Change: It’s a piece of CAKE

It’s not about standing still and becoming safe. If anybody wants to keep creating, they have to be about change.

Miles Davis

‘Nobody has all the answers but all of us have the answers.’

George the Poet

‘All humans are hard-wired to be creative but learning how to exercise creativity is a competency.’

Natalie Nixon

Over the last six months as the world has locked down and battled with the pandemic, we have heard a lot of talk about the need to “Build Back Better”. I have highlighted elsewhere that “local voluntary WhatsApp and Facebook groups are springing up across our cities and towns. They are linking up with local businesses and community groups so they can provide food and essential items to those in need… The lack of red tape, rules, working directives combined with enthusiasm, motivation and human connection all powered by the internet is making this happen.”

Politicians, business and community leaders have all stated that we can and must build on this outpouring of community spirit. So, the big question becomes, how do we do this?

At Leicestershire cares we have been active in the frontline community response to Covid-19 across our city and county. As we have reflected on our experience, we have identified four key organisational habits – “CAKE” – that have been demonstrated by organisations that have stepped up effectivity during the pandemic.

Creativity. As Covid-19 struck it quickly became apparent that many of the established ways of supporting community groups and isolated people were no longer practical. What was interesting to observe was the way some groups saw this as an opportunity to explore and develop new ways of working, whilst others seemed stuck in wanting to get back to the way things had always been.

I would suggest that many bigger organisations have become over bureaucratic and systematised, and tied into following targets and KPI’s and applying agreed procedures. Risk taking is not encouraged and as such there is a tendency to do things the way they have always been done. This often goes hand in hand with top down management structures. In such a set up staff often focus on compliance and not rocking the boat. In addition, there is often relatively few opportunities for the people who are on the receiving end of services to have influence and control over them. As Hilary Cottam in her recent book “Radical Help” suggests, 21stcentury welfare should “start where you are and instead of commanding change or trying to fix you it offers support to grow capability. It includes as many people as possible given that it is our relationships that help us find work, keep healthy and care for one another.” This approach suggests a much more organic, relationship based approach where people become creators rather than just consumers of services and ideas.

A good starting point might well be avoiding “silo” thinking and encouraging a wider mix of people to be involved in deciding local priorities and solutions. The case for deliberative democracy is increasingly being made and  “when our politicians reach outside their sectarian interests and start to engage with people in a meaningful way they discover the public are a huge resource of ideas, expertise, skills and lived experience that can lead to far more effective decision-making. They find that people can hold mixed – sometimes contradictory – views that do not fit neatly into a manifesto but most are willing to reach a compromise.” If we create and resource creative spaces that enable these sorts of dialogues to take place then we are far more likely to come up with creative ideas that are owned across our communities.

An excellent example of this in action is the work being carried out by Barking and Dagenham council over the last few years to change their structures and culture to work with and support the community. Services have been made user friendly and integrated through an initiative called Community Solutions. This meant that when the pandemic hit, they were able to work quickly and effectively with their community networks. The structures developed allowed for creativity and, just as important, for trust to develop amongst the council and community stakeholders.

In her book “The creativity leap” Natalie Nixon, set out how humans are hard wired to be creative. Inquiry, improvisation and intuition are the building blocks that lead to creativity and these are competencies that can be learnt. Her definition of creativity is the ability to toggle between two different capacities — wonder and rigor. Wonder is the ability to be awed and “ask big audacious questions, and rigor is the realm of “discipline, practice, skill, and honing your technique by spending lots of time on tasks.” Creativity requires analytical rigor, according to Nixon, “and analysis requires a capacity for wonder.”

Agility. To be creative, we do need organisations to be agile. All too often local groups organise, come up with ideas only to hit a wall of bureaucratic inertia and red tape. This might vary from safeguarding, to the way budgets can be spent, from use of public spaces to the hours staff are prepared to work. I want to be clear of course we need to ensure staff and users of services are safe and secure and treated with respect, but if we are committed to serving communities then we do need to be agile. We need to encourage and reward entrepreneurial thinking and not be afraid to experiment with new ideas. We should accept some ideas will work and some will fail, what is important is that we are prepared to learn from failure so we can improve.

