Tag Archives: community development

In response to the Bevan Foundation’s ‘Goodbye Communities First?’ blog

It’s been strange couple for weeks for those of us working on the Communities First (CF) programme.

The Welsh Government’s Programme for Government (PfG) failed to mention CF at all. The First Minister was repeatedly pressed by Radio Wales on the programme’s future but refused to yield any clue as to what happens at the end of this financial year. The Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Children also failed to suggest CF has a future when setting out his portfolio’s priorities to the Assembly’s Equality, Local Government & Communities Committee.

The cherry on top was Wales Online’s decision to dredge up the 2009 Plas Madoc scandal as part of its reporting of the PfG. Never one to offer balanced reporting of CF it typically failed to report that auditors found precious little of concern in governance inquiries in the scandal’s aftermath.

The Bevan Foundation’s commentary is at least a measured comment at a time when there is a a worrying information ‘vacuum’ about the future of CF. Communities First, which is in its fourteenth year, deserves better.

True, few programmes have received the cross-party consensus and longevity of funding that it has. There have been bumps along the way and the programme was fundamentally misunderstood for many years in its infancy. But we must remember that it has operated in the most disadvantaged communities in Wales.

These are communities that find themselves routinely at the wrong end of tables for chronic health, mortality, employment, educational attainment and numerous other indicators. Given Wales itself tends to fare badly when compared with other home nations and English regions on such proxies for disadvantage, it serves as a sober reminder that these are communities whose disadvantage is so entrenched as to make them among the most deprived in the whole of the UK, and probably further afield.

The Bevan Foundation is right to draw attention to how CF “simply could not swim against the tide of major economic and social forces” such as welfare reform and austerity policies; and who yet knows how CF areas will cope post-Brexit?

However, the truth is that Welsh Government itself has relatively few levers to mitigate the impact of welfare reform and austerity. Stringent cuts to the public sector are not confined to England, and where the Welsh Government does have some devolved scope to mitigate impact, such as discretionary housing payments, these will be increasingly under budgetary pressure in coming years.

CF may be largely impotent against such forces, but we should not devalue or overlook the merit in knowing what the impact of such forces is on communities, neighbourhoods and households. Immersed in communities in the way that CF is means it has ‘intelligence’ in abundance. Better sharing of this intelligence is required however. Since 2009 I have been involved in supporting, training and advising the Communities First workforce. The Communities First Support Service talks increasingly these days of supporting the workforce’s learning. Having such a dispersed programme and workforce across Wales means that it seldom acts with a unified voice on issues. Numerous CF staff will be acutely aware of the complexities caused by, for instance, Universal Credit and housing on the lives of people in or on the cusp of poverty. They will work closely with individuals whose efforts to return to the labour market are undermined by fragile mental health or abusive domestic environments. Or they will see at first-hand how aspects of ethnicity, gender or faith can aggravate poverty. But they rarely share the learning that has happened to inform this understanding.

How these, and a myriad of other factors, combine to affect the lives of disadvantaged individuals is witnessed by Communities First staff, who are potentially as expert as anyone on poverty in Wales. The challenge for WCVA and Welsh Government is to better connect the workforce and so that it can inform policy and practice, both of Communities First and other agencies.

But what underpins this relationship with individuals and communities is trust and the Bevan Foundation is absolutely right to note that it is unlikely that:

“large-scale, government schemes that offer similar services [to Communities First] will have the reach or trust of people in deprived areas”.

But this trust has built-up in Communities First areas over the last decade and more and must not be allowed to dissipate wholesale when the future of the programme is resolved, as it all too often does towards the end of funding rounds as uncertainty creeps into the programme and staff churn happens.

The Communities First workforce is not just a group of workers on a government programme. It is a workforce that is informed about, trusted by and immersed in communities; whose training has been invested in over many years and whose skills have been nurtured; which is underpinned by community development principles; and which, along with Communities First’s cluster configuration, serves to provide an operational and practical apparatus for the connection of other more focused programmes such as Lift or Communities for Work. Moreover, CF provides for an ethical basis for these programmes. The more agencies such as Job Centre Plus move to an outreach approach, the more it needs a programme like CF to mediate its traditional delivery. In this ‘work’ blog about men’s engagement in the Upper Rhymney Valley the Cluster Manager, Sean, talks about how he invites JCP staff to drop by activities with local men in order to be more ‘humanized’. Part and parcel of being disadvantaged is feeling stigmatised and condescended by the very services charged to ‘help’.

Policies that encourage communities to greater ownership of assets, local plans and co-production of services are all well and good but inherent in this is a requirement to re-fashion power relations between stakeholders. Power is seldom given away. So community development as a practice is committed to fairer distributions of local power and a workforce that is trusted to work in the interests of communities will be required to help facilitate and broker new settlements. Former Sustainable Futures Commissioner for Wales, Peter Davies, recently addressed the One Voice Wales conference for Town and Community Councillors. He said:

“We need less of the top down national programmes parachuting into local communities on short term contracts and more support for community led projects that can meet local needs for the long term”

People living in poverty will continue to be vulnerable to pernicious economic and social forces but they are often not having their local needs met either. There should be scope in programmes such as Communities First – or whatever it evolves into or is succeeded by – to help support the third sector and community interests to develop strategies to increase community resilience and not just to work with individuals to improve theirs, as important as this is to them.

It should also be remembered that ‘community-led’ will itself be a contested concept. Local authorities may have a particular interpretation of community-led that differs from independent local trusts or associations. Town and Community Councils may have another. In his address, Davies is right, by quoting Conservative Assembly Member Angela Burns, to draw attention to so-called representative community organisations that actually serve to represent only narrow (self-)interests.

In this respect, governance arrangements must be robust and fit-for-purpose but also allow for the inclusion of new and traditionally under-represented interests.Support for people to enhance their understanding and broaden their skills will be required to ensure that there is plurality in decision-making and that succession planning can provide for continuity. Funders need to be flexible in how they shape and prescribe their funding programmes. At the heart of CF or – gulp, a post-CF programme – must be a commitment to asset based development that recognises that all communities have strengths and assets and should not be defined by their problems or issues.

