John Houghton has written an
excellent blog this week for New Start magazine called 'Exposing the Lie' http://www.cles.org.uk/yourblogs/exposing-the-lie/.
In the blog John challenges
the notion that people living in the most economically disadvantaged communities do not care about the plans and decisions that affect their lives.
John's blog took me back to
the work I did with ecumenical colleagues in the churches in Bradford in 1994.
Called 'Powerful Whispers',
it involved the Bradford Metropolitan District's top decision-makers listening to local people speak in four two hour sessions. Each session was held in one of four of the District's most
disadvantaged communities. The decision-makers were asked to listen in silence, without response, as people talked about their lives and communities. This was to enable them to really listen without
being distracted by thoughts of how they ought to respond.
Local people, who had
complete control over the content and method of delivery, were answering the following questions:
What is good about where you
What are you already doing
to make a difference?
What are your hopes and
fears for the future?
From the four Hearings a
colleague and I drew out the key issues. For the first time the issue of consultation and decision-making arose. I quote it in full because, from John's blog, clearly it is still relevant.
This is what my co-author
and I wrote in the final report in 1995:
'When resources are scarce,
and the problems which need addressing are many, the quality of decision-making becomes crucial. Decisions have to be clear, and the reasoning behind them absolutely transparent, if people are going
to accept decisions as being fair.
As the four steering groups
prepared for the Hearings, it became obvious that people in areas which had not received regeneration mony from schemes such as City Challenge or the Single Regeneration Budget were feeling
disappointed and a little bitter.
Ironically feelings were
also running very high on Holmewood, which has had very substantial funding from City Challenge. Holmewood demonstrates that spending money is not in itself the key; great attention needs to be given
to the way it is spent. Time and again we were given examples of what local people thought was money being inappropriately spent on projects which had not originated within the community.
They pointed out that
thousands of pounds had been spent on hiring 'consultants' to canvass local opinions. Yet those consultation exercises were felt to be cosmetic. The view was that where local opinion did not coincide
with that of those running City Challenge, then people felt that their ideas were ignored. This had led to cynicism about being consulted. On the other hand there are people involved with the running
of City Challenge who feel that serious efforts have been made to involve local people at every stage. This is causing tension and there is the possibility that some of the strong community roots put
down over the years are being undermined.
Consulting people is never a
simple process. People are often reluctant to express opinions or lack the confidence to contribute ideas. They often feel that they do not have the knowledge to participate. The usual methods of
questionnaire and public meeting are limited to drawing from people the kinds of issues which concern them and their families. People who are struggling to survive do not necessarily complain the
loudest! There needs to be clear recognition that real consultation is expensive in terms of time, as well as money, in those communities which have the most problems but that this expenditure can
represent a sound investment.
If Bradford is going to be
able to cope with scarce resources and growing needs, then creative ways have to be found of including citizens in decision-making. People need to be helped to think about their own locality but also
to develop a wider picture of concern and awareness.
At the de-brief meeting
which we organised for those who had spoken at the four Hearings, people became very excited when they shared with one another the issues that they had raised at the indiviidual Hearings. When they
realised that they had such a common agenda, there was a sense that they wanted to explore further what this might mean, not only for their particular area, but for the city as a whole. They felt
that there was strength to be gained by working together and understanding each other.'
The next twelve years of my
working life in the District was spent turning this desire into a reality.
Reaching my late fifties, and with a first grandchild's life
budding, thoughts of the future abound. Doom and gloom seems to be the forecast for coming generations, particularly in terms of the environment.
This talk from Peter Diamandis at TED 2012 demonstrates my
own belief in the capacity of human beings to innovate in ways that will build a positive future - despite the seeming evidence to the contrary. Enjoy!
- What best helps families with complex needs to become stable?
- What else needs to happen to prevent people of Pakistani descent losing their sight, as a result of
- What can we do to help young people use alcohol more wisely?
These three major questions have been occupying my work and waking life over the past six
In each case the work
involved asking those with the inside knowledge - the families, people of Pakistani descent and young people and their parents.
Of course, we listened
to what all the relevant professionals had to say as well. In fact we listened to the 'whole system' i.e. everyone who had a contribution to make in one way or another, to the issue being
There was thoughtfulness and animation in the focus group discussions; a real willingness to share experiences
generously, even painful ones, in the individual interviews. Parents who had never been involved in
anything like this before helped to design and shape community responses to family needs.
insights abounded. From the interviews with families who have succeeded in becoming far more stable, a common pattern emerged of what things had helped them to change life for the better. Their
analysis provided a possible model for professionals to use to help more families at an earlier stage.
It took nerve and not
a little courage to turn up to a workshop with professionals; to air ideas; to listen and to be changed what you heard.
This sort of
involvement, engagement , designing and learning is immensely powerful for everyone participating. It shows that people, no matter how vulnerable or how complex their lives, can deliberate and
analyse with others, offering insights that the professionals could never guess at.
The most surprising thing for some professional participants
was just how much consensus there was about what needs to be done, when all the different perspectives had been shared and heard.
I would love more public services to dare to draw the public in to help with innovation, strategy and planning.
What are your best stories of work like this?
I thought - oh I will just watch a few minutes of this - and then I was glued to the whole thing.
Why governments are getting excited about design thinking and what it might offer to the creation of better public services. If you have a bit of time to spare have a look at this short video.