29 May 2019

Extending the community sector inquiry through a cross-sector learning community?

James Henderson, Research Associate with What Works Scotland (up to December 2018) and now working on the Smart Urban Intermediaries project, reflects on the potential for further shared inquiry work on the community sector role in public service reform and social change. 

He links his thoughts with three blogs generated by the community sector inquiry – from Ian Cooke of the Development Trust Association Scotland, Pauline Hinchion from Scottish Communities Finance, and Aidan Pia, Director of Senscot.

A slow-burning process…

I've had the good fortune to be involved in participatory research with a range of community sector bodies and their member organisations over the last decade – including Development Trust Association Scotland (DTAS), Glasgow and West Scotland Forum of Housing Associations, Scottish Community Alliance, Senscot and Scottish Communities Finance.

In particular, through earlier PhD research and the What Works Scotland programme, I've had the chance to focus on community anchor organisations. See the recent research on community anchors Transforming communities? produced with colleagues Philip Revell (Sustaining Dunbar) and Oliver Escobar (What Works Scotland) and also the broader body of What Works Scotland research on community organisations.

Community-led anchor organisations, such as community development trusts and community-controlled housing associations, provide a local focus on facilitating local economic, social, democratic and sustainable development. Their focus on 'community-led placemaking' makes their development a potential proxy for wider local community sector development too – the complex network of local not-for-profit, democratic community organisations and enterprises of place, interest and interest – see the What Works Scotland community sector inquiry.

Likewise, dialogue on the community sector can act as a focus for stimulating dialogue as to the sort of society 'we' want to live in and the sorts of state and social infrastructure that can help create change; see, for instance, how Pearce (2003) and Danson and Whittam (2010) imagine networks of locally-led development organisations across working across wider localities.

Time for a step-change in our approaches to the community sector?

The 'slow but steady' progress of research on community anchors in Scotland over the last decade reflects the pace of change in policy and practice on-the ground; in this sense action research processes usefully make visible the day-to-day realities of creating change.

Those contributing to the community sector inquiry webpage similarly reflect this. Ian Cooke (DTAS), Pauline Hinchion (Scottish Community Finance) and Aidan Pia (Senscot) recognise current policy opportunities –  Scotland's Strategy for Social EnterpriseStrengthening Community Programme; Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015; and Partnerships for Procurement - yet recognise current blocks, too. For instance, Ian and Pauline both call for a step-change in investment in community sector infrastructure to spread and build sustainable community organisations – and support focus on all low-income (working class) communities.

Ongoing dialogue and research 

The community anchor research report argues for 'on-going dialogue and research' through a learning community across key stakeholders: the community sector, wider third sector, public services, policy-makers, researchers and so on.

And it calls for that dialogue to focus on building: 1) relevant community sector infrastructure re. policy, resources and culture change; and, 2) understanding of public service reform as part of wider social change (as per the Christie Commission 2011) e.g. creative local democratic practices, a more equitable society, community resilience for sustainable development.

Further, the report has now supported early conversations across sectors through consultation on the draft, a national launch event, and discussions at other events re. regeneration, empowerment, public health.

In that spirit, we'll be drafting a Discussion Paper that draws from these early conversations and responses to outline current or emerging priorities – perhaps: Strengthening community anchor finances and independence? A community-led democratic change-agent programme to support public service reform? And/or developing locally-led plans concerned for sustainable development and inequalities?

Crucially, whatever the particular foci, it will continue to make the case for a cross-sector learning community concerned for ongoing and diverse dialogue and research as fundamental to recognising the challenges and seeking ways forward.

See the other blogs in the community sector inquiry series

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