Among its suggestions for a post-CF approach to tackling poverty, the Bevan Foundation is right to assert that there should be a strong anti-poverty theme in all Welsh Government strategies. Moreover there should be a strong anti-poverty theme to all government – local and central – strategies in Wales and those of government sponsored bodies. If the time has come to end CF, as the Bevan Foundation suggests because it doesn’t address the underlying causes of poverty, there is a danger in pitching programmes and interventions against each other. Peter Davies says the time has come for fewer top down national programmes and I wouldn’t disagree. But there’s an argument that says until the Welsh Assembly has adequate control over (and appetite to use…?) the tax and welfare levers that can mount a robust challenge to poverty at a national scale, then local responses to the impact of poverty will still be required, albeit perhaps fashioned in a different configuration to that which is presently the case. Besides, we certainly need more bottom-up approaches, but if they come at the expense of top-down governmental commitment and vision then change may prove to be only piecemeal and patchwork across Wales. If the powers that be decide that the majority of projects that CF delivers are of, at best, only modest impact, so be it. There is potential to tackle poverty in reconfigured forms of food and energy production, new approaches to caring for our elderly and vulnerable members of society, and in mobilising alternative currencies. If other things work better than CF then I would be among the first to herald them. However, these can be piloted and mobilised locally but aggregating and scaling-up the benefits is not inevitable. It also requires a lot of learning – that L word again – to take place to understand why they are (or might be) successful.The Bevan Foundation suggests transferring the most successful Communities First activities to community ownership; paramount in this is also identifying and sharing why they are successful.

And this is key: ‘might be successful’. It takes bold political vision to try and persist with different approaches and that can be found at a local level but on its own can be a lone voice. It takes bold visions at all levels, including the neighbourhood, and for those visions to mesh and connect to achieve lasting change.

Until we better understand poverty – which in the Welsh context the Bevan Foundation does commendable work to do – our policies, strategies and interventions will continue to make only modest in-roads.

 

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Playwork as Community Development: interview and podcast with Mike Barclay

In our respective day jobs Mike Barclay, from Wrexham’s Play Development team and Ludicology, and I with Communities First, first met in November 2015 when we began liaising over research into the social benefits of playwork in Wrexham.

We finalised the research brief and in so doing I gained a much clearer understanding of playwork (as distinct from play). But more than that it prompted me to consider community development in a different light.

In the research brief Mike referred to community development in a way that caught my eye. Here is a precis of the interview with Mike in which he expands on this idea.

The full interview is available in this podcast:


 

Russell: What do people need to know about you Mike?

Mike: I have three main roles in relation to children’s play and playwork. One I’m a dad, so working in some support, or not, of children’s play on a daily basis. But then I run an organisation called Ludicology with Ben Tawil. And Ludicology means a study of playfulness, so that’s what that organisation is really about and we provide advice, research and training around children’s play and that’s really about supporting anybody that’s working with or on behalf of children to better understand children’s playfulness and therefore how we work with them. But I’m also the Play Sufficiency Lead for Wrexham Council. So I manage Wrexham Council’s Play Development Team, I support and manage a lot of playwork provision and I’ve only ever been a playworker. I’ve managed to make a career out of being a playworker and there’s not a lot of people who can say that because there’s not many playworkers. So playwork is a real passion of mine. I think the playwork profession has a lot of value that isn’t widely recognised.

Russell: What’s brought us to this situation of sitting around the table now, was that with my work hat on in the Communities First programme in Wales and you with your Wrexham Council hat on, we’re working on a piece of work around trying to better capture, better articulate some of the social benefits of playwork. I’m not going to talk about that now. But as part of the brief there was a sentence that made me stop in my tracks as I was reading, and that was that:

“Playwork might best be understood as play centred community development”

Mike: It’s something that I’ve been thinking about for quite a while and I think for a lot of people who are in the UK who have been in playwork for a long time, this is really the way, within playwork, a lot of those people would have thought about it. But I suppose to make sense of it we should start talking about what playwork is about and in terms of what playworkers do, they are first and foremost concerned with supporting children’s right to play. So the outcome of playwork ideally is more playing. A playworker is concerned with the child agenda of playing which is pretty unique really. If you look at most adults who work with children they usually, and this isn’t to diminish their roles at all, come with some form of adult desired outcome. They are working with children towards some future developmental outcome. And playwork isn’t. Playwork is concerned about whether children are able to play as an everyday part of their lives.

“And so primarily, in simple terms, playwork is primarily about enabling and supporting children’s play.”

But then when you think about how do you go about supporting children’s play and think about the realities of children’s play, most people through their own childhoods or through having children, would recognise that children play in all kinds of places. Children don’t just play in these designated times and spaces where playworkers might be: adventure playgrounds or play schemes. Those places are great for playing, but they’re not all of children’s play lives by any means. And actually if we wanted to really support children’s play it would be about making sure that children could easily find time and space for playing wherever they find themselves. In those communities where children rate a very high satisfaction with playing, you find examples of them playing all over the place and that leads you to think it’s more about developing the conditions for playing rather than only about that specific provision. How do we cultivate more favourable conditions so that children can find time and space for playing? And that’s where I think we start to look at this community development role because playworkers, when they’re at their best, are looking at how do you cultivate a culture of playing throughout a whole community.

Certainly some of the best playwork that I’ve seen and I’m really proud to say that I’ve seen it in Wrexham, is those places where playworkers are right in amongst their communities. They might have a designated place, a junk playground which offers certain things, but they’re also right in the middle of their communities, they’re involved in community celebrations, they’re playing hide and seek on estates, they’re cleaning up patches of grass, creating that kind of sense that children’s play is welcome in this community.