Sue Goss in the Compass publication “Garden Mind” suggests “Garden mind, changes government from controlling to ‘tending.’ It changes centralised systems to open experimental ways of working. We will create our alternative future through a politics that draws on many sources of resource and power, celebrating diversity, experimenting, testing, sharing learning and building strength through connectedness”.

We need to accept that increasingly we live in a complex world where often there is not one neat linear solution that will solve all our issues. Rather there is often a complex web of interlocking issues that shift and change. The key to working successfully in such a world is the continual checking and adaptation of work. This iterative process requires staff to be focussed on a vision based on shared values. Methodologies, processes and means are fluid and able to adjust as they learn from implementation. We also need to welcome new ideas and encourage new “actors” to contribute rather than just discuss within and defend vested interest. Of course, we can learn from the past and build on existing good practice, but we should be committed to being open and to critically reflecting on our practice, adjusting and adapting as our learning develops.

Local leaders have a big part to play in shaping the culture of their communities and organisations. As Mathew Taylor notes in his 2020 annual RSA lecture “from Germany to Taiwan, from Paris to Barcelona — we are seeing more humble, open, engaging, lighter touch forms of political authority. It is worth noting that women seem particularly willing to act lead differently; think, for example, of New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern or Anne Hidalgo, the Mayor of Paris. Instead of seeing power as something that is simply grasped by winning elections, the best national and local leaders create it by mobilising civil society behind a shared vision, devolving responsibility and enabling citizen initiative.”

Organisations need to be better at quickly capturing progress and feedback and being able to adapt if ideas are not working as planned. The focus of work needs to be on how best we can support and serve our communities, their ever changing needs and circumstances, rather than rigid adherence to set ways of delivering bureaucratic structures. We also know the more decisions are made closer to the point of implementation, the more likely they are to be relevant and successful .The recent “Levelling up our communities report”  sets out a vision for a more local, more human, less bureaucratic, less centralised society in which people are supported and empowered to play an active role in their neighbourhoods”. Could a national network of deliberative processes be put in place for our communities to discuss and add to the ideas that are contained within it?

This agility also requires politicians, business, community, civil servants and local council staff to have an agile mindset. We know that we can all suffer from confirmation bias and can waste a lot of time and effort in “flogging a dead horse” because it fits in with our way of doing things. If we want agile minds we should be encouraged to meet and discuss ideas with people from outside our “normal bubbles”. If as Compass Executive Director Neal Lawson suggest we can cooperate without “silos, egos or logos” in diverse groups we are far more likely to become agile and to be better able to reach consensus.

Kindness. Of course, discussing ideas with people who have different opinions to you can be uncomfortable and lead to conflict which is why kindness is so important. Rather than seeing people who disagree as enemies, who need to be beaten. We need to focus on cooperation and not competition. It can be illuminating when you spend time with people who disagree outside of the “Twittersphere”. You start to realise that most people can disagree without flying into a rage. As experiments with deliberative democracy has shown diverse groups of people are often remarkably capable of discussing complex issues and reaching consensus.

Kindness is also about human interactions and the unescapable fact that humans want to belong. People like dealing with friendly people, who they feel care about them. It is great that we have new technology that work wonders, but most people prefer a cup of tea and a kind word than a desktop drop down selection menu, or a “your call is important to us” answer message, however nice the muzak is.

This lack of the kind human touch is often exacerbated by the anonymous nature of the algorithm driven AI world we find ourselves in. So increasingly workers who are meant to help and support people, are basically working through menus of pre-determined questions. Social workers complain that keeping on top of paperwork is 80 percent of the job. People in need complain about staff, who do not have time to listen or just keep offering the same solutions. It is interesting to note that report after report produced by children and young people who have been through the care system highlight, they feel the system should have “love” in it. Teachers feel they are jumping through Ofsted hoops rather than teaching children. It seems like the management consultants focus on performance indicators has ended up creating rigid anonymous structures – where staff in local authorities across the UK often feel pressurised into meeting nationally imposed targets, often by any means necessary, rather than responding in a kind, creative and agile way to the many complex issues and demands of their communities.

