Power, support, and listening – the key ingredients for neighbourhood governance as summed up by the Young Foundation’s Paul Hilder at the end of a bubbling workshop in west London yesterday. And if there was one key message it was that more credibility should be given to trusting, lasting relationships between service agencies and residents. Conversation, conversation, conversation – it’s an agenda in waiting, maybe it just needs policy makers to have the courage to recognise it.
I’d pulled the event together partly because the articulation of a community sector position on neighbourhood governance is long-overdue. Half-fortuitously I persuaded about 30 people to come together in a room, with a very informal programme for the day in which the centrepiece was a trial run for the Neighbourhood Governance Game. Thanks are due to Community Development Foundation who came forward with venue and catering costs to help make it happen. The trick that wasn’t really fortuitous was getting the mix of resident activists, community development workers, consultants, think-tankers and even a couple of policy folk from the ODPM’s Local Vision team.
The game is really a workshop technique designed to surface the issues in a fictional context which avoids people coming to blows (usually) and allows for creativity and a bit of fun. Games maestro Drew Mackie came down from Edinburgh to join David Wilcox in guiding us through. More soon on David’s blog.
Initially participants worked in three groups: a policy group, briefed to develop a policy framework for neighbourhoods; and representatives of two localities, who defined the characteristics of their imagined areas. The participants from the localities groups subsequently split into an agencies group and a residents’ group, each charged with developing a three-year timeline for their area.
As a simulation it was uncannily realistic. The policy people struggled with the slight vagueness of their brief and worked away at trying to clarify it without going to talk to the service reps or the residents’ groups. In one locality, the service and community groups began by swearing undying mutual support but before long had drifted apart. The community group in this case struggled very realistically to agree on things. At the other locality, the reverse happened: they began deciding independently what they were going to do, but in due course came together harmoniously and creatively. And on one side we had this exquisite example as participants worked on the timeline: in one locality in the fictional year two, the residents came up with a stack of initiatives (orange post-its - click on the image to enlarge) while the agencies' sole initiative was ‘Progress report and evaluation.’
I’m not saying this to poke fun at the participants in question. There’s a fundamental point exposed by this exercise, which is that uncertain relationships – people spending time getting to know where the others are ‘coming from,’ arguing the meaning of the brief, adopting a conciliatory style as someone else adopts an insistent management style, etc - caused problems and delays, took time, gave rise to doubts. Uncertain relationships are a part of life, and it’s questionable to go on developing wide-ranging policies that (a) fail to take this into account and (b) fail to try to address it by encouraging, well, less uncertain relationships. As someone said, we’ve not got information overload, we’ve got relationship underload.
One thing was very striking from the organisational point of view. Easily the majority of those present were there in their own, unpaid time – all the residents and all the consultants; and they all took it seriously and contributed positively. The government wants community engagement, and this was community engagement on the topic of community engagement. But it was hard and uncertain work getting any officials there at all.