“I think in that way, playworkers are doing community development work; they’re trying to develop communities that are supportive of play.”

Russell: You describe it like that and, well, why had that not really occurred to me previously? And I think it’s because maybe it’s that interpretation or conception of play as a certain thing that happens; and defining it in a certain way. It looks like maybe play schemes or council playgrounds and parks, and I think I feel almost a tinge of guilt that I’d overly simplified it. When we first started working together, I picked up quite early on from you – what’s the polite way of saying this? – that you were quite determined to make the distinction between playwork, play and playing. I didn’t want to say the word obsessive! But playwork is a particular thing that is distinct from other things. And that was something I found myself having to coach myself not to annoy you with.

The principles behind doing this podcast is that you see reference to community development quite a lot and you go, well it’s immersed in the community, it’s well intended, it might one day become community development, but it’s not at the moment. And I sense a sort of parallel between how you are describing playwork.

Mike: I’m now very wary of maybe me using community development in the wrong way! But children are driven to relentlessly try and find opportunities for playing. And what we’ve seen over recent decades, I think, is adults almost trying to take ownership of the word play. There always has to be a why children play. So children play because it’s about learning; or children play because it improves physical activity. That’s not why children play. Children play because they are driven to do it and they’re motivated because of the pleasure they gain from doing it. It is that simple. We don’t really treat children often as people. But playworkers do and we say those kinds of people are very playful, that’s what they do and therefore we should support that because they have a right as a person to do that stuff in their communities. And so for playwork, play is about stuff that kids do for whatever reason they do it. But in saying that, we recognise that all kinds of benefits are coming from them doing it. The irony is that when adults try and take ownership of that play and try and make it purposeful to get to the developmental outcome they desire, we see adults getting involved and making play less playful.

Russell: It’s quite powerful I suppose to say children do it for its sheer, intrinsic value and the pleasure they drive from it.

Mike: That’s what the Welsh Government says.

“The definition in the Play Policy says that it’s freely chosen, personally directed and intrinsically motivated. It’s more or less child led. It’s highly variable, it contains all of these kinds of elements of uncertainty and it is done for its own sake.”

And when adults try and support it for some other external goal it isn’t really playing, and children know it. And where they get enough playing they have a better attachment to the places because they can recognise people and instiutions who are supportive of play, and they can recognise communities that are supportive of play. It’s about recognising that children aren’t quite as simple as you might think.

Russell: So playworkers get that

Mike: Hopefully

Russell: And when I say playworkers, in the same way that there’s a particular definition in your mind and the sector’s mind of what is and what isn’t playwork, does that follow the same for what is and isn’t a playworker? The reason I ask that is because in the community development sector there has been for the last few years this drive to professionalise it, and I always use that term advisedly because there is a certain pejorative connotation that that throws up. But to develop, articulate and form that consensus around values and principles and to develop occupational standards. So a community development worker is somebody that does these things, informed by these values and abides by these principles. Is there the same parallel with people who are playworkers?

Mike: Yes, I think so and I think the really important point is like you say there, that I think there has been a danger in the past that it’s seen that playworkers are the ones that work with play, therefore other people don’t. And that’s certainly not the case. And in terms of the things we do with Ludicology and in Wrexham, we’re saying that anybody who works with and on behalf of children and their families would be best placed to do so where they have a good understanding of children’s play and how to work with it. Many of the problems we come across is where we work against children’s innate playfulness. So everybody would be better off understanding children’s play. But I do think playwork has a distinct role in terms of being focused on play as the outcome, not coming at it from other adult prescribed outcomes, and being primarily concerned with cultivating these more favourable conditions and relating to children by supporting their play.

I think there is real value in that profession being appropriately recognised and that’s what playwork has been trying to do. Playwork came out of the junk playgrounds, the concept of which was brought to the UK from Denmark. But it was through that emergence of playwork over probably 60 years that we then worked towards what we call the Playwork Principles which is a kind of ethical framework that guides playwork practice. Only eight principles. But that stuff was only introduced around 2000 onwards. But those values and ideas had been developing for 40 years before that and I think within playwork there is certainly a shared appreciation of what playwork is. I don’t think that playwork’s always been very good at articulating what it is and that’s maybe why it’s not as well-known as it should be.

Russell: People tend to have conversations with each other, within that very, sort of, closed shop. Community development is the same. Communities First as a programme is the same. We talk to each other about things, we learn from each other, we don’t necessarily tell other people or stakeholders and certainly not those people who don’t get it or don’t want it, for whatever reason. I can certainly see a parallel there.

MIke: Yes and I think part of it comes down to going back to play as an outcome. It’s all about how we construct childhood and play in the UK and the fact that play isn’t really currently seen as a legitimate outcome in its own right. Play is not as important as learning or sport or these other things in our society we value more than playing; although the irony is that for children playing is probably the most important one. But if play was really valued, and people really understood what happens when you work in support of play, then I think that position might change.

Russell: So is part of the role of playworker about persuading others – funders, the powers that be, political leaders, community leaders – of its intrinsic value, that it as an outcome is enough in itself? And something else you wrote in that initial brief was about the extent to which playworkers support the development of positive attitudes towards children and that corrected me where you think, ‘Ok, they’re just supervising kids playing’.

Mike: Yes. Advocacy is one of the Playwork Principles and I think it’s advocacy at many levels. As a playworker I hardly do any work with kids now. I still count myself as a playworker but I spend most of my time advocating to strategic decision makers, funders, elected members and parents and other professionals. But we’ve got playworkers out today and they’ll be advocating maybe in a very subtle way to parents and people wandering past. So I think there’s all kinds of little bits of advocacy but really maybe ‘conversations’ is a better word. I think there’s all kinds of conversations to be had about children and their position within communities. And that stuff has to happen on a day by day basis. Also sometimes I think it is taking a stand and I’ve seen playworkers do that, who won’t allow children’s rights to be railroaded. I think there’s a real justice issue around children in communities, particularly around spatial justice and this idea that it’s very easy to overlook children’s rights because they have less power.

