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.