Julian Dobson on “Out of the Ordinary” by David Robinson of Community Links

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Last week I was in a conference room in the heart of London listening to some of our leading thinkers discussing the ‘enabling state’ – the formula, magic or otherwise, that would allow government to harness the power of civic action and let citizens reach their potential without the stifling hand of bureaucracy.

When I got home I found a slim book in the post. Entitled Out of the Ordinary, it’s David Robinson’s reflections on more than 30 years’ work in east London with Community Links. I’ve followed Community Links through some of those years, as I used to live down the road from them in Newham, and David and his colleagues contributed on many occasions to New Start magazine.

The pulse of Community Links is something the thinkers and policymakers need to share if they are to realise this vision of the enabling state. On virtually every page of David Robinson’s book is the word ‘relationship’.

Community Links works with children and young people, with families and those who struggle with poverty and unemployment. When someone encounters a Community Links worker or volunteer, it’s the start of a relationship. The organisation has a policy of ‘no wrong door’ – whatever your entry point, that’s where the process of listening and understanding begins.

Contrast that with users’ frequent experience of public services and large private companies, which is that there is a specialist to deal with each problem – and it’s usually someone else. It can be easy for ‘not my area of expertise’ to turn into ‘not my responsibility’, offering a get-out clause for any tricky and time-consuming situation. Banks may employ hosts of ‘relationship managers’, but very few of them know their customers.

Community Links doesn’t have relationship managers. It has staff and volunteers who get to know the people who come through their doors. As David Robinson puts it: ‘It is not only possible for one human being to make a real and lasting difference to another, it is often, in the most difficult circumstances, the only thing that ever does.’

What does that tell us about the idea of the enabling state, so dear to the advocates of a Big Society? I’d suggest that if we want to achieve that, the best investment will be in relationships – or, more precisely, in the people who can forge relationships.

You can’t achieve that with hosts of public servants sitting in offices running programmes, and neither can you achieve it with huge outsourced contracts to companies that put efficiency before effectiveness.

Relationships happen face to face. Technology can and does help, but trust is built person by person. If people don’t trust the state or its leaders, it may well be because they don’t encounter them at a level likely to lead to any understanding.

So we have to resource the people who build relationships that effectively address complex problems. Many of them are in voluntary organisations like Community Links. Many others are public servants who engage with the public and go the extra mile. Some are councillors and politicians who genuinely represent their constituents. Others may be less obvious – postal workers, pub landlords, sports coaches and shop staff who notice what goes on around them.

A huge amount of highly educated thought goes into devising programmes, fine-tuning processes and setting priorities. It is important to get these right and to take into account the best evidence we can muster. But without investing in people the state may manage, but it will never enable.

What is out of the ordinary about David Robinson’s book is not just that it is unusual, but that its stories and recommendations really do come out of the ordinary – the ordinary lives, interactions, and conversations that over time achieve extraordinary results.

Out of the Ordinary is published by Community Links today, and you can find out more here.

[Reposted with permission from this article by Julian Dobson, author of Living with Rats, founding editor of New Start magazine, Fellow of the RSA, and a voluntary board member at the Centre for Local Economic Strategies. Follow @JulianDobson on Twitter.]

The Spirit of Coalition: Lessons from the Field

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From The Spirit of Coalition, by Bill Berkowitz and Tom Wolff © 2000 American Public Health Association. Dr. Berkowitz has been involved in creating, directing, and writing about community programs for over 35 years. His previous books, Community Impact, Community Dreams, and Local Heroes deal with the skills, ideas, and personal qualities involved in successful community development. Dr. Wolff is an internationally recognized expert in coalition building and community development, who consults to and trains coalition practitioners in diverse settings across the world. He is the author most recently of The Power of Collaborative Solutions.

