Raising our game post the U.K. General Election

Each year in early May the Centre for Inclusive Futures hosts a networking reception informed by the ‘World Café’ method. People taking leadership roles at all levels from family life to national policy-making meet to celebrate work done in the preceding year, sustain and extend relationships and share their learning with other participants with the aim of enhancing our contributions in the coming year.

To structure conversation around the third of these aims we always have a ‘big question’. On the 12th May, around 40 of us met four days after the U.K. General Election results were declared. Our big question was an obvious one:

Looking forward after the General Election, what are the promising opportunities and strategies for building more sustainable and inclusive communities in the coming years?

In truth, many of us were still angry, disappointed or anxious about the outcome of the election and the prospects of another five years of Conservative government, given the huge damage done by the previous Coalition to the social fabric of our country and the lives of people at risk of disadvantage. And indeed the new government had already lost no time in confirming some of its worst intentions, for example, the abolition of the Human Rights Act. (Of course, we appreciated that our friends in Scotland may have reason to see things differently.)

So our initial thoughts following the Election probably focused more on concerns about further damage to vulnerable people and our communities likely to arise from dishonest, divisive and discriminatory policies. But I think we all understood that however justified our disappointment, we need to move on to explore how best to make constructive responses driven by hope, not fear. In short, to raising our game, the common thread of this new series of blogs.

We were helped here by a recent publication from the New Economics Foundation (nef), introduced to us by its co-author Sarah Lyall, Responding to austerity: How groups across the U.K. are adapting, challenging and imagining alternatives. We were inspired by a blog already published by another participant, Sally Warren, Let’s be fierce not furious! And Philippa Russell reminded us that 2015 is the 20th anniversary of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. The DDA did more than any legislation in the last century to improve the rights of disabled people but it was highly controversial at the time. Although some of those rights have been weakened in the last five years, the DDA still represents a landmark on the long road to civil rights for disabled people. We need to safeguard the DDA provisions and also remind ourselves that we have achieved much against considerable opposition at times!

In World Café style, we set out on an evening of rotating small group discussions to share ideas and experiences. Of course, I was only party to a small proportion of what were probably hundreds of different conversations but this method makes space for a plenary session in which participants share insights and examples which have impressed them. I have drawn on these ideas in the summary which follows. I have tried to identify 8 key principles to inform our thinking and action – and illustrate these more concretely with promising examples.

Eight Principles

  • Stay grounded in our values while always seeking to imagine better ways of meeting these in contemporary Britain

We want to see our society as one which values diversity, welcomes everyone as equal citizens and seeks to use all our contributions in building a better future – one in which we live in harmony with ourselves, each other and our natural world. Put more technically, we always need to be creating actions which recognise the connections between, and aspire to meet the ‘triple bottom line’ of environmental protection, sustainable economies and greater social justice.

I myself like the formulation of these aims from the economist Tim Jackson (‘Prosperity Without Growth’): Real prosperity ‘resides in the quality of our lives and the health and happiness of our families. It is present in the strength of our relationships and our trust in the community. It is evidenced by our satisfaction at work and our sense of shared meaning and purpose. It hangs on our potential to participate fully in the life of society.’

Jo Kidd shared with some of us ideas behind her latest community initiative – the Abbots Mill Project. This project is creating a centre for sustainability and social justice, using power from renewable resources, principally through re-instating a waterwheel into one of the mill races of the former Abbot’s Mill in the centre of Canterbury. The project teaches people about living in harmony with our natural environment, with non-human animals and with each other. It is a peaceful, welcoming and accessible place for all. Simultaneously it is fostering concern for the environment, recreating local economic assets (e.g. green energy production) and modelling social inclusion.

  • Help each other to stay strong

We need to be prepared for (continuing!) a long struggle. Effective action requires vision and courage. We are at our best when we find ways of supporting each other when things are difficult and inspiring each other through sharing experiences.

Sally’s blog, referred to above, commits her organisation,   Paradigm, to continue its investment in supporting networks which ‘connect people, ideas and action’. The World Café method itself is a powerful way of providing a ‘safe space’ for a diverse range of people to explore common challenges and seek to create a shared understanding of positive ways forward.

  • Challenge the indefensible! 

Much of current economic and social policy is ‘sold’ on the basis of misleading commentary (the false narrative on the requirement for public sector ‘austerity’, the myth of ‘shared sacrifice’, the rhetoric against ‘welfare’ and those who need public support). This context is easily exploited by the unscrupulous (the government itself in fostering prejudice against poor and disabled people, rogue landlords, extortionate loan companies, etc.) We need the courage and organisation to challenge negative ideas and actions.

