28 October 2014

Giving communities their place

Dr Alison Elliot, University of Edinburgh, Christie Commission Member and former Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, presented her thoughts on giving communities their place at the launch of What Works Scotland on the 26th June 2014.


It’s a great privilege to be invited to take part in launching What Works Scotland. In a sense it represents the coming of age of the Christie proposals for transforming public services in Scotland when people are asking for hard data to decide on which approaches work and which don’t. The vision is a demanding one, so one of the things I want to do is to acknowledge that you’ve got a hard road ahead of you.

 Empowering individuals and communities by involving them in the design and delivery of their services isn’t just a modification of existing processes that involve the community more: it really does mean a transformation of relationships between communities, the third and statutory sectors and their representatives in each. It also raises real questions about accountability, about accounting for public funds but also about being accountable to the community for the nature of the services provided.

 But the shift in perspective is necessary. Once the charge is made of paying more attention to the interests of the producer than that of the beneficiary; once the Poverty Truth Commission has embedded in people’s consciousness their slogan that “Nothing about us without us is for us”; once it’s clear that doing things to people rather than with and for them is unacceptable, there’s no going back.

It’s a model that's been in the offing for some time, though. Sixteen years ago the Scottish Council Foundation was thinking about the kind of health policy that would be worthy of the new Scotland. It was starting from a low base. In 1991, Scotland’s Standardised Mortality Rate was 23% higher than the British average, and we spent a lot of time pondering the Scottish Effect in health.

But the work was driven by an image of what Scotland's health could be like: the Possible Scot. The Possible Scot was active, informed and involved within the policy making process, and within their own communities, defining their needs, identifying appropriate ways to meet them, and participating in the process of putting those solutions into effect. The Possible Scot was healthy in a way that went beyond having the right blood pressure or scoring well on other measures of physical health. But that vision of the possible Scot was allied to a vision of health that was not simply about disease. The report took the view that health is not an end in itself but a resource for living. 

Does this thinking also extend to communities? I think it does.Some communities are sad, disempowered places. They have high needs and low local energy and capacity. They are dependent on people external to themselves to address their needs and direct their future. But, just as the possible Scot was capable and confident and enjoying life, so the Christie Commission vision was of communities that are strong enough to participate in their own future. Can we transform our sad places into being like that? Yes, we can. Yesterday, I was given a report of the GK Experience, which turns kids from Ruchaise, Blackhill and Milton into confident leaders. The vision should be driven by what’s possible, not by despairing of the present.

Also, just as the Possible Scot was underpinned by a vision of health that went beyond conventional measures of illness and its remedies, so the Christie Commission vision went beyond tweaking existing service delivery to a place where services contributed to stronger communities – where services were a resource for living rather than just a safety net.

There are inspiring initiatives around. For example:
  • The RSVP Programme of CommunityService Volunteers. RSVP (Retired and Senior Volunteer Programme) is run by volunteers of a certain age for the benefit of older people. As well as providing practical help, relationships are developed and other care needs identified.
  • The Food Train delivers groceries to older people who are isolated and have difficulty in getting to the shops but also checks that the person is eating well, so preventing malnutrition, and giving unobtrusive advice about referral agencies. 
In these examples, service delivery isn’t an end in itself but is a resource for living. So that raises a key question of what the relationship is between service delivery and empowered communities. If you start from the service delivery end, and you want to deliver services that hit the spot, then you need to have communities that are strong enough to be credible partners in the enterprise. For those that are not in this position, you need to build capacity so that they are. You need to empower them.

But that sees empowerment as an instrument of public services, not as a good in its own right, or as something that might develop along the way, as people play their part in designing and delivering services. As we saw, the Christie Commission saw a reformed system of public services as more than a different delivery system. It saw them as part of renewed communities that could contribute to a stronger, healthier, economically viable and more equitable society. If you empower communities just to help in the delivery of services, albeit giving them the chance to design them too, you are merely tweaking the present system, not reforming it. To reform it, you need to start with the communities themselves. And the indications are that there are often untapped strengths in even the poorest communities that could turn them around. 

The first step in empowering a community is to listen to the people in it. You may be surprised by what you hear. When I was on post-Christie committees, I kept emphasising this, because it was almost always omitted in accounts of how to engage with communities. But it’s crucial. 

 The Church of Scotland is conducting an impressive empowerment or regeneration project just now, called A Chance to Thrive. They've identified eight congregations in poor parts of the country – Raploch, Lochee, Castlemilk and so on. The project is going to last five years and the final stage of the project will be addressing the question of how to make the buildings fit for purpose. But first you need to know the purpose that the community identifies. Even before that, the groups spend the first year listening to each other, building confidence, sharing ideas and giving space for leaders to emerge. It's time well spent. 

And unexpected things happen. The leaders for the projects turn out not to be the usual suspects but others who had never anticipated having a leading role. And relationships with the authorities change. In the church context, the authorities are the General Trustees, who own and run the church property and who have initiated this project. Previously, they would conduct a regular visitation to the congregation to check up on the state of the buildings. Now, the congregation is ringing them up, asking for meetings with them to discuss their latest idea and find out what the Trustees are going to do about it. Relationships of authority have changed.

If services are going to be a resource to help communities to develop and implement their ambitions for the place where they live you need to know which community you're talking about. And one area where you can see clearly what the ambitions of the community are is where the community has bought out the land and is running the estate themselves.

There are now enough community owned estates in the Western Isles to see how this model is faring. A study in 2011 looked at whether ownership resulted in resilient communities. It concluded that, while communities differed in their initial capacity, all could learn to run the estate in a credible way and that all communities showed considerable resilience. In the last few months, there has been a study of a dozen community-owned estates that have been in existence for over five years, and comparisons with the circumstances when they took over ownership show spectacular increases (albeit from a low base) in capital value, turnover, number of jobs, number of houses, population retention and so on.

It's early days to ask what the relationship's going to be with local authorities and so how public services will pan out in these areas. It has been said that some of Scotland's large private estates play the role of local authority and many of them are conscious of the creative relationship they can have. In the East Neuk of Fife, six private estates have got together to collaborate in their social activities and they are now full partners with Fife Council and local community councils in working on a community development plan for the area. In situations where the community owns the estate, one would expect these kinds of collaboration to be more commonplace and so the services provided to the community will fall out of a more systematic understanding of the community and its strengths. In talking about communities, one of the key things to note is that they're all different: that's their glory but also what produces headaches for policy makers and for researchers, who need to generalise and scale up the outcomes.  

This work’s going to require a lot of patience – time to listen to people, time to find the way you can get the best from this particular group of people. But the signs are that there's plenty resilience and creativity locked into our local communities and that, with the right kind of help from the statutory authorities, they could thrive and be healthy places for living. 

Good luck!

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