Thinking about using the social web to do democratic things…..

Build relationships not structures

The Fremont Troll – Community co-production at its finest.

I went to hear Jim Diers speak last week – it was brilliant – many thanks to Colin Miller and BHCC for arranging it. I am still trying to get hold of the slides and will share them when I do but I wanted to blog about the event while it was still fresh in my mind.

Jim Diers  was Director of the Office of Neighbourhoods in Seattle, created in 1988 as a response to citizen dissatisfaction in the City. He has had a number of other community development roles and now lectures at the University of Washington as well as at the Asset Based Community Development Institute at NorthWestern. He has also been invited to talk to the UK Government and was consulted by the UK Government as part of the People Powered Change programme – happily he has avoided the brand toxicity of big society association by having a hugely credible track record.

I was live tweeting the event and below are the comments I tweeted which had the greatest resonance with me and with the people using the #jimdiers tag that evening:

  • If you call me a taxpayer I will demand service – call me a citizen and I will act like one
  • Too many organisations- not enough networks or communities. Build relationships not structures
  • Give communities the data that describes them and make representativeness a condition of funding
  • The council needs to think of all of its comms as a way of building relationships. Don’t put engagement in a box on its own
  • People learn best from the people who have done the work – its effective and empowering
  • Local regeneration is about the community attracting the business they want not just waiting to see what turns up
  • If you describe the community in terms of needs not strengths then all the power is with government

The stories Jim told from Seattle were inspiring because they spoke of communities finding their own power and taking a central role in their own development. Jim described a co-productive environment where the City officials had moved out of the way and strongly saw their role as facilitators, connectors and enablers for the community. He also implied a huge level of commitment from the City and from politicians – in particular the Mayor.

In the Seattle projects the question of representativeness was passed to the community to answer and was made one of the conditions of funding. I asked how the team had gone about detoxifying politics for the communities to the extent that they were positive about this kind of democratic approach and in his answer he talked about the need for persistence as well as the need to demonstrate the commitment to democracy with actions not just words. Jason Kitkat (leader of BHCC) added to this by pointing out that there is a place for politics – I think the unspoken codicil to this is its probably not within community development work.

However it is a bold decision to step away and let the community act and there is an explicit need in this approach to give power away to the community.

Part of why this was possible in Seattle was because the situation in 1988 was dire with many neighbourhoods needing significant regeneration and much citizen dissatisfaction – which sounds familiar in the UK in 2012. The response from the City was to do bottom up planning “because we don’t have any money” – for them effective community engagement was not a luxury.

It was also possible in Seattle because they took an asset based view of community development – they looked at what communities could do not just what they – the state – felt they needed (Have a look at how Wiltshire have been exploring this approach thanks to Steve Milton  ). This asset based model has been developed by the Institute at NorthWestern and the website is worth a read to explore some of the other case studies as well.

There was a challenge within Jim’s ideas about the need to transform the ‘usual suspects’ as well as our politicians – the challenge being that transformation in the way in citizen/state relationship to achieve more democracy and more shared power will require us to change all aspects of that relationship – not just a top down attitude approach from politicians. Jim explicitly said he felt that much of the Community development function has lost its direction and that its contributing to the culture of dependency. This was challenged as being a difficult message to give to people who have been ‘banging their heads against a brick wall’ in their attempts to create more citizen-led initiatives but Jim pushed back with the need to transform all elements of the community development dynamic in order to really achieve co-productive results. He is challenging community development professionals to take a really hard look at whether they are needs or assets led and whether part of the transfer of power to communities is in this reframing and not just with changing the attitudes of the politicians.

I have to say that I share his belief that all of the actors involved in the community development relationship need to change. In some ways this is a companion thought to the piece which I wrote on the absence of politicians in the digital space recently in that I expressed a similar feeling of appreciation for the enormous contribution but frustration for the failure to engage with a changing agenda. The challenge to change can’t just to laid at the door of politicians – the rest of us need to adapt as well and we need to do it in step with wider social changes.