“And so often adult decisions and preferences get prioritised, sometimes at the expense of children. And it’s not about saying we should prioritise children’s rights over adults’; it’s about a more equal distribution. So I think often playworkers are mediating between child and adult agendas and giving children more of a voice.”

Russell: In the first place, identifying and drawing attention to those power imbalances or inequalities, doing something to address, maybe even them out a little bit more is I suppose bread and butter to somebody calling themselves a community development worker. The community with whom you are doing that, whether it’s children and young people; whether it’s with communities of interest, based around ethnicity or other characteristics; whether it’s to do with what’s been primarily my background, areas of deprivation and disadvantage, you’re having to redress those power imbalances. And sometimes some of the most deeply rooted ones are not between the haves and the have nots, so to speak, but within the have nots where you’ve got people or some sort of very prominent community role “representing”, in inverted commas, the community. And although that’s important – a traditional representative form of democracy is a staple of our society – you can do it in a participative way and the power imbalances or power struggles that have come about where your traditional councillor has found his or her role a little bit undermined, have been absolutely fascinating to see up close.

Mike: Yes and I think playwork is political and it has certainly been at the centre of many political issues within communities. There was a community recently and they were doing a consultation around the redevelopment of some of the housing; maybe adult priorities are given greater emphasis. But then the playworkers take the children into the consultation and it’s not always an easy situation for adults to be in, but it does start to change those processes and maybe it does enable something that is a little bit more democratic or at least something that’s a bit more just. But as a consequence playwork is always going to be tied to political issues.

Russell: Absolutely. You sometimes hear this within Communities First: “We’ve got to be apolitical, non-political”. The reality is what we’re talking about is the distribution of wealth and resources and power. If that’s not politics then I don’t know what is. That’s been the case for thousands of years.

 Mike: Yes and maybe it’s politics at a local level, with a small p.

Russell: But I think it should be embraced and if we’re talking about trying to create more rounded, more fully engaged citizens, we know there’s a big democratic deficit in a lot of disadvantaged communities. Then surely showing young people or people at whatever formative age that there’s merit in getting involved, in putting their view forward. That can only be a good thing. It comes back to this thing about well why do we have to justify this? There’s clearly an intrinsic value in it; they’re the community leaders of tomorrow, they’re the informed parents of tomorrow.

Mike: And they’re the children of today. That’s a big part of it for me, is about how often do children meet an adult who is pretty much on equal terms with them? I think that playwork spaces are pretty democratic spaces. They should be places where if children go, “Actually we want to pull that down now”, they can pull it down. It’s pretty empowering for kids really. More so now than ever, I think children spend time in environments that are supervised and run by adults and those adults can, I think, overextend their authority.

We were looking at different levels of satisfaction with opportunities for play in communities and a couple of the places where children didn’t just say it was good but the majority of kids in that community said it was great, were the places where they had sustained playwork. I was talking to the kids, and these were in some of what would be seen as more economically deprived areas, and we asked this group of kids, what’s the thing that helps the most? And they were saying, without a doubt the adventure playground. Which perhaps was no surprise but what was really interesting was they then went on to talk more about what the adventure playground did for them when they weren’t at the adventure playground than what happens inside the adventure playground. And they were telling real stories of things that had happened to them. They got chased by a dog, they could go and find the playworker. They forgot their coat and they were cold, they went and found a playworker. There was some scary bloke chasing them, the playworker walked them home and when it got dark they rang mum to say, kid’s on the way. These might seem like really little things but to kids they’re really big things and they build up.

What you get from that is a really trusting relationship, that there are these adults out there who are keeping an eye, who are making the community feel a bit safer, helping them get along with stuff, and as a consequence what you see where you have sustained playwork is this culture of playing.

Russell: Which is why I’m interested in this, it’s about how that can help make, in that instance, slightly more cohesive communities, which might sound big and grand, because it might be what you’re talking about is a little cul de sac of 20 houses, but then a lot of people talk about how they don’t know their neighbours anymore. So we can overlook the significance of that at our peril.

Mike: I think play is just a really important part of the human condition. And when we talk about community development, like you were saying, redistributing power and stuff like that, often the ways in which we do that are through a form of playing or another, whether it’s bringing people together to have a bit of a picnic or a water fight. It isn’t done for some external reward, it’s just something everyone can do. And I think there is something very powerful about adults being around children playing. I think that’s some kind of evolutionary thing where we benefit from seeing kids having a good time.

Russell: I think that’s absolutely right. That’s fascinating. I could probably talk for another couple of hours. Do you want to give another little plug for yourself and Ludicology?

Mike: Yes, so people can visit the website www.ludicology.com where we also do a podcast, so there’s more on there really about playwork and the concept of play sufficiency as an organising principle for communities. If people are interested in this stuff they can find out more there. And in terms of the work in Wrexham they can visit www.wrexham.gov.uk/play and find out more about what we’re doing in and around Wrexham.

And if anybody ever wants to come and visit stuff we’re always open. We have visitors from all over the world coming to Wrexham. It would be nice if we made more of it in Wales and particularly in Wrexham ourselves. But there are still many other places where good playwork happens in the UK. Unfortunately in Wales we have seen a significant reduction in it as a consequence of reductions in public funding.

Russell: Which is an ongoing challenge for a lot of us in this sort of work. Mike, diolch yn fawr, and it would be nice to do this again some time.

Mike: It was a pleasure, thanks for having me on.

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Neighbourhood policing, digital engagement and community development

One of the first media stories to catch my eye as I dragged myself back to work from my post-Christmas cheese and chocolate-induced stupor, was this Telegraph story about increasing use of social media by police officers and forces to engage with the public; the so-called “new version of bobbies on the beat”.

