Leadership and Trust from those in authority
A few weeks ago Susan and I were fortunate to be invited to the House of Lords for the launch of a new book, Whose Government Is It, edited by Dr Henry Tam. Dr Tam was a senior advisor to the Blair New Labour government and has written extensively on the value of participation. This was a fitting venue for the launch of such a book. The seat of British democracy witnessing the launch of a new book that aims to connect people into the democratic process, active citizenship and participation – sounds like the perfect combination
In this instance, the book contained chapters written by a number of authors including former home secretary Lord David Blunkett and former policing minister Hazel Blears, both of whom were present at the launch. Having cited a number of his papers, I was aware of the fact that Lord Blunkett is a strong advocate of civic participation and giving people an opportunity to shape their lives. I was not aware that this was the case in relation to Hazel Blears. Hazel filled in the gaps for me in her introductory comments, especially in relation to Participatory Budgeting programmes she is involved in within the area that she now lives.
Once the speakers had introduced their section of the book, there was an opportunity to ask questions. There were some challenges to the comments made by the speakers and a lot of support for ideal of increased civic participation. But I was especially interested in asking Hazel Blears a question. Between 2003 and 2008 Hazel held the portfolio of Minister of State for Crime Reduction, Policing, Community Safety and Counter-Terrorism, and it was in relation to our work with police and councils across the UK that I wanted to ask about.
Throughout the eight years that I have been working with MutualGain I have come across a group of people who I call ‘gatekeepers’. These are people who have an authoritative role in communities and who are either resistant to allowing new ways of listening to communities as they believe they know their communities best. Or, they are worried that in the event the dialogue is a success, then the community will be less likely to speak to them.
These people come in many guises. Some are elected representatives, some are from the voluntary sector and some come from organisations such as councils or the police. Their resistance can take many forms. We have seen some who refuse to engage with us and the commissioning organisation, some who want to have control over the whole engagement process and others who, if things are not done their way, they refuse to engage. All of these are to the detriment of the very community that we are all trying to listen to.
My question to Hazel was this, in the event that we come across ‘gatekeepers’, what would her advice be? As a lecturer on leadership and writer on connected issues, if found her response was very interesting.
Hazel stated that this was a question of leadership and trust. An elected leader, whether of a council or other organisation has a responsibility to lead and should have confidence in their ability the extent that they are willing to consider new ways of engaging those they serve. The trust aspect relates not only to the trust that communities have in them, but also the trust that they have in communities.
As noted scientist Gustav Nossal stated, “Community leadership is the courage, creativity and capacity to inspire participation, development and sustainability for strong communities,” and in researching this I found a web site that identifies the ten qualities of great community leaders. They are shown below
- Self awareness –
- Eagerness and learn to adapt
- Honesty and integrity
- Interpersonal skill
- Forward thinking
It is hard to see how those that I refer to above are able to demonstrate many of the qualities shown above and certainly self awareness, an eagerness to learn and adapt and forward thinking are missing.
Putting an arm around a community and saying ‘you cannot speak to these people, that is my job,’ is both infantile and dismissive of those who live or work in those communities. They all have a right to be listened to, not just those who are regular attenders. Leadership within communities is about giving people opportunity; enabling them and empowering them to improve their area and make their lives better. Failing to take advantage of opportunity does people within those communities a disservice.
The communities that we have worked with across the UK have not been slow in coming forward. Three recent pieces of our work, two in Merseyside and one in Gwent have had strong representation from diverse members of their respective communities and they demonstrated the leadership and confidence that Hazel spoke of.
Yes, there were some cynics at the start of the programme, but they became advocates of new ways of listening by the end. The community leadership was a constant factor in each of these programmes with little or no input from elected representatives or the voluntary sector. While the programmes were deemed to have been a great success, there was a missed opportunity in respect of broadening the learning opportunity and offering different ways of listening to communities to those who borders touch the areas that we worked in.
Indeed, it was the community participants who displayed many of the qualities shown above in terms of community leadership. What does this mean for the future of community participation? At a national level, Henry Tam and Lord Blunkett, amongst others, continue to advocate that community participation can have a positive impact on citizens. Hazel Blears answered my question honestly and with sincerity.
At MutualGain, we will not give up demonstrating the power and passion of community participation, I just hope that those who lead communities, in any guise, do so with an open mind and demonstrate the leadership and trust that Hazel spoke of.
Written by Dr Andrew Fisher