Nef’s ‘Responding to austerity’ study details many examples of people fighting back, from the ‘Hardest Hit’ collective which exposes the disproportionate burdens imposed on disabled people to the campaign of ‘Psychologists Against Austerity’, which warns about the current increase in mental/emotional distress . We might add the recent emergence of the Learning Disability Alliance as a new campaigning organisation supporting the voice of people with learning disabilities at the national level.

  • ‘Be the change you want to see’

This quotation attributed (not entirely accurately) to Gandhi still captures an important principle. We have most control over what we do ourselves. We need to demonstrate inclusion and compassion in our own daily lives and especially reach out to people at particular risk of disadvantage. This is the starting point for linking personal experience, local action and our aspirations for a better future.

Paul Davies told some of us about his experience as an independent member of the panels undertaking care and treatment reviews for people in ‘Assessment and Treatment Units’ for return to their communities. For many the ‘system’ seems to have lost sight of their essential humanity. It lacks the capacity to really listen to people, hear their story and act with compassion and urgency. We need the courage to see people as they really are and stand alongside them in regaining their personhood. In a different context, Jackie Downer and Sheila Hollins told us about ‘Books Beyond Words’ and ways of using them (for example in book clubs) that enable people, who are often not heard, to grow in their own lives and find new ways of expressing themselves, but equally importantly help their supporters to understand the realities of people’s lives.

Philippa reminded us of the importance of enabling people to be creative and  recognise themselves as active citizens. She described her son’s and his friends’ involvement in ‘Partners in Art’ and the value to creating spaces where everyone can come and share talents, ideas, and new relationships. She commented that in some places, personalisation and personal budgets had ‘opened doors’ for people with learning disabilities and their families, but felt that we all had to be part of a social movement to protect and ‘grow’ our communities. She felt that the commemoration of VE Day the previous week was a useful reminder that (to quote Churchill) ‘great things can grow from disasters if it was the will of the people’.  

  • Get involved wherever possible with fellow citizens taking action for a better future

Austerity is having multiple local impacts like dependence on food banks, eviction from one’s home and increased exposure to ‘hate crime’. We have a rich tradition of community activism in the U.K. Building on Principal 4, we can strengthen local initiatives and campaigns by ‘joining up’ ourselves and seeking to ensure that this resistance is itself inclusive.

For example, food banks need volunteers and volunteers can demonstrate solidarity with all those facing food poverty. ‘Focus E15 Mothers’, the campaign defending housing rights in Newham has gained national attention by attracting wider participation. People facing prejudice and hate crime can gain from personal support and advocacy. And credit unions and time banks are valuable means of offering mutual aid.

  • Demonstrate elements in an alternative vision through many practical examples

Otto Scharmer, in his development of ‘Theory U’, calls this ‘prototyping’ – not just imagining a better world but trying out various ways of creating this and thus strengthening our capacity to share persuasive new stories. In turn, we can spread innovation by what Margaret Wheatley (in ‘Walk Out, Walk On’) calls ‘scaling across’.

This, of course, is how the ‘An Ordinary Life’ initiative built nation-wide support for closing institutions and enabling people with learning disabilities to return to their communities. Nic Crosby shared with some of us an important current demonstration of this vision in the work of In Control’s ‘Children’s Programme’, which is helping ‘looked after’ children placed ‘out of area’ to return to their families and engaging ‘upstream’ to prevent family break-down. This programme makes use of public policies which permit individuals and families to have personal (health and social care) budgets. Its success (e.g. in Middlesborough) relies on a common sense approach which focuses on the strengths of young people and their communities, emphasises the value of relationships and works with the young people, their families and others in their lives to discover ‘what would it take’ to enable them to succeed.

  • Listen to and seek to build relationships with people who are not yet ‘on our side’

Fellow citizens and people in different roles may, of course, have different perspectives and attitudes. But we can’t build a new society just with those who agree with us. We need to take a ‘mindfulness’ approach to understanding others (‘listening with quiet mind and open heart’) and in so doing, perhaps discover ways of creating common ground.

Noelle Blackman told us a positive story of how her therapeutic organisation, at risk of needing to rent new premises, had sought a dialogue with their commercial landlords and reached a new agreement based in mutual respect. Sue Carmichael talked to some people about the relationship building she has been doing to interest librarians in welcoming a new audience not usually seen in libraries (people with learning disabilities) to Books Beyond Words book clubs.

  • Build alliances with other groups and organisations to advance a wider agenda

This is an extension to Principal 7. As we have noted earlier, communities (and municipalities) face inter-connected challenges, for example in relation to delivering environmental protection, economic sustainability and social justice. Yet even in the field of disability, there has been a history of associations based on different impairments working separately for their particular interests. And not engaging with other associations concerned for example with responding to climate change or protecting employment rights. Yet by recognising inter-connections in these challenges and mapping local assets (thinking for example about the interests and contributions of local government, the NHS, universities, trade unions, churches and the wide variety of civil society associations) we may find ‘win – win’ strategies and strengthen our capacity for effective action.