It is easy to be churlish; to think of it as a corner-cutting or tokenistic exercise, or a cheap way of dealing with cutbacks. Working in and with communities for over 15 years, a visible police presence was one of the ‘staple’ demands of communities; up there with “something for kids to do”. I’m less ‘frontline’ now but I imagine it remains the case. This is, however, despite there being little evidence that the traditional British bobby on the beat has ever had any actual impact.

When I worked in Communities First in communities of the Gwent valleys the turnover of neighbourhood bobbies was huge. In 5 years I worked with over twenty. To be perfectly honest the vast majority of them never truly learned enough about their communities; they seldom established productive relationships with partners; and it undermined the credibility of the neighbourhood bobby role. I recall one bobby telling me that she would return after days off to often see a mountain of enquiries and correspondence related to her patch that had been left unattended because her colleagues saw them as only hers to deal with. Another remarked how many of her colleagues were disinterested in the neighbourhood role because it wasn’t as “sexy” as other policing roles and duties.

Another perception held by the community that served to erode the credibility of the neighbourhood role was that of sergeants who oversaw the neighbourhood division doing the job as a final ‘call of duty’ before retirement; a cushy desk-job that wasn’t taken seriously. Again, the turnover in personnel in this role was high and served to alienate communities rather than foster cohesive relationships. From a community development point of view I could see plain as day where the police were going wrong, organisationally and often individually:

  • they didn’t involve people in decision-making
  • they would obscure matters and alienate people through neglecting to de-jargonise terms
  • they would not, or at least only tokenistically, promote the opportunity for communities to define their priorities (though the introduction of PACT meetings went some way to addressing this)
  • didn’t seek out diversity and plurality of views (attending a CF Partnership meeting, though necessary, should have not on its own ticked the box ‘Engagement’, but often did)
  • most importantly, it was not clear whether collective reflection on their practice, values and beliefs was a routine process

Curiously, the most effective neighbourhood bobby I ever worked with was a relatively new recruit having had a background as a manager of a Sainsbury supermarket. With customer service skills honed in that cut-throat sector he recognised the merit in making people feel valued, taking time out for them, explaining decisions and providing feedback. Without necessarily realising it he would probably not learn much new if the National Principles for Public Engagement were placed in front of him.

If Twitter and Facebook allow for engagement that is responsive, personable, in an appropriate level of formality and focused on individual and/or community needs then it is arguably providing for a more effective interface with communities than ‘traditional’ neighbourhood policing can do; or at least the neighbourhood policing I have witnessed.

The days of police surgeries are increasingly numbered in communities; and if they aren’t in some communities, they should be. I remember these being a routine feature in communities: an advertised weekly/fortnightly drop-in in a community setting where the neighbourhood officer and perhaps a PCSO would be available. Certainly informal and locally accessible, they tended however to be poorly attended . Most people with crime and community safety issues don’t want to advertise that they are off to speak with the police. The police knew this and the the community representatives/leaders knew this. Suggest stopping them or finding alternative means of engagement would be resisted; a veritable case of doing what has always been done irrespective of the results or impact. They became a crutch to communities who feared losing something that they had a degree of control over against a backdrop of dissatisfaction with and a lack of control and influence on a service as outlined above.

Interestingly, I recall encountering a CF team in the Gwent valleys about 3 years ago who mentioned how their neighbourhood officers would now drop-in to the CF office of a Monday morning, access a PC and browse local Facebook pages. They gleaned more intelligence about the community and learned more about specific instances of disorder or nuisance this way than in a month or more’s worth of surgeries. They could also build a more informed and accurate picture of events over a weekend from the myriad of different perspectives that were provided by people sharing and interacting on Facebook. Would people confide this with bobbies face-to-face in a surgery setting? The consensus was overwhelmingly not, and the time taken to build a similar picture in ‘traditional’ methods was so much greater.

At that time the bobbies didn’t have their own Facebook page and so there was little engagement. The Devon and Cornwall example in the Telegraph article, and in a Welsh context the reporting of crime – or “crimemongering” – by the popular @EvanstheCrime, highlight the benefits of taking that bold step and not just ‘lurking’ but actively engaging. I’d be curious to know whether the Gwent example eventually did this and how it has affected their relationship with the local community.

Like in so many instances of tentative public sector embrace of social media, they probably encountered some resistance or apprehension on the part of their seniors if they did become more active and participative; the article acknowledges this was certainly the case in Devon and Cornwall:

“force bosses were initially uncertain about whether their officers should use the tool, but are now fully behind the new method of community engagement”

Having spent a lot of focus and time in work of late on welfare reform where there are concerns about the impact of a digital-by-default approach to aspects of benefit claims, rent management and compulsory job search, there is a parallel here with policing. Tackling people’s perception of crime is critical, irrespective of the actual recorded crime; which incidentally was always regarded with suspicion anyway because the their poor trust in policing prompted many people to see the reporting of crime as a pointless exercise. If, say, older people or disabled people could attend a surgery and subsequently feel safer (let alone listened to or feel engaged) then this is important; digital engagement ought not become the default mechanism because there are people who lack the digital literacy and access to technology to engage fully, even partially, via social media. There remains a need for informal, accessible, safe and occasionally discreet face to face engagement and a drop-in at a sheltered housing scheme or a youth club or in partnership with a support group/agency should not be rejected completely.

Speaking of youth clubs, though the article doesn’t touch on this, I’m also interested in the extent to which young people’s engagement with policing is enhanced and improved via a shift to increased digital and social media engagement. Should digital engagement repeat mistakes I used to witness – seek narrow range of views, jargonise,

sweeney-296x370There is a lot of evidence, at least anecdotally within Communities First, that young people are engaging more effectively with the programme and articulating their thoughts, desires, ideas and concerns because engagement is aligning itself with how young people are engaging with each other. I recall the ‘old model’ of engagement did little, in my experience, to narrow the chasm in the relationship between police and (most) young people.

