Staying afloat while rocking the boat

By Katy Oglethorpe | 25 March 2020

It’s hard to imagine now, but recently – after we began to shake elbows but before the schools closed – 300 people from local government, the NHS and community groups gathered in central London. They were brought together by one thing: community power.

The Stronger Things event marked a year since NLGN published its Community Paradigm paper, which made the case for a shift away from a state or market-driven society and towards one with communities at the core.

The Guildhall’s gothic halls welcomed people with all types of expertise – from managing transformation projects for the NHS, to handling social care at a rural council, to revitalising a local Plymouth street from the ground up. Together, they grappled with all aspects of community power – why it matters; how to cultivate, facilitate and demand it; and how it is already beginning to reshape the services we use and the places we call home.

The context has shifted unimaginably from when we held the event – but the value of community power remains. Indeed, the need to radically reimagine our society’s systems and power structures has been exposed as even more pressing today. Fortunately, we know there are people from all parts of Government and communities who are determined to – in the words of one of our speakers – ‘just crack on and do it’. Here are a few highlights:

Helen Bevan, chief transformation officer, NHS Horizons said: ‘The solution to our most pressing challenges can only be found in our communities.’

Ms Bevan leads change and collaboration in one of the UK’s largest and most complex institutions – the NHS. What she learned is that creating change is almost wholly reliant on a positive and collaborative internal culture. This is backed by emerging evidence from hospitals – where higher-performing institutions have stronger internal connections.

Creating this is due to a few individual influencers, she said. Three per cent of people are ‘spark plugs’ – able to connect with everyone and instigate change. Leaders must try to find and understand these influencers – and ultimately, emulate them.

Leaders must also strike the difficult balance of being ‘boat-rockers who stay on the boat’, she said, challenging fixed habits and practices while being supportive, positive and inclusive.

Dame Julia Unwin, chair of the independent inquiry on the Future of Civil Society, commented: ‘Our greatest and most precious institutions were formed by the energy and agitation of communities.’

For Dame Julia, it is key to remember that the state is dependent on communities, and not the other way around. But the state’s decisions do shape how strong communities are, and it therefore needs to do things differently to allow them to flourish.

The key in this is to ‘listen acutely’, she said. After all, communities are usually the first to be aware of crises – whether it is Windrush, Grenfell or child sexual abuse. The process of listening may be difficult, especially when communities are driven by anger and frustration, but ultimately it is this process that makes institutions – and communities – stronger.

Hannah Sloggett, co-director of Nudge Community Builders, stated: ‘Because this community isn’t shouting, because they’re worrying about paying for food instead, they are not being listened to.’

It was anger and frustration that led Ms Sloggett and a friend to set up Nudge Community Builders. It began as a street party but has since managed to transform Plymouth’s neglected Union Street. Having formerly worked for the council, Ms Sloggett felt a need to break free from the protocol and red tape that could hold back progress. ‘I have sat in meetings where we spent three hours talking about 19 homeless people and got nowhere,’ she said. ‘We could have spent three hours talking to those people instead.’

We couldn’t have held this event without the kind support of partners Power to Change, Futuregov, Agilisys, ENGIE, PPL, Social Finance UK, Future Care Capital, City of London and, of course, The MJ

Katy Oglethorpe is head of communications at NLGN

A powerful light at the end of the tunnel

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