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.]