I’ve been interviewing several development workers in rural areas, about how they develop and support Good Neighbour schemes. Inevitably, a key set of tensions that they have to negotiate is around formal and informal arrangements.
These schemes sit sweetly in the space between the ancient informality of neighbouring and the post-industrial formality of organised care services.
Central to the tensions that arise in this space is a widely-anticipated (though not always evident) negative response from community groups to expectations that they should adopt formal procedures. Formal procedures can range from requiring safeguarding checks to maintaining monitoring records.
There are a couple of issues to disentangle here. The first concerns the unpredictable variety of responses at the area level, which I do not think can readily be explained by the worker’s approach.
Thus in one county, in helping about half a dozen new schemes to become constituted, one worker told me that there had been no difficulty in getting groups to accept the requirements of systematic evaluation, for example in administering questionnaire surveys; in another county, I was advised to reduce my expectations to the minimum, because the groups would not take to it. In a third county, one of the schemes was not interested in any form of preliminary information gathering about client needs or availability of volunteers, they just decided to get on with it. I was told of another scheme whose representatives had decided to go beyond just a committee and constitution, turned their first meeting into an agm, and were set on applying for charitable status. It also seems to be the case that most groups expect if not demand safeguarding checks, and this can extend to some non-risk roles for which it is illegal to have someone checked.
It's not clear to me how this variation can be explained.
The second issue is even more nuanced and rather more tricky. It concerns the risk that sensitivities to community groups’ responses can come across as patronising: you don’t want to be implying that they should be protected from some kinds of information because it’s too complex for them or too demanding.
Within the groups that express an interest in forming Good Neighbour schemes, it’s common to find retired people with professional backgrounds – often from the medical and care professions – for whom the generation of a little administrative bureaucracy is an expectation not an issue; who would anticipate the requirement for monitoring data; and who, if it were not provided to them, might well invent their own system for evaluation because they can see in advance that it would help to demonstrate their achievements with a view to future funding. I am told that this configuration and outlook can often be found in low income areas as well as the more affluent neighbourhoods.
At the same time it’s unsurprising that many groups might find administrative tasks a burden; and anything that threatens a group’s sustainability might need rethinking. But it’s fair to say that lack of funding in the future could be as much of a threat as the burden of collecting evidence to justify that funding.
The establishment of a Good Neighbour scheme depends on local volunteers coming forward, with time, energy and commitment. We cannot predict with accuracy what kinds of people these will be, although with an open and empowering approach we can inform and seek to influence what they choose to do.
What one of us might call encouragement or support, another might call coercion. Much of the professional rhetoric may be filtered of dusty heresy, but I’m not sure it’s possible in community development to allow light in, without casting the shadow of coercion. As I recall, Jeremy Brent was very good on this.