There are many potential examples. Energy costs are a big factor in household poverty. Waste of energy is significant in the slow progress being made to address global warming. A big programme to promote local energy production and insulate houses would address both challenges and promote employment. To take another example, the NHS and its suppliers are typically the largest local employer. Many disabled people, including people with learning disabilities, have work skills and a reputation for reliability but are disproportionally excluded from the labour market. NHS efforts to boost employment of disabled people (e.g. following the ‘Project Search’ model) simultaneously contribute to stability in the workforce, improving the health and well-being of these people and strengthening a culture of inclusiveness in the NHS itself.


Taking Action 

In the words of Alice Walker ‘We are the people we have been waiting for!’ We can try each day to take some action, often small, to make a positive difference – and link up these efforts to achieve more substantial change. Understanding the reality of people’s lives, imagining a better future, building stronger networks, doing something about it. The box below summarises our eight principles. 

Raising Our Game: Eight Principles

  • Stay grounded in our values while always seeking to imagine better ways of meeting these in contemporary Britain
  • Help each other to stay strong
  • Challenge the indefensible!
  • ‘Be the change you want to see’
  • Get involved wherever possible with fellow citizens taking action for a better future
  • Demonstrate elements in an alternative vision through many practical examples
  •  Listen to and seek to build relationships with people who are not yet ‘on our side’
  •  Build alliances with other groups and organisations to advance a wider agenda























Raising Our Game

As identified in the strap line above, the Centre for Inclusive Futures summarises its mission as developing sustainable communities which include everyone as equal citizens. Writing the first of this new series of wordpress blogs at the start of 2015, it’s hard not to be overwhelmed by the scale of the multiple and interconnected challenges we face in advancing this mission.

The first book I have reviewed this year, Otto Scharmer and Katrin Kaufer’s Leading from the Emerging Future (this review is published at: http://www.centreforwelfarereform.org/library/authors/david-towell/leading-from-the-emerging-future.html ) argues powerfully that three major ‘disconnections’ are fundamental to our current ills: an ecological disconnect in which our economies seek to use more resources than we have; a social disconnect in which a small elite (the 1%) dominate the rest of us and leave much of the world in poverty; and a spiritual disconnect in which many of us experience loss of meaning in our lives and work. The recent events in Paris also highlight the challenges of violent conflict, religious intolerance and racism, hardly new phenomena, but all continuing threats to our shared humanity.

On the other hand, on all these challenges there are both local and global movements of resistance which know that a better world is possible. Just one example, I was privileged last November to visit the ‘plurinational state’ of Bolivia and learn at firsthand about efforts, after 500 years of colonialism, exploitation and discrimination, to build a new democracy which respects cultural differences, encourages local autonomy and seeks to advance the well-being of people and planet through the philosophy of buen vivir – none of which of course is easy in a globalised economy where power mostly lies elsewhere.(The picture below is a representation of ‘Pachamama’ – Mother Earth – by the indigenous painter, Mamani Mamani.)

Under the general heading of Networking for a purpose, the first series of these blogs (in 2013) explored how ‘small groups of thoughtful committed citizens’ (to borrow from Margaret Mead’s famous aphorism) can bring about social change inspired by high ideals. The second series (in 2014 – viewed 570 times, the wordpress statistics tell us) picked up this exploration with a focus on Building a better future through civic partnership, continuing the emphasis on citizen networks as drivers of community development, but considering in more detail how grass roots innovation can be scaled up to the level of local democratic authorities, like the municipality.

This third series reflects on some key propositions about transformational change in the previous blogs and seeks to highlight key issues in Raising our game so as to sustain and grow these efforts in the face of contemporary challenges. Combining careful reflection and purposeful activism, in 2015 we need to turn the tide!

A consistent theme throughout the two previous series is the need for a vision which recognises the links between environmental, economic and social challenges and inspires action oriented to achieving better outcomes, wherever possible through identifying ‘win – win’ strategies i.e. which contribute to progress on two or more of these dimensions.

Later in this new series, we shall try to develop a more detailed ‘balanced scorecard’ for shaping and assessing this progress but we can begin by expressing the direction of travel in terms of the goal of living in harmony with ourselves, each other and our planet.

In this blog, I want to enlarge on the first of these harmonies. Probably we find in Gandhi the most celebrated example of what it means to see life as a learning journey in which we constantly reflect on what it means to live according to our highest ideals (my best self) and test out this thinking in daily practice.

