Over 18 months the Young People Friendly Neighbourhood programme has been working with 20 local communities to develop sustainable youth provision at a time when many local authority youth services are shrinking by as much as 60%. FPM has been supporting this local capacity building, including through a number of seminars on business planning, community development and organisational development. The July seminar focusing on organisational development interestingly went right back to a full exploration of purpose and vision to help make sure local developments put the function of what they wished to achieve before jumping to plucking an organisational model or form off the shelf.
Below are some of the key points and concepts to arise.
1. Function: focusing on vision
The group of community activists, council elected members, housing and Groundwork staff returned to the central theme of vision (function), demonstrating that this needs reviewing and refreshing in order to guide the partnership effectively to agreement about what organisational form best suits this. Reflections included:
§ All partnerships are in very different places. No one model or form fits all.
§ Organisational change has the tendency to overcomplicate, leading to cumbersome constitutions unfit for purpose that collapse under their own weight. The organisation becomes labour intensive and takes focus away from it being simply a vehicle (not a structure) to achieve the community ends.
§ The objective is to find the vehicle that allows people to come together in the simplest way to face the challenges.
§ This poses a significant challenge for some organisations which may be tempted to retreat from collaboration in order to increase the chances of individual successful tendering. The greater opportunity is to see community based partnerships as something they can and should contribute to through, for example, offering a credible hub and spokes model: local presence, credible infrastructure and national player.
§ Affirming the vision, consolidating the partnership and building membership are a continual process, not a once off event. In Torbay for example this has been supported through a number of community events and in Durham through a young people newsletter.
§ The established involvement of key stakeholders, especially the intended beneficiaries – in this case young people – can inspire creative solutions and momentum to develop quickly once the foundations are sure. In one area, in Delves Lane in Durham, there was a step change during one meeting, setting up a constitutional commission to agree the parameters of the emerging new organisation.
§ Vision and credibility needs to be based on the integrity of the future, not the activity of the past.
§ The first sustainability challenge is sustaining that shared vision.
2. Vision and empowerment
A vision for an autonomous, community led organisation may be in tension with local authority and funders learnt behaviour. “No one taught local authorities to let go. Elected members may be able to give a broad picture and talk of handing over power, but it is the officers who do the do. And it is not in their training to let go. All their training is to take control, run stuff and do things to communities.” (Cliff Mills). Yet empowerment means someone has to let go and there has to be a rebalancing of power, authority and accountability. The additional challenge is that this process needs to happen at a time of significant change, cuts and the withdrawal of local and national state.
3. Vision and timing
This programme is not a two year programme from start to finish, but an initial timeframe to set out the scene, identify the players, develop the vision, build the partnerships and create the conceptual scene about the future possibilities. DfE funding was in order to encourage innovation, try things out and explore options, within the context of community involvement in decision making.
4. Vision shared
At this stage of the programme, a number of the partnerships are revisiting and reviewing the initial vision and reflecting on whether it is fit for purpose, who owns it and who is committed to see its implementation. Some of the risks being identified in the partnerships are summarised below:
§ Silos: organisations are still working to their own agendas on their own terms.
§ Tidal: shared commitment comes and goes and proves hard to establish and built on. There is a need to deepen ownership and strengthen range and commitment of key stakeholders.
§ Convoys: there is almost too much going on and too many diverse opportunities. Communication is about telling others where one’s own ship is heading, unaware that the effect resembles a convoy of ships sailing off in parallel lines and not converging.
§ Short term pragmatism: there is a risk that the vision espoused is based on short term organisational business planning, not longer term agreed community goals and thus will wither as soon as funding for activity ends.
§ Constant gardening: a vision requires care to grow and put down roots and this forms the essential process of building collaborative and cooperative effort for long term sustainable community benefit.