Diers’ emphasis was on action, on doing and empowering. In many ways he was seeing community building as a by-product of community action and this is intriguing. Many of us would agree that this is the case and it certainly echoes the positive by-product approach that we have taken with We Live Here  but this principle of benefit by obliquity  is very difficult to argue for in a business case constrained development environment. However focusing our metrics on the measurable is a very sensible thing to do – for example looking at network reach and depth rather than social capital as a way of measuring community cohesion.

So – I have said before that evangelists are really irritating and I know that I can be counted as such on both counts and you can probably tell I found the session huge energising and inspiring. However. The caveat for me was the absence of a role for digital engagement to play a part in this work. This is probably not surprising as many of the case studies were from over the last across the last 20 years and probably predate the exponential take up of social technologies from the last 5 years. But when asked Jim was fairly dismissive of social media  - and I think this is a missed opportunity not just because of some of the efficiencies and relevance that new technologies but bring but also the positive social pressure that citizens already participating in the network society can bring. We see this in the CityCamp Brighton and this asset based approach is exactly how we have been approaching We Live Here.

The social network research that we use to instigate the We Live Here sites is an attempt to, cost-effectively, find the community assets who already have some of the digital skills which I think will be essential to community development in the future.

Why? Because as Jim Diers said it’s not just getting communities to take over services – its about enabling them to redesign those services to fit their lives. You will need digital skills to reinvent services in the future and you will need networked behaviours to do this within the network society.

But the thing I really noted from the session was a reminder of the importance of starting the engagement process with the community – not with your own organisational needs – and taking the time to build the relationships and shape the response around them. This is such a difficult thing to do when the pressure for change is immense and the natural response when in a hurry to to revert to a controlling approach. I think this is another way in which digitally led approaches can help with the amplification and viral nature of online network building speeding up this process – as long as we can then go on to take these networks offline and into the community.

I think there is something really significant in a combination of this kind of approach to community development with the rigour and scale that you can achieve with successful digital projects and the cultural change that a more digitally native approach can bring. Part of the point of the action research programme I want to set up around the We Live Here work is to look at how digital techniques can complement this kind of asset based community development approach and I will also now bring in some of the CityCamp Brighton experiences and see if I can gather evidence from this network as well.

I am fascinated by the cultural collisions that are brought about by really good community development work and really good use of digital as more than just a communication tool. I am impatient for these cultural collisions to start changing our political landscape and hope to do my part in bringing some of these collisions about. I am most excited however by the huge potential that I think is in our communities if we can figure out a way of unlocking and seeing first the assets and not the needs of communities.

As I said when I signed off on twitter after the event:

Inspired. Now off to find assets, remove structure to build relationships and democracy

 

PS  for those of you who like this kind of thing – SNA map of the tweets from the event:

 

Total reach of nearly 40,000 with a contribution from the Netherlands – it is indeed a small world….

One Response to “Build relationships not structures”

  1. Hi Catherine – here’s a bit of connecting …

    I share your enthusiasm for Jim’s work, and that of Cormac Russell, on ABCD. You might be interested in these other reports from events
    http://www.socialreporters.net/?p=285
    http://www.socialreporters.net/?p=477
    http://www.socialreporters.net/?p=705

    At the same time, I too feel there’s much to be done in introducing digital to the mix of methods. Drew Mackie and I are exploring how to do that
    http://www.socialreporters.net/?page_id=684

    and as part of the work we are developing the fictitious town of Slapham as a virtual lab
    http://www.socialreporters.net/?p=720

    Drew is already working on the Slapham networks … :-)

    Any interest? On another front, I and others are exploring now to better network RSA. Are you involved there? Your analysis and methods could be very useful
    http://rsafellowship.com/group/digitalengagement/forum/topics/collaborating-towards-a-more-fully-networked-rsa

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