masthead abstract illustrative image

Reflections on 2013 (2): Building and Maintaining Relationships


Working, children, friends, domesticity and blogging – can we really do it all I ask myself?  Well in keeping with my commitment to try and blog I’m going to give it a go, but it may feel rushed when you read it.  You’ll get my drift though hopefully.  Everyone tells me to just write – doesn’t matter if it’s perfect (we’ll see if they are right!).


After a busy day today doing all the above, I sat down with my 15 year old for some mummy time to watch the first Christmas lecture (he hasn’t seen them before).  Apart from the fact that I was lost after about 20 minutes in the world of amino acids, cells, proteins, DNA etc, (was never any good at science at school), I was struck by whether the lecture might be used as an inspiration for today’s blog (maybe it was just that I couldn’t switch off from work!). 


Allison Woolland described how the 40 trillion cells that make up our body provide us with the basic building blocks of life.  She taught me tonight that a group of cells (3 bases) make up amino acids which are coded using letters (not sure if that was for the kids purposes or for real!!).  Those letters sometimes form the equivalent of a protein chain (sentence) which collectively spells out a specific gene.  But genes are more than just these strings of codons apparently – if they were just the codon strings we would all be the same.  What makes genes interesting is when and how they can be switched on and off (or how they express themselves).  To help scientists understand when and how genes are switched on and off they use something called GFP (Glowing ?? Protein). 


Allison described how those 40 trillion cells need to cooperate, and that it’s the job of science to understand the way in which they cooperate.  Now whilst social science and traditional science are often at odds with each other, I found myself wondering whether there was some similarity in this instance? In our world of social science, how do we better understand the communities we serve to encourage them to cooperate rather than mutate?  Is social science the equivalent of the GFP, where we shine a glowlight on the formation of cells (in our case communities) and look for patterns which teach us something (behavioural insights)? 


Ok so I am having a bit of fun about the GFP similarities, but social science is about looking, listening, feeling and understanding the social world in which we live.  It was political and social science that took me into the world of community engagement, and the passion to build social capital. 


Social capital was summed up eloquently in two words by John Field (2008) as ‘relationships matter’.  In a lecture I gave last year to police studying at London Metropolitian University I described the three building blocks of relationship building between the public sector and communities as:


Time: The frontline need time to learn a new way of listening to communities, and communities need incentivising to spare their precious time to talk to the frontline in any detail


Trust:  the above will lead to greater trust between parties, but to get there the frontline and senior officers need to trust that engagement ‘specialists’ know what they are doing even if it does feel uncomfortable for those required to deliver it


Tenacity: You must keep on going even if it feels slow or if it feels like you aren’t getting what you want.  Think of partnerships you have been in on a personal level – do you trust and share and commit after a couple of dates?  No chance!  You wait.  You see how things pan out, and you see if there is a chance for this connection to grow further into a stronger relationship.  But remember the public and those serving them don’t always start with a mutual attraction so you have to get over that stumbling block first!

This year I have seen the building of excitement that promises ‘a new future’ in almost every piece of work I have been involved in:


  • Numerous NHS compliance assessment processes have revealed teams of staff organised around a new programme of change worth multiple millions of pounds in public money (see for Tuesday Topics and Briefings on consultation in the NHS)
  • Police forces committed to making sure they listen and act differently so that they save more lives and prevent more crimes, (see the for films)
  • Partnerships dedicated to ending gang and youth violence through mobilising communities (see the Home Office Ending Gang and Youth Violence end of year report), and
  • Council’s wanting to review the way they engage the public in the tough social care decisions they’ll need to take in 2014 (if you don’t know it already check out ‘creative council’s’ programme).   


I haven’t met anyone who doesn’t say that community engagement is the answer to better public services.  I have, however, met a quite a few more than I’d like to who think that they know why people behave the way they do and as a result think they have the solution.  They often ‘do’ community consultation or community communication to prove they are right (at best) and at worst they do it just to tick a box.   All those passionate people who genuinely want to make a difference have this to overcome before they start to build a new relationship – they feel the impact of bad consultation being worse than no consultation.  All too often I hear the public ask why they should bother to turn up to an event, or answer a survey, or even report anything in their community?  Nobody cares they say.  If you felt your new date didn’t have any interest and wasn’t bothered about you, would you go on another date?


Even if professionals do know best, we also know that trying to make someone do as you think they ought to, is no small challenge.  Anyone trying to break the cycle of crime, reduce substance misuse, redirect NHS patients away from A & E, or encourage the public to recycle more will vouch for that.   In each of those examples I have witnessed communities and individuals resist what might appear to be good for them purely on the basis that it is someone in ‘authority’ guiding or advising them!  They are suspicious and untrusting of (mostly) well-intentioned public servants.


My hope for 2014 is that the public sector invests in the relationships it needs with communities; that it starts to think about it as its core business.  I hope that we stop thinking about community engagement as something that gets done at certain points in the year, or as an activity that a couple of staff take responsibility for over a short duration of time.   These approaches waste vast amounts of public money, they don’t allow for the give and take in relationships, and neither do they result in better services or increased social capital. 


Let’s spend 2014 thinking about communities as an asset – a relationship that we really want to be successful, and let’s take the time to build trust and tenacity.  We won’t change society overnight so we need public services which are delivered with the community, by the community, for the community, so that maybe when the public servants move on the legacy remains.