The theologian Jose Laguna, drawing on the parable of the ‘Good Samaritan’, suggests three phases in moving from reflection to commitment: trying to remove our blinkers so as to see the reality around us; feeling compassion for the experience of others; and taking responsibility for acting to make a positive difference.

This attention to mindfulness and compassion so as to enable us to make a valuable contribution in daily practice is also central to the theory of change elaborated by Scharmer and Kaufer. A subtitle of their book on leadership is Applying Theory U To Transforming Business, Society and Self.

‘Theory U’ is an original approach to understanding how as individuals and networks we can achieve personal and societal change. In essence the ‘U’ refers to the shape of a process for unlearning past assumptions and inventing the new. It requires us to go on a journey together where we look inside ourselves to find our best values, our noblest intentions and look outside ourselves to see that something better is possible. We need to create the opportunities together to observe what is currently happening and listen deeply to other people’s experiences, take time to share and make sense of these observations, support each other in considering what might be better and try out some new ideas and visions on which to build. Our Spanish colleague, Ester Ortega, has tried to capture these ideas in a series of sketches, the simplest of which is below.

Thus the ‘U’ process starts at the top of one side of the U and encourages us to put aside past prejudices and approach things with an open mind, open our hearts to other people’s experiences and look to the ‘emerging future’ to find new possibilities. Coming up the other side of the U, the process encourages us to take some action which tries out our fresh thinking and continue the process of learning together as we make bigger changes.

Living in harmony with our highest selves, we can use our gifts to engage widely in seeking to advance the other two harmonies.

Building a better future through civic partnership

Following the first series of these word press blogs, I produced a short pamphlet Networking for Social Change, exploring how through citizen action we can help to create local communities which are sustainable and include everyone as equal citizens. Drawing together key messages from this second series of blogs, I have now published a complementary pamphlet Building A Better Future Through Civic Partnership. Available at

In this sequel, I continue to emphasise the importance of citizen networks as grass roots drivers of community development, but consider in more detail how local innovation can be scaled up to the level of towns and counties, typically the first or second levels of democratic local government.

The new pamphlet examines how citizen groups and local authority leaderships can work together to create the civic partnerships required to deliver local change which meets the triple objectives of protecting the environment, advancing social justice and enabling sustainable economic development. It concludes with a 15 item checklist of questions to guide both ‘sides’ in these partnerships in co-producing strategies for a better future.

In parallel, colleagues at the New Economics Foundation http://www.neweconomics.org have just produced a much more detailed publication Commissioning for outcomes and co-production, described as ‘a practical guide for local authorities on how to put social, environmental and economic value at the heart of their commissioning decisions’ which provides a very useful complement to my new pamphlet. In particular it describes several examples of local efforts to achieve multiple outcomes through particular initiatives. These include the reform of mental health services in Camden, the development of young people’s services in Islington and Lambeth and providing better school meals in Nottinghamshire.

The nef guide is addressed to local authorities but as its title suggests, it puts strong emphasis on ‘co-production’ between these authorities, the people and communities they serve and indeed the providers of these services.

Enlarging key themes in my pamphlet, it seeks to conceptualise a new approach to commissioning which:
• Distinguishes three phases in the commissioning process: gaining insight into what is required; planning and procuring services; and delivering and evaluating them.
• Emphasises co-production, partnership and learning from experience as important activities throughout this process.
• Makes a focus on outcomes for people and the whole community the key driver of change.

This third element is especially illuminating in our search for ‘win – win’ initiatives which simultaneously serve multiple goals.

In the nef approach, commissioning agencies and partnerships are encouraged to develop an outcomes framework and to invite potential providers to work with people who use their services to co-produce activities which will best deliver these outcomes. This framework needs to reflect the Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012 in attending to environmental, economic and social goals as well as identifying more specific outcomes based on what is important to people in relation to a particular service. Moreover the outcomes need to attend to both the interests of particular service users and benefits to the wider community.

In articulating the social outcomes, nef makes ‘well-being’ a key objective, given more precision, for example by attending to the five ways to well-being: ‘connect, be active, take notice, keep learning and give’. It also draws attention to the importance of looking ‘upstream’ so as to find opportunities for the prevention of problems as well as dealing with their consequences.

All this becomes clearer through the examples. In the London Borough of Camden, the focus was on improving mental health day services. The local authority already had a high level set of sustainable community strategy goals, concerned with sustainable growth, a strong economy, connected and vibrant communities and responsive public services, which had been translated into more concrete priorities. These provided the basis for identifying community level outcomes.

The five ways to well-being, again translated into more concrete priorities relevant to mental health services, provided the basis for identifying service level outcomes including being well-housed, maximising personal income, getting a job, staying healthy and extending friendship networks. Camden commissioners also specified some of the processes (or quality characteristics) they expected would contribute to these outcomes (e.g. information and advice, personal support, educational opportunities etc.) without trying to define the precise shape of future services.

