From Wigan and Wolverhampton To Zanzibar — Conversations About Communities

“The first job of the day is to check on your neighbour. Knock knock. Do you have enough to eat? I need to loan some shillings to pay back later. Can you look after children for an hour? That way we are all better. We all eat well and we are all OK. Hakuna matata”

Imagine if our organisations focused on closing the gaps rather than just filling spaces?

Imagine if every social sector organisation made it their number one objective to do less?

I’ve had a number of conversations over the past week or so that despite very different cultures all connect around one thing: that communities are usually better placed to solve problems than institutions.

The first started in Wolverhampton with a visit from Kathryn Anthon and colleagues from Wigan Council and Wigan and Leigh Homes.

We were meeting as part of an exchange exploring how both Wigan and Bromford are concentrating on doing less. Pushing communities to the fore in a bid to move away from institutions as the default.

Listening to the conversation I was struck by how both organisations are practising a kind of almost unconscious innovation. Both have adopted a philosophy — believing people can do more when they are not just passive consumers of service. However they are moving forward by learning through doing. There’s a game plan but a lot of unanswered questions. It’s a world away from “Transformation Programmes” and their ilk.

A few days later and 7000 miles away I was over in the Spice Island of Zanzibar.

More exotic for sure — but the conversations were a continuation on the same theme.

“Why don’t your neighbours help?” said our taxi driver when I described what a housing association does.

I explained that what Bromford and Wigan were trying to do was stimulate what still existed , naturally, in many parts of his country.

Here’s a few things I’ve been told about that I hope to see in action over the next few days:

A Village elder who gives out basic health and lifestyle advice to encourage healthier communities
An informal micro loan system developed by villagers to pay for upgrades to housing
A skills based sharing programme to enable people to repair their homes and vehicles

Back in Wolverhampton we talked about the need for “pre early intervention” in health and social care. Of the need for communities themselves to become problem solvers, risk takers and drivers of frugal innovation.

This isn’t to romanticise life in Zanzibar. There are deep social issues that need more professional assistance and help.

However , I’m struck that in the UK we’ve become over professionalised. I glance at my Twitter feed to see it overrun with conference hashtags (all from professionals) and new reports all re-articulating the same problems and recommendations (also written by professionals).

The gaps need closing — not filling.

Wigan use a wonderful phrase. ‘Giving people time and trust’ to explore their capabilities.

If we did that we’d probably have fewer institutions — but infinitely better ones.