Writer and broadcaster Madeline Bunting contrasts the restrictive, avoid risk, bureaucratic work culture of UK social services with the Danish Model of Pedagogy, “a process of nurturing the development of other human beings… Implicit within this idealistic aim is a profound set of principles about what constitutes human flourishing and well-being. Aspects that are particularly emphasised, and which inform all pedagogic method, are how pedagogues work to cultivate personal creativity and to facilitate in their clients the capacity for strong, easy relationships with others.”

Empathy. Being able to see the world through the eyes of others and to walk a mile in their shoes is a key skill for effective decision making. If people feel you care about and understand them, they are far more likely to listen to you and even accept “tough feedback”. In the age of neo liberalism we have got used to being told we are all basically self seeking individuals. However, as academic and author Roman Krznaric notes “Over the last decade, neuroscientists have identified a 10-section “empathy circuit” in our brains which, if damaged, can curtail our ability to understand what other people are feeling. Evolutionary biologists like Frans de Waal have shown that we are social animals who have naturally evolved to care for each other, just like our primate cousins. And psychologists have revealed that we are primed for empathy by strong attachment relationships in the first two years of life.”

So, empathy, is hard wired into us. If we create structures and public places that enable people to mix, share, discuss not only does it allow us to get in touch with this most human of instincts but it allows understanding and creativity to flourish. We have seen during the lockdown, that community groups have brought a wide range of people together. Many of us have started to realise just how much we rely on poorly paid staff doing essential work. Suddenly, we have started to recognise the woman on the supermarket checkout or caring for the elderly woman next door, the man dropping off a parcel or collecting our bins are people who have hopes dreams and aspirations the same as us. Which is why in recent surveys most of the UK public say post pandemic they want a fairer, greener and just society and economy where nobody is left behind.

Our Prime minister in his virtual Party Conference speech told us “History teaches us that events of this magnitude … they don’t just come and go. They are more often than not the trigger for social and economic change. That’s what we’re doing now, in the teeth of this pandemic. We’re resolving not to go back to 2019 but to do better.” 

Put alongside the growing calls for a Green New Deal, the Build Back Better coalition, the MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements and the increasing number of businesses who are talking about shared vision and purpose, we do seem to have arrived at a critical juncture.

What is interesting about this moment, is that like the post Second World War period there is a growing coalition of thought that cuts across political parties for change. The recent “levelling up communities” report could easily have been written by a Labour or Liberal government.

However, I sense that even now many politicians still find it hard not to cling to a tribal urge that perceives other parties as the enemy who should always be opposed and belittled. At local authority level, many a director or councillor may feel they do not have the time to open dialogue with a diverse plethora of stakeholders who have become active during the pandemic. Which is why, it is imperative that we try and hardwire creativity, agility, kindness and empathy into the way we develop and deliver local services. Some initial steps could include:

  • Government seeking to encourage and reward partnership work between business, community and local government.
  • A national drive to encourage new ideas and thinking about the way we deliver local government services. Let us encourage, reward and celebrate creative and agile thinking.
  • Funding for organisations such as Compass and RSA to coach and mentor local government staff in new ways of working and to capture and share innovation and creativity.
  • Active programmes to connect people from poor and rich areas in common activities.
  • A network of local hub organisation that connects business, community and local government.
  • Experimenting with different forms of deliberative democracy to involve as many people as possible in identifying how best we improve our cities and towns.
  • All political parties becoming serious about involving the community in politics. An end to parachuting MP’s into safe seats and a real attempt to encourage and nurture a diverse wave of local people to become active in local politics.
  • Wherever possible decisions being made as close to the point of implementation as possible.

None of the above is new and anyone who takes an interest in local politics or community development will have read various versions of the above. What does appear to be different is that we have reached a critical tipping point and a consensus that change is needed. If our leaders show courage and embrace creativity, agility, kindness and empathy as a way of guiding us through the next year then we really could build a better, fairer, greener and more just society for all.

Kieran Breen has worked in development in Africa, Latin, Central, North America and the UK. He is currently the CEO of Leicestershire Cares and lectures on youth and global issues at De Montfort University. Twitter @Leicscares

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