Here then is a framework for potential service providers, working with people using these services to shape and cost proposals for future provision. It is also a framework which other parts of the local authority and other service providers could use to identify ways in which their activities could contribute to greater success across these outcomes.

There is a lot here to inform other efforts to achieve effective civic partnerships.

Strand VI: Seeking cooperative solutions

How can citizen networks and organisations work together with local government  to shape and deliver the local agenda for transformative change?

In every local area there is an elected local authority with responsibility for ‘place shaping’ to promote the well-being of the whole community, as well as other public bodies (e.g. relating to health and emergency services) with more specific mandates. There may also be sectoral bodies (e.g. the Chamber of Commerce) outside public control but representing significant local interests. Likewise there will typically be a much larger number of citizen networks and organisations, often seeking to advance a particular vision (e.g. sustainability initiatives like Transition Town Brixton), represent the interests of particular groups of citizens (e.g. Disabled Persons Organisations like Disability Action in Islington) or indeed bring together people in a neighbourhood to improve local amenities (where I live, it is the Highbury Community Association).

Our focus in this series of blogs has been on both sides of this equation: on how citizen groups and local government leadership can together create the civic partnerships required to build sustainable and inclusive communities.

We have emphasised that this is a complex agency system seeking to engage with multiple challenges and identified five inter-related strands in the strategies required to address these challenges effectively. In this sixth strand we revisit the previous five to produce a design guide for both ‘sides’ in civic partnership development. In the interests of clarity, the check list of key questions is written with a focus on the local authority leadership (LA) on the left-hand side and a civil society organisation (CSO) on the right-hand side. (I have particularly had in mind Disabled People’s Organisations and citizen networks like the red inclusiva of Bucaramanga, discussed in the first series of these blogs.) Clearly reality is considerably more complex and every locality is different: the checklist is intended as a stimulus to critical and creative deliberation both within each side and across local initiatives as alliances and partnerships are developed.

Defining valued outcomes

1.     How well has the LA articulated its responsibility to meet the ‘triple bottom line’ of environmental protection, sustainable economic development and greater social justice?

2.     How well has the LA created processes for wide participation in agreeing and acting on local strategic goals?

3.     Are these clearly expressed as valued outcomes to guide and evaluate a wide range of local actions?

I.    How well has the CSO articulated its goals in terms of valued outcomes (e.g. making a positive difference in people’s lives)?

II.       How well is the CSO exploring how these goals might contribute to progress on wider local priorities (e.g. how greater inclusion could strengthen local resilience)?

III.     How well is the CSO exploring how its interests might be reflected in action on other priorities (e.g. by making inclusion a key dimension of  economic development)?


Engaging whole systems

4.     How well is the LA leadership creating opportunities for relevant stakeholders to come together to make sense of local challenges?

5.     How well is the LA working with its partners to analyse the potential contributions of different departments and agencies to achieving the strategic outcomes?

6.     How well is this joint working reflected in delivering effective action?

IV.    How well is the CSO actively contributing its perspectives and experiences to local sense-making?

V.     How well is the CSO exploring potential connections with other CSOs which might facilitate action on related or complementary objectives?

VI.    How well is the CSO playing its part in local initiatives (e.g. as a vehicle for outreach to interested citizens or as a partner in delivery)?


Co-producing the future

7.     How well is the LA inviting partnership with local communities and civic associations in shaping and delivering action on local priorities?

8.     How well are public services devolving leadership to the neighbourhood level and ensuring delivery staff have the autonomy required for personalized engagement with citizens?

9.     Are there good arrangements to ensure that policy-making properly reflects the interests of future generations?

VII.   How well is the CSO investing in developing the capacity of its members (e.g. through community organizing) to be empowered partners with public agencies?

VIII.  How well is the CSO working to strengthen peer support (e.g. for mutual information, advice and advocacy) among interested citizens?

IX.    How well is the CSO helping its members explore what will be required to secure a better future?


Strengthening resilience

10.  How well is the LA strengthening democratic control over local responses to uncertain conditions?

11.  How well is the LA helping to foster economic self-reliance and responsible stewardship over local resources?

12.  How well is the LA helping to strengthen local communities as places of social cohesion and mutual support?

X.     How well is the CSO supporting its members to play their part in a pluralist local democracy?

XI.    How well is the CSO aligning its interests with sustainable economic development (e.g. through participating in ‘green’ initiatives)?

XII.   How well is the CSO helping to connect people through local social networks which promote everyone’s well-being?


Working inclusively

13.  How well is the LA providing a welcome for diverse participation and attending to the voices of people at risk of marginalisation?

