Friday, 25 November 2005

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Importance of relationships for effective neighbourhood governance 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...
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Community issues and the listener's responsibility Finding out what local people think about where they live is a much more subtle process than policy models of consultation and participation tend to allow. I've been working very occasionally with the residents' group on the Havelock estate in Southall for the past few months, and gradually got what I thought was a half decent understanding of life in the neighbourhood. I now realise it was much less than half decent. I learned a lot that I hadn't expected to learn yesterday, during an Open Day at the community shop where we ran out some Social Tapestries exercises that Giles Lane has described here. Using a five foot square aerial map of the neighbourhood as the focus, we began accumulating a broad range of comments and suggestions through post-its, wall-displays, annotated booklets, walkabouts and so on. Some people came in with their sense of grievance to the fore, but invariably we found someone to help answer their question and eventually the conversations got turned to 'how to bring about change.' Before the day started, my understanding of the key issues had been around the housing stock transfer process that is going on; poor relationships with service providers particularly over rubbish and repairs; and the need for play spaces for children and young people. The Open Day brought in a wide range of people, and the issues that really hit us were these: the truly deplorable quality of some of the housing; health and other issues around the use of drugs; and yes, the need for play spaces. The most striking testimony came from a very articulate lad of around 11 or 12 years old, who offered a relentless catalogue of the decay, disorder, prostitution and drug-related debris around his house without once thinking it necessary to spell out to me the implied constraints on what should be his natural play area. Once again I think, the key is conversations: and not just any conversations, but those with residents where they feel there is a level of trust and the possibility of a positive response. Several times during the afternoon and evening as people told me simply of the wholly unreasonable difficulties they face on a daily basis, I was reminded of what I call 'the listener's responsibility,' meaning that it makes a crucial difference if and how you imply any consequences to the conversation. In the Social Tapestries project we are helping people to articulate their concerns which in many cases have been festering for years and years, and in large part this is because of the chronic failure of officials to listen responsibly in the past.

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