Challenges to coalition building, and tested strategies to meet them

1. Engaging citizens

  • Learn about citizens groups and associations
  • Develop contacts and relationships with these groups
  • Keep on the lookout for potential new recruits
  • Make personal contacts with prospective citizen members
  • Suggest giving the coalition a try (a small commitment)
  • Provide an incentive (e.g., status, a small stipend, a name on a letterhead)
  • Offer a range of ways people can help

2. Building citizen participation

  • Hold meetings at convenient times and locations
  • Provide time for informal interaction
  • Let people share their goals, expectations, and feelings
  • Make sure citizens have an equal voice
  • Hire agency staff from within the community
  • Allow time for trust to develop

3. Giving up control

  • Solicit and encourage ideas and issues from everyone
  • Listen to and validate those ideas and issues
  • Provide specific procedures and clear ground rules
  • Believe in your own members’ abilities
  • Accept that mistakes may occur
  • Consider that disagreements may be healthy
  • Don’t feel you have to do everything

4. Giving up territory

  • Be aware of past history and past territorial issues
  • Openly acknowledge that territorial concerns may exist
  • Understand current territorial definitions
  • Respect members’ self-interests and their need to hold on to some “territory” of their own
  • Find ways to cooperate that don’t involve territory
  • Be gentle, persistent, and patient around these issues
  • Keep coalition members focused on the greater good

5. Taking meaningful action

  • Discuss and clarify the overall goals of the coalition
  • Create a coalition plan based on those goals
  • In the plan, include clear objectives with actions and timelines
  • Agree upon small, feasible, easily realized actions
  • Give members advance notice of decisions that need to be made (e.g., on coalition agendas)
  • Follow up on decisions made and actions needing to be taken
  • If needed, discuss in a meeting why decision making and action seem to be difficult

6. Exerting your leadership

  • Make sure your leadership represents the full coalition
  • Clarify work expectations together with coalition members
  • Make sure that taking some responsibility is part of the membership expectation
  • Find those members most willing to accept responsibility
  • Delegate responsibility, with agreed-upon limits
  • Follow up on responsibility delegated
  • Offer leadership training for prospective new leaders

7. Balancing your life

  • Find a balance that works for you personally
  • Review that balance from time to time
  • Set aside personal time and personal days for yourself
  • Lead a healthy lifestyle, making time for rest and vacations
  • Find some interests beyond the coalition
  • Find supportive people you can talk to when needed

8. Keeping the flame alive

  • Plan future directions together with coalition members
  • Move at a pace consistent with members needs
  • Groom a new leadership
  • Take on winnable activities, and develop a track record of success
  • Reward members for accomplishments
  • Build in some celebration and fun times for the coalition

9. Keeping the faith

Faith is found in many places. We can’t tell you how or where to find it. It is a personal matter. But we do know that faith in the coalition and in its success is essential – and we hope that you can find a way of maintaining and sustaining it for yourself.

Community Policing – Theory & Practice

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from Community Change: Theories, Practice, and Evidence (pdf). Amie M. Schuck and Dennis P. Rosenbaum. Edited by Karen Fulbright-Anderson and Patricia Auspos. The Aspen Institute.

The community policing era, roughly 1970 to the present, is arguably only the third period in the history of American police reform, following the political era, 1840s–1920s, and the reform era, 1920s–1960s. Emerging from the ashes of the urban riots of the 1960s and from the failure of urban police to develop meaningful and respectful relationships with African-American neighborhoods, community policing was an attempt to recognize and respond to the needs of the community. The debate over the definition of community policing has been contentious at times, and police departments have implemented hundreds of diverse programs under this one label. Nevertheless, there is some agreement in the literature about common elements.

Community policing can be distinguished along four basic dimensions: philosophical, strategic, tactical, and organizational. At the philosophical level, community policing encourages strong citizen input into police decision making, and offers a broader view of the police function that extends beyond crime fighting to solving problems, preventing crime, and generally improving the quality of neighborhood life. Citizen input in the form of advisory boards, community meetings, and surveys is encouraged. Citizens are expected to have some say in the prioritization of neighborhood problems, the deployment of police resources, and the type of policing they will receive.

At the strategic level, community policing often results in a reorientation of street-level operations to increase face-to-face contact between police and citizens, such as more foot patrol, door-to-door contacts, and community meetings. Other operational changes include geographic-based deployment of personnel, which requires individual and group responsibility for smaller geographic areas on a 24-hour basis rather than larger areas for an eight- to ten-hour shift.