14.  How well is the LA fostering a listening culture which seeks to learn from different perspectives?

15.  How well is the LA making use of social technologies (e.g. World Café) which promote shared understanding and encourage the will to act on significant challenges?

XIII.  How well is the CSO welcoming diverse participation and reaching out to people on the margins?

XIV. How well is the CSO helping its members to listen carefully to different perspectives?

XV.How well is the CSO supporting its members in becoming active participants in many local opportunities for conversations which matter?


Clearly these fifteen pairs of points are framed as questions not answers. Each ‘side’ separately but hopefully also each side together will need to deliberate on these questions and reflect on experience so as to ensure the widest possible mobilization of people and agencies in shaping a better future. Equally these points provide an agenda for capacity building so that both local authorities and civil society organizations are better able to play their parts in effective civic partnerships.

Strand V: Working inclusively

What processes are required to ensure that the diversity in local communities is both valued and mobilised to achieve a better future for all?

In discussing earlier strands in this series, we have explored the importance of working across agency, professional and other boundaries in order to achieve a ‘whole systems’ approach to addressing local challenges (Strand II) and actively engaging local people so as to co-produce a better future (Strand III). Experience, for example in the Transition Towns movement suggests that ‘ensuring that initiatives reflect the greatest range of voices and experiences….is vital to their success’ (Rob Hopkins The Transition Companion Green Books, 2011. My review of this excellent guide is at: http://www.centreforwelfarereform.org/library/authors/david-towell/the-transition-companion.html )

But we know that achieving this wide and meaningful participation through traditional means isn’t easy. There is a classic training film, starring one of Britain’s best comic actors, John Cleese, Meetings, Bloody Meetings which captures in its title what is a common experience of group working. Borrowing from the movie Casablanca, another phrase, the usual suspects is often used to describe who turns up in citizen engagement exercises. What we are exploring in Strand V is how to get beyond these characterisations so as to create processes for working together – both in shaping the agenda and taking action – which genuinely welcome diversity and make a positive space for everyone’s participation.

In facing complex challenges, we need ways of relating to each other which improve shared understanding across this diversity, promote adaptive learning and encourage the will to act. Fortunately there has been a flowering of methods (‘social technologies’) which help with these objectives. Margaret Wheatley identifies the essence of many of these methods in her thoughtful book Turning to one another: simple conversations to restore hope to the future (Berrett-Koehler, 2002).

In our Conversations about sustainable and inclusive communities: Six practices for creative engagement (available at: http://www.centreforwelfarereform.org/library/authors/david-towell/six-practices-for-creative-engagement.html ) John O’Brien and I have tried to illustrate how a variety of these methods might be drawn upon to assist partnership between citizens and their local authority in shaping a more desirable future. This pamphlet describes each of these six practices (I have added another to make it seven) and where to find further information. I summarise here some of the different issues arising in the effort to work inclusively and identify an inclusive practice which is useful in addressing each:

1.    People bring different interests, perspectives and experiences to the table in any exploration of community problems. A lack of mutual understanding can make progress difficult. It is helpful sometimes to make a little time for participants to try to see things through the eyes of others by the simple practice of carefully listening to each other, perhaps using the mindfulness discipline of ‘quiet mind and open heart’.

2.    On a larger scale it is often important to bring a variety of people together to generate a richer shared picture, for example, of what is good about the local neighbourhood and what could be better. The ‘World Café’ offers a structured approach to hosting conversations that matter and drawing out common themes in a style (i.e. like table discussion in a café) which seems quite natural.

3.    Participants may need opportunities to make sense of complex and perhaps disruptive information before they can join in with commitment and imagination. It can be useful therefore to take some time to map these sense-making opportunities and consider how they can be extended and involve more people.

4.    Where lots of things are going on, or being planned (perhaps by different groups or agencies), it may be important to check – and indeed improve – the contribution each is making to achieving locally-agreed strategic outcomes. The practice here requires plotting current activities against agreed outcomes and critically reviewing where there is scope for greater impact.

5.    Similarly, it may be useful to involve a wide range of people in identifying ‘assets’ potentially available in the locality (e.g. in existing local associations and the skills people bring to these, in the businesses which make up the local economy, in the natural environment, etc.) so as to examine whether these assets might have more to offer in advancing the strategic priorities.

6.    Most fundamentally, working inclusively in diverse communities requires that we ask the question ‘Who’s not here’ (or more precisely, whose voice and contribution is not being fully recognised) and how could we better engage them? The relevant practices focus on how we invite people to participate, express hospitality, make adjustments which enhance accessibility, identify what each person has to offer, encourage contributions and show appreciation.