Anyway, I’ll leave the last word to @HonestFrank who tantalises at what The Sweeney in a digitally-engaged age of neighbourhood policing might look like…

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Personal reflections on online learning #1

CF logoI manage the Communities First Support Service at Wales Council for Voluntary Action and it is presently developing a range of online learning resources and courses for the CF workforce. These will complement our ‘traditional’ forms of support to the CF workforce:

  • training
  • action learning
  • bespoke consultancy

WCVA‘s Learning Zone will be hosting these resources and courses. In readiness for the launch of it and the ongoing development of learning materials I have been undertaking the University of Leeds’ Blended Learning Essentials: Getting Started course on The Open University’s Future Learn online platform.

It requires around four hours of learning a week for four weeks and I can complete it at my own pace and in my own time. It’s flexible as well; so if I do only two hours one week I can make it up the following week.

The course encourages you to reflect on the learning and as someone schooled in community development practice this has come naturally to me as I have started the course; the encouragement is always helpful though!

One thing that struck me immediately was the informality and friendliness of the experience. It was very welcoming with a simple film introducing the institution, the platform, the educators and examples of the forthcoming learning content. I was encouraged to introduce myself via a learners’ forum and, without realising the function existed, attracted a follower within minutes. It has a look, feel and lexicon similar to those of social media platforms. On reflection I suppose this allows for a more sociable aspect to the learning. There’s no common room, refectory or (*hiccup*) student bar to where one can share learning experiences, collaborate or socialise with other learners/students; so the forums allow for more peer-interaction and doesn’t make the blended learning experience as lonely as one might fear it will be.

This is interesting from the point of view of the CF workforce. I am of the opinion that there is insufficient interaction between the CF workforce, certainly beyond county and cluster boundaries; and therefore we don’t learn from each other as much as we might. Our Learning Zone will have a forum capacity and perhaps this is something that could be made more prominent. Again, much like social media platforms with a personal avatar and opportunity to describe oneself, the profile function aids this.

imageThe Blended Learning Essentials introduction was not only welcoming but practically helpful as well. This has also highlighted the importance of practical ‘how to’ guides for people; with our Learning Zone, it is not enough for us to expect to ‘build it and they will come’.

For learners unfamiliar with online learning it is not only the course that needs introducing but the platform itself and environmental considerations. With this in mind the Blended Learning Essentials course features a short video (there are lots of visual resources, which as a visual learner I greatly appreciate) that helps make the “learning experience effective and enjoyable” including advice on how to make your environment conducive to learning; how to take notes; how to listen and reflect, and several other key preparatory aspects to learning.

featured image blog 1bWe must not assume that the CF workforce are learning ready. People may not have undertaken learning (of any nature, not just online) for a while. Neither is the CF workforce a traditional office-based workforce. A large proportion of it works remotely, peripatetically, in community venues without ready access to a PC, or only has hand-held devices available to work on. It is feasible that CF workers will be learning in short sharp bursts and our Learning Zone needs to be responsive to this.

So, so far so good.

I have been made to feel welcomed and valued as a learner. I have already begun to think of some changes to make to our learning Zone and have completed my first blog. Now I just need to catch up as I’ve already fallen behind because work gets in the way!

Featured image from nelsoncroom.co.uk

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Community development and community journalism: reflections on the @C4CJ #CJ15 conference

c4cj

I recently had the pleasure of attending the ‘What Next for Community Journalism?’ event held by Cardiff University’s Centre for Community Journalism (Storify of the event here). Since it is a topic with which I am not much familiar I attended with a degree of trepidation and, indeed, found myself surrounded by a number of journalists, both of the ‘traditional’ and community variety (the distinction between which came to be much more blurred by the end of the day), and lots of talk of business models, meta data and coding.

Wales, and Cardiff/Caerdydd, was well-represented with Wrexham.com, Tongwynlais.com, Port Talbot MagNetGrangetown Community Action and my own Llandaff North/Ystum Taf community in the shape of Llandaff North Post among others in attendance.

lnpost

There were several English and Scottish-based hyperlocal news sites in presence and the keynote address came from Dan Gillmoor an esteemed American journalism academic and commentator. It was pleasing to see a Communities First area present in the form of North Merthyr cluster where a Cardiff University hyperlocal journalism project with young people operates. And there was also on show a copy of the Butetown, Grangetown and Riverside Communities First newsletter

The day was fascinating, in fact I was a little punch-drunk by the end of it. There’s a live and fluid regulatory landscape that hyperlocals need to aware of; against a backdrop of profits of as little as £100 a month (and seldom above £500), the financing and staffing of hyperlocal news is fraught; there is research into different business models in Europe and elsewhere in the UK; there was a plea for input to an effort to merely count how many hyperlocals exist in the UK; and there were two terrific examples, from Bristol and Greenwich, of investigative hyperlocal journalism. The former in particular pricked my interest as it is a member co-operative and one case study it highlighted was of an investigation into working conditions in Bristol’s catering sector, a sector in which many of the co-operative’s members had had poor experiences.

The thought occurred to me that sound community development principles underpinned this particular venture: collectivising to challenge power imbalances and effect positive change. That the Bristol Cable does so with a satirical and entertaining style only served to enhance its appeal.

If I have a criticism of the conference it was the extent to which it creates the impression that hyperlocal news only exists in English.

There was only the very briefest, blink-and-you-missed-it of references to Pobl Caerdydd and given that the Papurau Bro culture in Wales is so long-established – and judging by this directory in relatively rude health – this is a shame.

Equally, the American examples of hyperlocals cited in Gilmoor’s address were all English-medium with no suggestion that there are any hyperlocals in Spanish, minority or immigrant languages. There was a lot of reference to hyperlocal journalism’s proximity, tuned-inness and responsiveness to ‘community’ and ‘communities’.

