I was the moderator for a one-day forum this week held by the newly re-established Institute of Public Administration Australia Queensland division about the important of place in tackling complex social disadvantage.
These are my “headlines” from a day of energetic and wide-ranging conversations:
The thing that turns connected communities into flourishing places is the art, practice and culture of connectedness – between people, between people and systems and between systems.
Connectedness is more than connectivity. It is about the culture and practice of open, instinctive of ideas, knowledge and power in pursuit of common and shared purpose. Connectivity is linking people up. Connectedness is the temper of mind and culture you bring to the connections which determines the goodness you decide to do with those connections.
“Place” is the arena within which public service becomes public work to achieve public purpose.
The persistence of ‘place” reflects either its role as a “container” within which to “collect” the problems people want to tackle or as an “explainer” that helps to understand and solve those problems. But place is never just a container, an arena in which problems and challenges gather. It is where people live and work and engage and forge ties and strengths too. It matters to people.
Place is where questions of power about control, authority and accountability are defined and played out…who gets to define agendas, how those agendas are developed and influenced, the flow of resources and investment and the mix of voices and interest either included or excluded.
Taking a ‘place” lens to social change and disadvantage requires a different role for the “centre” in government and the public sector. The instinct to “command and control” should be replaced by a willingness to “connect and amplify” the work of individual places and collections of places.
“Place” often turns out to be a way to make a complex and confusing world a little more coherent and comprehensible.
There is an ethical dimension to this. Those responsible for the “shower of meteors” raining down on a place – the hundreds of different and disconnected strands of programs, investments and decisions made without any attempt to understand their cumulative or contingent effect – are essentially outsourcing what should be their responsibility for coherence and clarity to the lowest level of the system, ie those in the “place” who then struggle to make sense of it all. This is subsidiarity gone mad and bad.
Too often, place management trials are started and discontinued. Why?
Place should not be seen only as a lens through which to view the task of tackling social disadvantage. As the rise of cities and regions around the world has shown, place and different forms of “localism” are becoming powerful engines of growth, sustainability and inclusion in their own right.
Formal systems should invest in the capability and resilience of informal systems, and their ability to take more responsibility for their own destiny, so that those informal systems don’t break down and seek further help from the formal systems.
There’s a virtuous circle to be sustained here – big formal systems making smaller, informal and dispersed systems stronger so that those smaller, informal systems can do more themselves and therefore make fewer claims on the big (expensive) formal systems.
Place management and place-based collaboration should be built around a steadily improving “science of prevention”, whose skills, capabilities and culture can be learned, spread and practiced with purpose and design. At the moment, we’re more likely to leave all that to chance and just assume that people can facilitate, research and activate the methods and practices of good collaborative, ground-up prevention and change as if by some kind of magic.
Sometimes “place” isn’t the point, or at least isn’t the only point. Much as the opportunity is to grow the practice of place as a powerful platform for policy and performance, the obverse risk is to assume that “place” is the only way to tackle all problems. Place needs to avoid becoming a hammer to which all problems become the proverbial nail. Sometimes, other big structural factors are at play – big forces of economic policy, technology change, social and cultural change and so on.
There is something about the rhythm of place that can sometimes tangle unproductively with the oppressive rhythms of at least some aspects of government and policy making (policy making, program management, delivery schedules, evaluation and impact measurement, political cycles…).
Good place projects need time, trust and experiments, all of which imply the paradox that, sometimes, you need to go slower to make faster progress.
Nothing changes in systemic or structural terms until people and communities notice measurable changes in the flow of resources – money, power, access, control, knowledge, authority. Unless they shift and, as a result, those who need to benefit from their better allocation, then it’s likely the place project is largely embroidery and distraction.
Place asks different questions – searching for assets and capabilities, not giving in to deficit and disadvantage, what do people and communities want and need, rather than what can programs and services offer – and in a different sequence, starting invariably with an anthropological understanding of context, need and actual (as opposed to assumed or imposed) aspiration.
We know what to do, we know why and we have pretty compelling evidence that it works, when it’s done well and sustained. Now the time has come to get on with it. Implementation, implementation, implementation..
There are legitimate arts of the public administration craft – proper “campaigning” for change and good ideas, persistence and courage, political “nous’ (as opposed to political partisanship), investment in long term relationship and trust building, “nothing about us without us”. “have we seen this, done this, tried this before here or somewhere else and what did we learn from that” – that lie dormant or have fallen into some level of disuse. We could change that.
In a similar vein, the place ethic tends to argue that, before you start leading, which is something “you” should do with “us” anyway, it is always better to look, listen and learn as much as you can first. “Look, listen, learn…and then lead” is not a bad mantra for good public policy generally, and certainly for effective place management.
Public servants, and those involved in public work more generally (those working in universities, NGOs, social enterprises, businesses, think tanks and starts ups, individual citizens who engage on different problems or pieces of public challenges) have more authority to ‘get started’ than they know or allow. What is a ‘place movement’ began as more and more place and collaboration projects started popping up – climate change, education and skills, vulnerable children, older people, disability services, improving integration of mental health support – and started to become, in effect, their own authorising environment.
There is a sense often that public workers are waiting for authorisation, when often they can quite legislate and practically forge their own authority by their work and its connection and spread to and with others. The movement could be the authority.
There is something in the temper of the times – growing frustration at various brick walls of inaction or lack of impact, alarming erosion of trust and confidence in some of the institutions and practices of public governance, the brisk and bracing pace of change, the disconcerting impact of digital and data – that suggests the ‘place’ frame might make more and more sense for many of the challenges we’re trying to tackle. It’s been around a long time, but perhaps it’s time has come?
Which means, if we are of a collective and shared mind, there’s a real risk this could work…