7.    The one we missed in the pamphlet is a continuation of this last point: to sustain ourselves in this challenging work we need to invest in celebrating what we are doing and meeting our common human need to have fun!  Stories from the Transition Towns experience (referenced above) include lots of examples of local initiatives using food, music, art, theatre, story-telling…and carnival to share a positive sense of place and enjoy each other.

A core task of civic leadership involves the judicious selection and use of practices like these so as to ensure the widest possible mobilisation of local people and agencies in making a positive difference.

Strand IV: Strengthening resilience

How can communities and the networks of agencies which serve them enhance their capacity to cope with the multiple uncertainties impacting on local life?

Complementing and cross-cutting the first three strands discussed in this series of blogs is the importance of strengthening local resilience as part of building sustainable and inclusive communities. I am writing this blog as six weeks of more-or-less continuous storms have left large areas of the Thames valley and South West England with serious flooding. How we future-proof our communities seems very topical!

Most simply, the Stockholm Resilience Centre (www.stockholmresilience.org ) defines resilience as ‘the capacity to deal with change and continue to develop’. Or in relation to communities, ‘resilient communities intentionally develop personal and collective capacity to respond to and influence change, to sustain and renew the community, and to develop new trajectories for the community’s future’ (Magis, quoted in Wilding, referenced below).

My own initial understanding of this idea – and the notion that resilience can be designed into and developed in large systems – originated in the work of another group of my colleagues at the Tavistock Institute studying manufacturing organisation. Most famously, they worked with the newly nationalised coal industry after the Second World War to replace the ‘assembly line’ methods of production with an approach based on relatively autonomous small groups of miners managing their own work as teams. Working underground is difficult and dangerous. Rock formations often throw up new challenges. Factory style mechanisation was ill-suited to these uncertainties and damaged the miners’ traditional sense of being in control of their work. Self-organising teams restored this identity and were much more adaptive to these changing conditions.

Resilience is even more important in contemporary communities. The extent of current risks varies in different parts of the world but we all face ‘acute’ challenges, for example, from runaway climate change and associated extreme weather events, global shortages of food and water and rapidly fluctuating energy prices, turbulence in the financial markets, pandemic illnesses and violent conflict. Each of these can produce major ‘shocks’ to our current ways of life. Our capacity to deal with these challenges is weakened by what we might think of as ‘chronic’ problems including the growing inequalities which divide people and communities, the lack of local control over big decisions (e.g. on the economy) made elsewhere (e.g. sometimes in very distant boardrooms), the ways in which we have become dependent on professional and bureaucratic interventions in human concerns we once felt capable of addressing with the help of our family and neighbours, and the distorted understanding of all these issues we derive from the centralised organs of mass communication which increasingly define unreality as ‘reality’ (as in ‘reality T.V.’).

For all these reasons, strengthening resilience has become central to the discussion of sustainable development as most fully articulated in The Resilience Imperative: Cooperative transitions to a steady-state economy (M. Lewis and P. Conaty, New Society Publishers, 2012) My review of this excellent book is on line at: http://www.centreforwelfarereform.org/library/authors/david-towell/resilience-imperative.html

In thinking about both what constitutes resilience and how it can be strengthened, I have found most helpful Nick Wilding’s Exploring Community Resilience in times of rapid change (Carnegie UK Trust, 2011). He identifies and copiously illustrates four dimensions of community resilience to which I have added a fifth (and first in this list):

1.    Emphasising place-based governance and local democracy. We are in control of how we respond to local challenges.

Localisation is key to achieving a sustainable future. This requires both decentralisation from the national state so that municipalities can develop appropriate responses to local priorities (as discussed in Strand I and II) through civic leadership and devolution within local authorities so as to engage communities in co-producing this better future (as discussed in Strand III).

2.    Reweaving the economy closer to home. We exercise ecologically responsible stewardship over our land, water, food, energy production, construction and employment.

This democratic control needs increasingly to extend to the ways in which we reshape the local economy to increase self-reliance, meet local needs fairly and reclaim where possible local assets for the common good, while protecting the environment. This is the major focus of the Transition Towns initiative.

3.    Fostering an inclusive culture. We celebrate our diversity and are confident in our capacity to tackle problems together.

Local people and social capital (‘the social networks and norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness which arise from them’ as Robert Putnam defines this) are the most important assets in strengthening resilience. These assets are enriched where there are opportunities for people to make sense of local challenges, find cooperative solutions (e.g. credit unions which support people in austere times) and celebrate local life (e.g. from shared music, art and other creative activities to street parties).

4.    Encouraging individual wellbeing and mutual engagement. We are fit in body and mind and involved in our neighbourhoods.

