Governance by the community

Just had an interesting discussion about this:
Governance procedures (of community organisations) are partly developed to meet the requirements of law (e.g. laws about registered charities and companies limited by guarantee) and partly to be recognised by the bureaucrats who will have to use them and relate to them. They are not developed to be “manageable” by volunteers and community members, or to work to further the aims of the organisations. They might also be said to be controlled by and designed for a particular culture in society (white, middle-class, highly educated, male).

Quite rightly, Voluntary and Community Sector organisations are expected to be governed by a committee of volunteers including some members of the community. But the burden and barriers of the ‘procedures of governance’ can be too big for this.

And this problem is worsening as the pressure for “professionalisation” continues, and as organisations are pressured into merging and operating at a larger (perhaps more strategic) scale.

Why should a community member volunteer to be a trustee of a increasingly regional (not local) professionalised (not solely related to their concerns) organisation? How can such a volunteer trustee be expected to continue in their role, with an ever increasing burden of paper-work, legal-ese and legal responsibilities, and time?

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What’s the world coming to?

I’ve been asked this question today on my doorstep by two Jehovah Witnesses. It was their tag into hinting at the second coming of Jesus and the end of the world: their point being that God is about to intervene in the world, as humanity has reached such a low point. I said, “I think that God intervenes all the time” (though I’m not certain of this and my Christian beliefs at the moment).

The idea of a big final intervention because things have got so bad might seem hopeful if you don’t think there’s anything important about life in this world – if you think that what comes at the end, or even after the end, is more important. But it strikes me as very top-down and dis-empowering, and focussed on the product not the process.

How much more empowering, bottom-up, and process focussed, is regular intervention; while continual involvement (which is perhaps what I really meant) would be the ideal. Even if it’s by someone with more power than the community, just by them being involved all the time lends so much – in terms of valuing the people and the process.

Making mistakes

Community Development is empowering people to make their own decisions and go their own way; they will inevitably make mistakes, and hopefully learn from them. A professional Community Development worker may be able to reflect on these mistakes and think how they could have been avoided. In a different community, some of the mistakes may be the same.

Should the professional stop the mistakes being made (for the second time for the professional, but for the first time for the different community)? At what point does “if you do this, then this will happen, because it happened elsewhere like that, so you’d better do it this way” cease being empowering and become patronising? However, would it be justifiable for the professional to withhold advice?

Ideals for real

How idealistic is all this?

Community Development workers I’ve spoken to all describe the constant tension between the theory of Community Development, and what is actually possible in real life. They often have to convince their own colleagues about the benefits of a Community Development approach which often involves more time and effort; they then have to convince partner organisations, funders, policy makers, and even community members that it’s worth spending longer to, for example, consult properly and build-in sustainability. These and many other pressures mean that the Community Development work does not measure up to the ideals.

But yet they don’t lose heart. And maybe they learn to see the longer and wider perspective: things do get better over the longer term even with some compromises, and the knock-on impacts of Community Development do still bring about positive change despite the actual Community Development work being limited to measurable outcomes and targets, and concrete events, reports or building work.

I still want to know how idealistic Community Development is (and how idealistic I am in this). But I suppose I think ideals can be realised, so I need to learn how to see them being realised through this longer and wider perspective.

Benevolent Dictator?

OK, so the professional Community Development worker is a facilitator, a catalyst to the development of the community. They are always listening to the people to help them work out what they want, and then helping them find the information and resources, and empowering them to develop in their own ways.

Sounds great. But within all those processes (listening/consulting, providing information, putting them in touch with sources of resource, etc.) decisions are made by the professional about what to try first, and which method to use. These decisions are made by the professional and not by the people of the community because the people don’t have the information and don’t even know that there is a decision to be made. And the community understandably is interested in working to develop, not working to learn everything the professional knows and on which the decisions have to be based.

So is the community trusting the professional to be a “benevolent dictator”? How aware is everyone of this, and is it necessary?

Maybe this trust is the key: so maybe the relationship between professional and community is more important and less objective than we think. So “catalyst” is the wrong word for a Community Development professional: a catalyst isn’t affected by the reaction of which it is part. For a trusting relationship, both parts have to be open to be changed.

Hang on, are we really adding “benevolent dictator” to the role of Community Development professional?