But communities aren’t homogenous, and though I have no doubt that hyperlocals operate largely in English, if, as was stated, the principles of hyperlocal journalism are identical to traditional journalism – thoroughness, accuracy, fairness and independence – but with added transparency, it is only ‘fair’ and ‘accurate’ that the non-English speaking elements within communities, particularly urban ones (which were overwhelmingly those in attendance and/or profiled), are given room on the hyperlocal platform.

If this linguistic issue was one that occurred to me during the conference, another that I brought with me to the event but which was not explored – and is related to the notion of heterogeneous communities – is the extent to which hyperlocal news replicates ‘traditional’ media in its exploitative and pejorative coverage of disadvantaged communities; and the extent to which hyperlocal news offers such communities the opportunity to reclaim their ‘news agenda’ and express and describe the issues that affect them. I wasn’t alone

The term ‘poverty porn’ has entered popular lexicon to refer to television programmes such as Benefits Street and Britain’s Hardest Grafter (a proposed BBC programme which aims to pit low-paid workers against each other to “show their worth”; answers on a postcard if you can spot the public service aspect here…) which exploit and degrade people living in poverty. The programmes dehumanise poor people and serve their struggles with poverty up for and as entertainment; it is a sad but very real dystopia. In Wales, Sky broadcasted A Town Like Merthyr which portrayed it as a benefit-dependent, work-shy town. It was a further dark day for journalism when headlines such as those below suggested men in Merthyr Tydfil/Merthyr Tudful had a lower life expectancy than Haiti or Iraq:

Capture

Screen grab from Fullfact.org

Health professionals, authors of the report and politicians all rubbished the headlines and pointed out that the media had not only misrepresented the statistics, but had misunderstood them (assuming that they had read them at all).

As the Director of Public Health at the Cwm Taf Health Board told Fullfacts.org:

the figure that has been picked up in the press actually refers to the male healthy life expectancy (i.e. the average period for which a man can expect to retain their good health). This is obviously much lower than the total life expectancy.

(emphasis added)

The full Fullfacts.org exposé is well worth a read. I am sure there would be few, if any, delegates at the community journalism conference who would suggest Sky, the Daily Mail or Mirror are bastions of tasteful and ethical journalism, but I cite these only in order to highlight how disadvantaged communities are often written about but are seldom their own authors.

If hyperlocals replicate ‘mainstream’ media in exploiting and misrepresenting disadvantaged communities and writing pejoratively about them, then the fact they are more local is no justification. Should hyperlocals not consider issues affecting disadvantaged communities such as lower levels of literacy, digital and financial exclusion, and poor broadband or mobile infrastructure they will only serve to further entrench information deficits and further exclude people from civil, democratic and community life. If affluent communities with hyperlocals only read hyperlocal news from affluent communities, it will serve to obscure and conceal poverty in neighbouring communities.

It was clear in the conference how much volunteer energy, effort, passion and expense is expended on people’s hyperlocal enterprises and it is a big ask of volunteers to consider outreach and engagement work in disadvantaged communities and with under-represented groups in order to encourage readership and contributions by them. The community development sector should consider it the prime advocate for, brokers with and facilitators of disadvantaged communities’ involvement with hyperlocals; which in turn will benefit from a greater plurality of news and voices. Communities First should identify local community news outlets and develop relationships and practical arrangements with them. It is not a simple gap to plug should they not exist coterminously or contiguously with Communities First and/or disadvantaged communities; and arguably community development workers should not be setting up hyperlocals for disadvantaged communities. All credit to Cardiff University then for establishing community journalism projects in  and crucially with areas of disadvantage in Wales (such as in Grangetown and north Merthyr).

The Bristol Cable’s investigation on behalf of low-paid catering workers was a terrific example of how under-represented or seldom-heard groups can be given a voice by community journalism. But that the conference failed to address the issue of engagement with and by disadvantaged communities in any greater detail was a slight disappointment for me; but this is not to detract from an excellent event overall.

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Reflections on Community Development Cymru’s AGM

23rd June saw Community Development Cymru (CDC) hold its Annual General Meeting at the Culture and Media Centre @Loudon in Butetown, Cardiff/Caerdydd. It also marked the culmination of my first year as a board member of CDC and the first time in a while that the AGM has not been in Newtown/Y Drenewydd where CDC has its main administrative base.

The decision to hold the AGM in Cardiff/Caerdydd was largely a pragmatic one as it would hopefully make it more accessible to a greater number of members. The attendance of membership at an AGM is obviously important for the transparent, effective, healthy and participative governance that should be the aim of all voluntary and charitable organisations. But it was even moreso at this AGM because it provided for an opportune occasion for CDC to provide members with feedback on the membership survey that it has recently undertaken as part of a wider review of membership services and membership involvement in the organisation. I have volunteered from a board perspective to lead on this review and had the pleasure of feeding back to the AGM attendees the survey results, emerging conclusions and begin to broaden the debate about membership.

CDC was keen to ensure that the survey was open to member and non-member community development workers (CDWs) in Wales alike; indeed, and interestingly, more non-members completed the survey than members. This mix was reflected in the AGM attendees too, with non-members and a range of disciplines and sectors in attendance: housing, higher education, Welsh Government, environment, social enterprise, heritage. Given CDC is keen to stress that the Communities First workforce is not the de facto community development workforce in Wales, it was in one respect encouraging to see so few people who work in that programme in that attendance. It is heart-warming to see that community development values and practice are existent beyond the confines of a government-funded programme.

This cocktail of backgrounds and disciplines provided for a stimulating discussion about some of the survey findings, one of which was an apparent lack of desire to be involved in campaigning. CDC Chair, Steve Bennett, had opened the event by drawing on 1970s community development writing that warned of CDWs becoming unwitting apparatus of a state that might seek to entrench and deepen inequality or foster new forms of it. It went unsaid, but the writing’s prescience of what followed in the 1980s was very powerful, creating an almost tangible recognition among the AGM audience that as CDWs we are still grappling with the fall out of that period and its politics and policies. There are parallels between then and now.

