One thing - among many - which has puzzled me about the Brexit debate is the sheer number of people who have focused entirely on trade (transactions): there has been virtually nothing about international co-operation and broader relationships. This has been to such an extent that people are shocked when they hear about things like medical supplies being affected (a moment marked by the closure last week of the London HQ of the European Medicines Agency which is moving to Amsterdam). We have allowed ourselves to lose sight of the complexity of the world in which we live, the web of interdependency which is too big to see fully.
Regardless of how anyone voted in the 2016 referendum, it’s now an unarguable fact that Brexit has blotted out practically everything else in the political landscape. It’s almost a cliché to say that both Whitehall and Westminster have no “bandwidth” for anything else – but we should not forget about the issues which are not being addressed. For our sector, from the smallest community group to the largest international NGO, raising the issues which aren’t being addressed is fundamentally why we’re here.
So, after 8 years of an austerity agenda and with some kind of critical moment ahead of us in March 2019 (i.e. the extent to which our relationship with the EU changes whatever that turns out to be), we find ourselves living in a country in which Government is proclaiming an international narrative about forging ahead, building new trading relationships, our place in the world etc and yet we are, across the political spectrum, barely thinking about what kind of country and what kind of society we want to be. How do we connect to the world and to each other?
The scale of cuts to Local Government budgets has left most people paying more Council Tax (from barely increasing wages) but seeing fewer services from Local Authorities – particularly those services which are invisible to the majority of people but life changing for those who need them. Failure to address social care has been a feature of the UK for decades – all governments have ducked the responsibility for solving this. Likewise, everybody knows housing is a problem but the political system seems incapable of unlocking the barriers to progress. Into all this comes the recent report by the United Nations about poverty in the UK. It stated, with admirably stark simplicity, that poverty is not well understood by Government – and Westminster as a whole is too inward-looking. Brexit and all its ramifications has left us no room to progress any of these issues within our democratic system. While the debates and political games (or pantomimes) rumble on, pressure on communities and local organisations has increased. Particularly, it would seem, in the North and areas of the country which already face long standing challenges. The “social contract” has been rewritten around us and we don't seem to have talked about it.
One place we might have expected to see signs of a discussion is in the recent Civil Society Strategy. It is there, but it felt very undercooked. There is nothing particularly bad in the strategy as such, but once again there are many opportunities missed to engage with the power and potential in local communities. A better strategy would start by recognising that its civil society is one of the foundations of the way our version of civilisation actually operates.
And that, for me, is why this phrase I heard a while ago keeps buzzing around my head: the next big thing is a thousand small things. Politics is going to focus only on Brexit for the coming years, no matter what happens in March. While that plays out, the rest of us have to find new ways of operating and just get on with it. You can call it what you like “happy warrior” or “pirate” or “radical pioneership” – it all comes down to using what power you have to do good and useful things. As community organisations, I think we have to get better at connecting: we can and do show what it could be like if we built organisations not around individual power but collective effort, values and compassion. By connecting those organisations, that becomes even greater, more than the sum of the parts.
The idea of the “anchor organisation” has become popular recently: large employers which are rooted in place and therefore have a sizeable impact on the population. It’s certainly got its place but a focus on large institutions with discrete edges defined by organisation charts risks a kind of groupthink. For bolder and more disruptive change you need the small, agile and eager organisations. The tech sector has long recognised this: Amazon, Google and Facebook have all developed by assimilating the creativity of smaller companies, the startups fuelled by insight and inspiration. The success of these platform organisations – FANGS – (Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google) should teach us something. I’m not arguing that we need to build our own platforms: digital is part of the answer but it can also be a distraction. We need to tread carefully and be practical so I’m glad that there is starting to be some investment in the sector’s digital capability by Big Lottery Fund - so long as it enables us to look to the future, not just make small gains with updated tech. We can’t just speed up our existing systems, we need to be better at connecting and also to be better at showing how connected we already are.
If you’re not in amongst it every day, it is easy to forget how fantastic our local community organisations, charities and social enterprises are. Thousands of people organising to do things, working hard to pull the funds and resources together and do more. We have a thriving ecosystem but one which is continually overlooked by national, regional and local political conversations. Time after time we hear about wanting to work with the sector but very little room for understanding how we organise, how we connect and where investment could help strengthen that. I find it fascinating that people we work with often understand this individually but somehow it gets lost in the “partnership working” spaces, perhaps because they’re too formal. The new NHS Plan, for example, has a great focus on social prescibing which is very welcome but it then focuses entirely on creating new "community connector" roles in the NHS - with nothing about our sector's ability to take part in that relationship and what is needed to make it work. If it simply increases the number of referrals to community groups without resources or collaboration, that's missing the point of how fundamental this approach is meant to be about changing the relationship between health services and communities.
Checking the quality of these kinds of relationships never becomes a critical part of the agenda because our sector is perceived as not powerful by those in the public sector. That’s wrong. There is massive community power – it is just not shiny power and it is not easily controlled by heroic leadership. Too often the conversations we have are based around commissioning and focused on squeezing performance. Let’s instead talk about unleashing potential – the combined potential of a thousand small things. If we’re going to support thriving communities, build a new inclusive economy and make a new shared sense of ourselves as a nation, we need all the potential we can get.
Whatever relationships we end up having with the EU, we also need to get a lot better at the ones we have with our own communities.
One of the things I love about writing blogs is the discussion they start. I always write from the perspective that my thinking is evolving and I'm hoping to help move the conversation along rather than pretend I've got answers. So I love it when people add their own thoughts. Commenting on this one on Twitter my friend Dr Kat Pursall made a point which I think needs to be added to the above - "A lot of us feel a painful and real disconnect between loving what we are a part of - as residents, citizens, community members and proud workers in our sector - and fearing our fate as #EUCitizens." I totally agree and think that's very true - not only for EU citizens who have chosen to make a home in the UK under freedom of movement but also for those UK citizens who regard themselves as both UK and European (and whatever other dimensions of identity you choose to have). Evidence is strong that the referendum result was hugely influenced by a feeling of disconnection - and the polarisation of Brexit as "winners" and "losers", the focus on absolutes, the failure to work towards consensus across parties, nations and communities has only compounded that. Painful indeed.