This local culture needs to help people develop their personal resilience, for example through the Five ways to well-being identified by the new economics foundation (nef, 2009); ‘connect, be active, take notice, keep learning and give’. In doing so, it will also underline the importance for all of us of being part of social networks which accept our strengths and fallibilities and offer mutual support.

5.    Making links to other places and communities. We know we can learn from others travelling similar journeys.

Localities are not alone in these efforts and many challenges are similar, inter-connected or indeed require joint action, for example to bring about policy change on a larger scale. A pre-eminent example of such networking, because it now links localities across the globe is the Transition Network (www.transitionnetwork.org ).

In sum, these dimensions of resilience provide civic partnerships with five useful ‘design tests’ for local action: how likely is it that what is being planned will enhance local democracy, increase economic self-reliance, build social capital, improve personal well-being and strengthen links with other communities?

Strand III: Co-producing the future

How can local people become active partners in shaping and delivering the actions which affect them and their communities now and into the future?

In the preceding blog (Strand II), we explored the importance of ‘whole systems’ working as a means to deliver concerted action to achieve locally-valued outcomes. Clearly, local people as citizens, taxpayers, consumers and users of public services need to be part of this whole. This process has come to be described as ‘co-production’.

I trace this concept back to the work of medical practitioners like Julian Tudor Hart (Feasible Socialism SHA 1994) who has long discussed the idea of patients and their general practitioners ‘co-producing health’: each bringing their experience and expertise to the consultation in order to create a health improvement plan, especially in relation to long term conditions which are increasingly the main focus of health services.

Others identify the North American routes to this idea, especially the contribution of Edgar Cahn, the originator of ‘time banking’, who drew attention to the assets which already exist in the capabilities, reciprocity and social networks which make up ‘community’ and the importance of working with and seeking to strengthen these assets in local efforts to improve well-being.

These ideas have been given fresh momentum through the work of nef, the new economics foundation, (notably Co-production: A manifesto for growing the core economy 2008) and are now in good currency. Indeed this week, the British Labour Party leader, Ed Miliband, made co-production central to his radical proposals for the reform of public services.

Nef defines co-production as ‘delivering public services in an equal and reciprocal relationship between professionals, people using services, their families and their neighbours’. As the examples above imply, this partnership may be at the level of the individual (as in the health consultation), involve a particular group (e.g. older people) or be about challenges facing the whole community (e.g. to reduce its carbon foot-print). I would add therefore that the scope of co-production goes beyond public services to embrace the wider community strategies i.e. for sustainable and inclusive development, discussed in Strand I.

Miliband’s overarching purpose is to reduce inequalities, including inequalities of power. In relation to public service reform his chosen strategy is to put more power in the hands of people using services, both individually and collectively. He identifies (the Hugo Young Lecture, 10th February) four main ways of doing this. (Not entirely by coincidence, IPPR also published this week a more detailed agenda Many-to-many: How the relational state will transform public services from which I draw some illustrations of these four methods.)

Ø  Devolution of power to the local level, so that public services can work as inter-connected systems in responding holistically to complex challenges (e.g. to tackle long term unemployment).

Ø  Increasing citizen access to information so, for example, they can better judge the quality of local services (e.g. education).

Ø  Co-production as defined here (e.g. in putting disabled people in control of their own publicly funded support).

Ø  Strengthening horizontal links among citizens so that, for example, individuals get peer network assistqnce (e.g. in the preceding example, disabled people getting information and advice from a local Disabled Persons Organisation).

Of course, there is a lot more to this. Holistic approaches may benefit from new structures (e.g. multi-professional team work) and new processes (e.g. participatory budgeting at the neighbourhood level). Co-production, especially at the individual level may require intensive and personalised engagement between lead professionals and service users (‘relational rather than transactional’ in the language of the IPPR paper). And not just users but also front line staff may need more autonomy, more time, and different attitudes and skills.

At the municipal level, Miliband gives the London Borough of Lambeth (self-described as a ’cooperative council’) as one example of a public authority which is trying to make co-production with local people key to every aspect of its work. For a more developed example, we might look to the experience of the U.S. city of Seattle (well described in J. Diers Neighbor Power: Building community the Seattle way University of Washington, 2004) where over several years all of these things were tried and more – and particular emphasis given to the kind of ‘community organising’ (famously associated with Saul Alinsky) which builds the strength in associations of citizens to be empowered partners.

The question which starts this blog refers to shaping the future and implicitly raises the further question of how future generations can be represented in these partnerships. Strand I provides one answer here: commitment to an outcomes framework which prioritises sustainability and thus invites attention to longer term issues. At the national level, some countries (e.g. Canada and Hungary) have legislated to establish ‘future guardians’ (e.g. in the shape of a futures Ombudsman). Perhaps at the local level this is a job for a commission of young people, including some with young children?