There was also a fascinating presentation about Community Philosophy from fellow board member Jan Huyton of Cardiff Metropolitan University which managed to include reference to two of my favourite cultural ‘artefacts’ of working class Wales:

In essence, Community Philosophy is an approach to tackling and discussing life’s ‘big issues’; one which The Dark Philosophers’ Valleys protagonists indulge in with verve and passion. With Steve’s sober reflections, it provided for an interesting juxtaposition: the anti-establishment, dissonant, community development culture of yesteryear that philosophised, collectivised and protested; and a contemporary community development workforce with little apparent appetite to involve itself in campaigning.

Is this a product of the outcome and target culture of a lot of contemporary community development work, whether funded by government or other arms-length forms of funding? Does this funding regime inculcate an obedience and lack of criticality among contemporary CDWs? Should funders me more receptive to activities and discussion – philosophising? – that are not burdened with targets and deliverables? Poverty is after all the result of a massively complex mix of abundant factors that are uniquely distilled by place; is our understanding of it not better understood if we can explore and debate its causes? Communities First is a programme for tackling poverty; should not CDWs be aspiring and working towards its eradication?

On the other hand, perhaps contemporary CDWs are more pragmatic, prepared to comply with government programme requirements in order that ‘something’ can be done with and in communities. How does debate and philosophising assist a family on the cusp of crisis due to unmanageable debt, or support a young person make better life choices? Increased inequality in the UK is pushing families and individuals towards Victorian forms of pauperism with the concomitant hollowing-out of the welfare state providing for increasingly solely charitable forms of support. Communities First, for all the criticisms of it being government-funded and compliant, and target-focused, is at least a commitment from the ‘Welsh bit’ of the state to support for the poor.

There was a feeling on the part of some that the ‘old school’ CDWs resented the changes that Communities First has brought in focus, flexibility to work towards community-identified priorities, and even job title. In contrast a ‘new school’ of CDW is more comfortable with the culture of targets and outcomes and with performance frameworks and methodologies such as Results Based Accountability or Social Return On Investment. Talk of such ‘schools’ leaves me cold, as it runs the risk of polarising CDWs into opposing camps and is divisive. But certainly, someone like myself, who is by no means a fresh-faced, novice CDW, but has nonetheless only ever worked in community development in post-devolution Wales can only try to empathise with the sort of situations that critiques of 1970s community-based action were describing.

It was a fascinating discussion which, sadly but inevitably, had to be curtailed in order to attend to AGM business. But it brought into sharp focus the fact that there is, and needs to be, a plurality of views within community development. That there is a need for campaigning and lobbying within the sector, not just of others by the sector. CDC can be the means of collating these views and I look forward to contributing further to the review of CDC’s membership ‘offer’.

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Community development thinking inspired by Tangled Parrot, Independent Venue Week & Music Venue Trust – a sector fights back

In July 2012 I blogged about how the crowdfunding effort to buy Newport/Casnewydd’s Le Pub live music venue was an opportunity missed to develop an alternative model of ownership based on mutuality and co-operation. In November I attended one of the Mclusky/Jarcrew fundraiser gigs to raise money for soundproofing at Le Pub. With a new fundraising effort needed I recalled not only the blog and earlier campaign, but the more recent one by the Tangled Parrot venue in Carmarthen/Caerfyrddin. Interestingly the group behind this venture, the West Wales Music Collective, set itself up as a Community Interest Company (CIC), a relatively new legal status that is:

“a limited company, with special additional features, created for the use of people who want to conduct a business or other activity for community benefit, and not purely for private advantage”

(Office of the Regulator of CICs)

Thus, a CIC is distinct from a company undertaking a bit of corporate social responsibility or sponsoring some community events or facilities. As such the Tangled Parrot campaign appeared to suggest that there was a realisation in the sector of the need for a model different to a traditional private ownership one.

Hot on the heels of the Le Pub fundraiser came the inaugural Independent Venue Week at the end of January (and another gig to attend in honour of a worthy cause) which is

“a 7 day celebration of small music venues around the UK and a nod to the people that run them, week in, week out…These venues are the backbone of the live music scene in this country”

Indeed they are and they deserve recognition. Hopefully the week will grow year on year and emulate its kindred spirit the annual Record Store Day. However if they are the backbone of the industry and are so crucial to the germination of bands; so crucial culturally-speaking to the folks who pay to watch them; and so crucial as the means for learning the ropes as lighting engineers, sound technicians or promoters, then all the more reason to involve them all in the running and ownership of such venues?

Now, I’ve said little more here than I did in my 2012 blog. But I recently saw the following tweet:

which led me to discover a new Trust set up as a registered charity that seeks to:

“preserve, secure and improve the UK’s network of small to medium scale, mostly independently run, music venues. We have a long term plan to protect that live music network which includes, where necessary, taking into charitable ownership freehold properties so they can be removed from commercial pressures and leased back to passionate music professionals to continue their operation”

(http://www.scribd.com/doc/253772403/Understanding-Small-Music-Venues, emphasis added)

This is not the same as mutuality and co-operation, but is in the same ballpark (as is the CIC behind the Tangled Parrot) promoting values of sustainability and responsibility. The interim report on the research into the experience of UK music venues believes there’s a “national challenge” to the live venue circuit which has left the network of venues in a “perilous and precarious state”. Many in the community development sector talk in similar terms about the erosion of public services, hollowing out of local labour markets and pernicious forces undermining and destabilising assets of all sorts that communities hold dear (see recent threats to Cardiff/Caerdydd‘s library and parks services); indeed, it is entirely likely that many people will include small music venues among such assets. The music venue sector will be one where community development values will resonate strongly. There will be a need to challenge not only uneven power relations, but in some cases the state-sponsored underpinning of these (the research refers to evidence submitted by venues citing “incredibly relaxed planning” as a threat to their survival) and the wilful disregard for community interests and opinions (the research refers to property developers having “little interest in community opposition, even when expressed via a petition with thousands of signatories”).

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