich with house prices and rents rising as we go.

Except of course the community has not been regenerated, but displaced.  The area may have been developed – but the community has been, in whole or in part, displaced and broken up.

Look around and you will see these processes happening near you.

As public investment in regeneration declines the pressure remains on local authorities to maintain momentum in the regeneration game – to ‘create jobs in construction’ to ‘stimulate economic development’ and to ‘provide new housing’.  And with less cash to put in the game they use other levers – more flexible approaches to planning (pdf – gaudy ‘enterprise friendly’ Planning Charter) and trying harder to attract inward investment so that we can keep ‘creating jobs’.  And there is talk of a ‘resurgence in regeneration’ as the private sector rides in to save the regeneration day, increasing profits and winning gongs and awards for ‘services to regeneration’.

This activity looks like regeneration and smells like regeneration but to my eye it looks like displacement and economic cleansing.  Most of the regeneration industry is driven by this economic development imperative which provides the dominant narrative at conferences, in development feasibility reports and in election manifestos.  You would think that there is no other game in town.

But there is.

There is a form of economic and community development that starts where people are at, works with what they have got, and helps make progress on what matters to them – much to the chagrin of policy makers this is rarely losing weight, giving up the fags and sharpening up the CV through a ‘work programme’.  This approach, which is often described as ‘bottom up’ or responsive provides no quick fixes but rather steady progress based on:

  • the development of aspiration, skills and knowledge
  • association, cooperation and organisation around common causes, reciprocity, generosity and mutuality
  • thinking  creatively and collectively to act in pursuit of progress

For me, ‘Bottom Up is the New Black’.

But this is a different approach to regeneration. One in which the current incumbents make little or no profit.  One that does not provide quick fixes based on electoral cycles and 15 year visions. One that makes new demands on local authority staff, elected officers and their partners.  It is a very different game with very different rules and very different tactics based on a different set of values.  One that puts the economy in the hands of people, rather than people in the hands of the economy.

But perhaps we should give it a go?