The interplay between formal and informal modes of operating How much do tensions between formal and informal modes of operating affect what happens in the community sector? People in community groups tend to feel more comfortable with informality and may be intimidated by formal processes, codes and context. But formal regulations, structures and policies, as Alison Gilchrist made clear in her William Plowden Fellowship lecture at NCVO this week, can rightly be seen as ‘necessary mechanisms for mitigating risk and maintaining standards’. Red tape and the sins of bureaucracy can restrict, delay and hinder progress. But if emotions are curbed and personal biases constrained, sometimes that can be a good thing; and formality may well protect collective goals so that these can be pursued regardless of the individuals involved. Likewise, reflecting on the effect of informal processes we may see that while they can be liberating and creative, allowing people to nurture trust and loyalty, they can also mask and perpetuate hidden power imbalances. Alison set out to challenge the default position of ‘formal as normal’ and concludes that ‘informal and formal modes are best regarded as neither opposite ends of a spectrum nor a dichotomy. A more nuanced, dialectical approach is needed.’ Watch out for her report and hopefully a few short articles expounding on this work. For the moment, I’d select the following from her recommendations: For policy: seek to enable, not control Informal as valid and valuable; Be aware of power/status issues; For practice: uphold responsive flexibility Encourage opportunities for informal learning and exchange; Use ‘just enough’ formality where functionally useful; Build in conviviality - fun, food and face-to-face interactions.
Untraceable near-neighbours I’ve been wondering what happened to Margaret. I used to see her in her powered wheelchair with the wee dog trotting along. A few words, then on. And John, I’d see him on the corner down by the bank. And that woman with the funny walk, who would sit outside the pub with a beer in hand, on a summer’s eve. Sometimes she’d say hello, sometimes nowt. These are people I came to recognise in my neighbourhood. They are not weak ties; they’re not ties at all. We have or had no particular responsibility towards each other beyond that of common humanity. But the acknowledgement in passing encounters, the occasional greeting - these always contribute to the sense of neighbourhood, of context and belonging. And these in turn contribute to the accretion of potential support that in theory could be called on in time of need. Except I don’t know enough about them. This is a category of people who I would not say I ‘know’ (as in survey questions like ‘how many of your neighbours would you say you know?’) And since I don’t know where they live or lived, unless perhaps vaguely, then in most cases of need I couldn’t have ‘called on them’ in any sense. They are acquaintances not neighbours: they occupy the space on the continuum between intimates and strangers. Of course, I can easily think of relationships that have graduated from this kind to friendship. But there are many passing acquaintances that remain just that. When they stop appearing in the neighbourhood, it may take a while to miss them, until something makes you think… I wonder what happened to her? For some people, faith groups or clubs or third places can help to make such relations recoverable. But in most cases you’re not in a position to find out: they’re untraceable. Previously : Acquaintances: book review