Running exploratory workshops with local residents tends to be less predictable than it usually is working with professionals, and it can be risky. But it's what I enjoy most and find most rewarding. I've just been in Shipley with my colleague Sarah Clow (pic, R) running one focus group on neighbourliness with older people, and two workshops for a new 'Street Reps' initiative. In a few hours of listening you can get a pretty thorough immersion in local issues in a low income area, and we did.
The basic idea of street reps (sometimes called street champions) is usually to give services keen and willing pairs of eyes and ears in the neighbourhoods, to alert them to issues that need attention. Much of the language is classically top-down (as in 'we will appoint you; you will do this' - one example begins talking almost straight away about 'professional standards') and suggests that some authorities have not done much thinking about it and start from their own preoccupations rather than the residents'.
It fascinates me, because the task is really to work out, for each individual and more generally for each network of reps, a role definition which is sufficiently formal for the authorities but sufficiently informal and flexible to make sense in the everyday life of the neighbourhood. (Since it's essential that the reps are volunteers, we can expect that some authorities will have to give weight on this particular see-saw. And in the grander scheme of things, this is exactly the kind of initiative which, in forcing the responsibilisation of citizens, will in turn, necessarily, reduce the public services obsession with performance measurement and thus could presage the demise of New Labour Managerialism. So that's a pretty good reason for getting on with it).
Our work is being funded by a grant from Bradford's Neighbourhood Management Team. To their great credit, they are not necessarily happy just waiting for local people to volunteer for a pre-defined role which saves them money while helping to meet service delivery targets. They've asked us to work with residents to define the role in their own terms (not as easy as it sounds). Additionally, without denying the role of street reps as 'Disorder Alarms', we're looking to emphasise the development and support of local social networks through neighbourliness; and for reps to promote positive initiatives like street parties or planting, not just passing on complaints or bad news. We'll also be looking, softly softly, for opportunities to introduce and exploit mobile online technologies.
Having served a modest, intermittent apprenticeship with games maestro Drew Mackie and participation guvnor David Wilcox over the years (see Useful Games) I know enough to know I needed to fictionalise things in order to get discussion away from the immediate gripes. What we came up with was more of a workshop exercise than a game - working in groups to invent and explore issues requiring attention for spring, summer, autumn and winter, identifying immediate and longer term actions, working out responsibilities, resource and support needs and so on - but for several people the experience seems to have been totally novel and refreshing.
At the end one of the participants said that if she'd been told beforehand that she'd be doing this - meaning, having to think things up herself and writing ideas down on a flip-chart - she would never have come. But she'd had a good time and enthused: "You can come back mate." Which, in the understated vernacular of community action, I think constitutes emphatic endorsement. And that gives us a buzz, cos there's plenty still to do.