One component of this new emphasis on place rather than time is the use of permanent assignments. The potential benefits of this approach are many: Officers and citizens become familiar with one another, begin to develop trust, and establish the basis for a mutually respectful working relationship. Other benefits include officers’ increased knowledge of local problems, troublemakers, and resources. While permanent beat assignments are very popular among citizens, they are problematic for the police. Officers are promoted to new assignments or elect to move elsewhere. As officers become more familiar with the neighborhood, the risk of police corruption increases, although good supervision can be preventative. As a result of these and other problems, permanent assignments are difficult to implement. Ultimately, responsibility for neighborhoods occurs at the command level. At a minimum, to address the problem of officers being unfamiliar with the neighborhoods and the residents they police, many cities are establishing residency requirements. Requiring that officers live within the city boundaries will help, but in larger cities, this will not solve the problem at the level of beat assignment. Officers are likely to live and work in different places.

Community policing at the strategic level also includes an emphasis on preventing crime and solving neighborhood problems. This model encourages police officers to go beyond responding to individual incidents and taking reports to address underlying problems and conditions in the neighborhood. This requires careful problem analysis, good data, and community involvement. Community policing could involve a new relationship between police and youth—one not based on conflict and hostility. For younger children, police can serve as mentors and role models. For adolescents, police can begin to bridge the gap by facilitating an open dialogue about concerns and prejudices.

At the tactical level, where philosophies and strategies are translated into real action, community policing can take on many faces. In addition to creating more opportunities for positive interaction with citizens (which requires the police to get out of their cars), community policing calls for mobilizing citizens, building partnerships with other organizations, and engaging in systematic problem solving. In the more progressive police departments, mobilization and problem solving are intimately linked, and the long-term goal is to establish self-regulating neighborhoods.

Smart community-oriented police organizations do not define their range of partnerships exclusively in terms of total community membership (e.g., Neighborhood Watch) or total law enforcement membership (e.g., FBI-DEA­local police task force). They recognize that linkages must be created with other institutions and agencies (ranging from local churches to other city departments) to leverage resources for local problems. These smart police organizations recognize something that traditional police agencies do not, namely, that the police alone cannot achieve public safety.

Finally, community policing can be conceptualized as a series of potential changes at the organizational level. Various changes within the police organization are considered necessary to achieve a new style of policing at the neighborhood level. Among these are: (1) changes in organizational structure, decentralizing, flattening, creating teams, and civilianizing, (2) changes in management, a mission statement that reflects new policing values, strategic planning, supervisory coaching and mentoring, and empowering of officers, (3) changes in information management to establish new systems for evaluating personnel, units, and programs, and new systems for crime analysis, mapping, and resource deployment. Whether new information technology will be used to further the goals of community policing or to move policing in another direction remains to be seen.

How effective?

Is community policing effective and beneficial for neighborhoods? The jury is still out, and the evaluation findings to date have been mixed. Some reasonably good evidence suggests that community-policing tactics can reduce fear of crime, improve police-community relations, and stimulate more positive attitudes among police personnel. We have less evidence that community policing can reduce levels of crime and disorder or change the actual behavior of citizens or police. As an exception, one of the more rigorous evaluations has shown positive results in Chicago neighborhoods on many of these outcomes. [ed: for a more recent evaluation, see  Community Policing in Chicago - An Evaluation of Chicago's Alternative Policing Strategy]

Community policing is attractive in theory, but has faced an uphill battle to convince police officers and citizens to accept new roles and responsibilities. Despite these constraints, many determined police executives and community leaders have persisted in their reform efforts and, consequently, have recorded some notable successes. The larger problem lies in the changing landscape of policing and the challenge posed by competing paradigms.

Community policing offers a real solution to this growing problem. Joint police-community problem-solving initiatives—with open, two-way communication and a focus on building comprehensive partnerships that attack the problem from all sides—hold considerable promise. This approach has been effective in addressing other social problems, and there is no compelling reason to believe that it cannot be applied to the problem of public safety.

Related resources:
DOJ Office of Community Oriented Policing
Center for Problem-Oriented Policing

Strengthening the Capacities and Connections of Community Residents

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Highlights from Voices From the Field II: Reflections on Comprehensive Community Change, by Anne C. Kubisch, Patricia Auspos, Prudence Brown, Robert Chaskin, Karen Fulbright-Anderson, and Ralph Hamilton. Washington, D.C.: Aspen Institute.

Community capacity: the interaction of human capital, organizational resources, and social capital existing within a given community that can be leveraged to solve collective problems and improve or maintain the well-being of that community. It may operate through informal social processes and/or organized efforts by individuals, organizations and social networks. (Chaskin, Brown, Venkatesh & Vidal, 2001).


The key features of communities with capacity are a sense of community among residents, a commitment by residents to organize and act to improve the community, an ability to act to solve problems, and access to resources within and beyond the community.

Because residents are the core of a community’s assets, they represent the first level in the ecology of community change. As both agents and beneficiaries of community change, they can play a central role in shaping, implementing, and sustaining the change agenda. In many low-income communities, however, residents lack opportunities and support for those roles. Efforts by recent community-change ventures to increase residents’ capacity involve developing them as leaders, creating social connections, and organizing people to participate in change.

Developing Leaders

Our definition and discussion of leadership development draws heavily from a recent publication on community capacity (Chaskin, Brown,Venkatesh & Vidal, 2001), which describes the following characteristics: [Leadership development] attempts to engage the participation and commitment of current and potential leaders, provide them with opportunities for building skills, connect them to new information and resources, enlarge their perspectives on their community and how it might change, and help them create new relationships.

Methods range from formal training programs, which convey information or develop particular skills, to on-the-job training in which participants become members of boards or planning teams, serve in apprenticeships or co-staffing positions, and receive coaching or other training that prepares them to assume new roles. These approaches can be used to cultivate individual leaders or cadres of individuals who can participate in any stage of the community-change process: developing the overall vision, creating the plan for change, performing activities to implement the plan, tracking progress, and spreading the news about results.


Neighborhood Watch and Citizen Patrols: Evaluation

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from Community Change: Theories, Practice, and Evidence (pdf). Amie M. Schuck and Dennis P. Rosenbaum. Edited by Karen Fulbright-Anderson and Patricia Auspos. The Aspen Institute.

Neighborhood watch/block groups. Neighborhood Watch or Block Watch programs have been the primary form of collective citizen crime prevention over the last twenty-five years. Neighborhood watch-type activities are intended to provide an organizational framework for citizen participation in local crime prevention activities. These programs are based on the belief that neighborhood residents are in the best position to monitor individuals and activities in their communities. Such programs typically involve “citizens coming together in relatively small groups (usually block clubs) to share information about local crime problems, exchange crime prevention tips, and make plans for engaging in surveillance (‘watching’) of the neighborhood and crime-reporting activities.”

Neighborhood watch-type programs across America involve a wide variety of activities. James Garofalo and Maureen McLeod’s national survey, which collected information from 550 neighborhood watch programs, found the most popular activity was a property-marking program called Operation Identification (80.6 percent), followed by home security surveys by local police identifying security weaknesses (67.9 percent). Interestingly, 38 percent of the groups reported participating in more general community-oriented activities, such as insurance premium deduction surveys, quality-of-life measures, and medical emergency measures.

Theoretically, neighborhood watch-type activities address crime through the causal processes of informal social control and opportunity reduction. Through increased social contact and interaction, these programs are intended to reduce crime and fear of crime by increasing residents’ social bonding, support, and cohesion. Additionally, through increased surveillance and monitoring of the neighborhood, these social groups seek to reduce opportunities for crime.

Evaluations of neighborhood watch-type programs have shown mixed empirical support.  The best data on the effectiveness of neighborhood watch-type programs comes from four large-scale evaluations in Chicago, Minneapolis, Seattle, and London. The general pattern of results can be summarized as follows:

  • An increased awareness of and participation in program
  • No change in crime rates
  • No change in resident’s fear of crime
  • No change in resident’s social cohesion
  • No change in other intermediate social processes

Further, mobilizing and maintaining citizen participation is most difficult in neighborhoods where it is most needed. Participation levels remain low in high-crime, low-income, predominantly minority, heterogeneous neighborhoods, even after substantial organizing efforts. Additionally, in neighborhoods defined by high levels of disorder, crime, mutual distrust, transience, and a history of poor police-community relations it seems unrealistic to ask residents to work together as a team, keep an eye out for suspicious persons, and report crime to police.

Citizen patrols. Another community mobilization strategy is the active patrolling of neighborhoods by citizens who are not sworn law enforcement officers. Citizen patrols represent a straightforward attempt by neighborhood residents to increase surveillance and send a message to deviant residents, especially drug dealers, that “we control this area.” Today, citizen patrols address a wide range of problems, function in a variety of neighborhoods, and can be distinguished along several dimensions:

  • Function: protection of individual residents, deterrence of crime and disorder, identification of problem areas, reporting of incidents to the police
  • Surveillance area: buildings, neighborhood streets, public transportation, and college campuses
  • Mode of transportation: foot, bicycle, horse, scooter, or motorized patrol
  • Policies about responding to incidents: reporting versus intervention or arrest
  • Size: local, citywide, national

Evaluations of citizen patrols have produced mixed results. In the only national study, Yin (pdf) and his colleagues concluded that citizen patrols “may be” effective in increasing residents’ perception of safety. However, the study relied primarily on anecdotal evidence. In an evaluation of a well-organized paid citizen foot patrol in Columbus, Ohio, Edward Latessa and Harry Allen reported that the targeted areas experienced a reduction in crime. More recently, citizen patrols appeared to have reduced violence and increased feelings of safety in the Netherlands. In contrast, evaluations of the Guardian Angels in San Diego neighborhoods (and on New York City subways) revealed little impact on levels of crime. Caution must be exercised when interpreting these findings because of limitations in the research designs.

Another important question is how the public and the police view citizen patrols. In general, local citizens have given favorable ratings to citizen patrols, while local police have been less accepting. Although the reservation of police administrators to endorse citizen patrols is due, in part, to turf issues and control of the crime-fighter role, they also voice legitimate concerns about vigilantism, and the more subtle racism possibly generated by citizen patrols. With a long history of vigilantism, the United States has plenty of room for concern that certain subgroups of the community will attempt to enforce norms that are prejudicial to other groups. When citizens organize to stop crime and crime nonetheless continues to get worse, they naturally ask why. The answer may often be ill-informed, leading citizens to stereotype and blame certain groups and individuals for the problem.

Nonetheless, citizen patrols can be a positive force in the community. For those citizens who are invested in the neighborhood and care about maintaining its quality of life, patrols offer a vehicle for deterring crime and establishing social control over contested physical space. Yet local organizers must be ever mindful of the purpose and methods of the patrol. They must also be careful to avoid cooptation by the police or risk becoming indiscriminate defenders of police actions. The problem of racial profiling among police officers applies equally well to citizen patrols.

Is it worthwhile? Despite growing participation in neighborhood watch programs and citizen patrols, scientifically rigorous evaluation has failed to find consistent crime reduction benefits or significant increases in quality-of-life measures. While these programs may provide additional eyes and ears for the police, improve police-community relations, reduce crime and disorder, and strengthen social control and social support mechanisms, evaluators have yet to document such results. The lack of scientific evidence for surveillance-type programs may be attributed to poor evaluations. There have been very few scientifically rigorous evaluations of these types of crime prevention activities. A series of well-controlled experiments might well produce more promising results.

The failure of neighborhood watch programs, however, may reflect a deeper problem with the underlying theory. That is, these programs may be based on false assumptions about the social ecology of high-crime neighborhoods. The cookiecutter approach to neighborhood crime prevention has promoted watch-type organizations widely, even in neighborhoods where they appear to be inappropriate. In heterogeneous neighborhoods where there is high population turnover, for example, asking residents to come together in mutual support and trust to develop a system of surveillance against strangers and suspicious persons makes little sense.

Even in neighborhoods where neighborhood watch programs seem more appropriate, organizers need to address factors that contribute to the maintenance of successful programs. Stated simply, most watch-type programs do not last. They are organized to respond to a public safety crisis, and members generally lose interest when the crisis is over. Successful maintenance of collective community action requires leadership, continuous group structure, resources, a full agenda, and regular rewards for members. For this reason, multi-issued community organizations that address a wide range of neighborhood problems are encouraged over single-issue surveillance programs.