Weeknotes 2021
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Weeknotes 2021

Weeknotes 2021 — week 40

This week I met someone from Star Wars…

It is a period of intense unrest. The Chancellor of the Galactic Empire, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, wielded his axe yet again this week to cut back Universal Credit and the furlough scheme. Apparently necessary steps to teleport us all into a futuristic society where everything works out just fine, thank you very much. But the people are getting restless. They need a new hope.

Across the country, communities are already coming together to take their destinies into their own hands. While not a panacea, it offers an inspiring alternative to the status quo. That status quo rearing its head again this week with the assertion that GDP growth is the only thing that matters. But these communities need more support.

This week we published a new report exploring the role community organisations could play in ‘levelling up’, breaking away from the centralised approach which has defined this agenda to date. The paper explores “how a deficit of social capital — or connections between people — is compounding many of the issues which levelling up is intended to address, from long-running cycles of economic decline to regional inequalities in health and wellbeing and the feelings of dislocation and disempowerment which have upended our politics in recent years”. The proposed solution? Invest in and build up our social as well physical infrastructure. That means community shops, pubs, libraries, post offices and leisure centres. Potentially even cantinas and spaceports. We can only hope.

R,D &D

Back on Tattooine, the most significant development for me over the past fortnight was our Board signing off on our new approach to impact and learning. ‘Intergalactic planetary!’ I hear you say.

This includes a new theory of change, learning framework and suite of KPIs. We’re just awaiting the final design of the theory of change so we can share that publicly, as the diagram we’re using internally was felt to be too complex. ‘The force is too strong in this one’, is probably what Yoda would have said.

Part of the reason for this is that we’re acutely aware of the shortcomings of the theory of change concept, and wanted it to include an appreciation of system dynamics — we’re merely one star in a galaxy after all, and many other organisations are tackling the same issues as us. Our application of Design Council’s systemic design framework facilitated this appreciation, and as a result, I think we’ve ended up with an approach to learning and impact measurement that is very robust.

This was in part facilitated by the discovery stage we undertook at the beginning of the project, surveying the external landscape, as well as extensive user research with key stakeholders. That enabled us to convert user needs into user stories, and thus ensure that the impact and learning system we’ve now developed is going to meet those needs.

What I’ve learnt

Who decides what is valuable? And who decides how it is valued? These were some of the questions raised at the fascinating ‘Reconsidering the dark matter of funding’ event I attended last week.

Dark matter apparently

It saw Tim Hobbs from Dartington Service Design Lab debating the future of impact measurement and evaluation with Cassie Robinson from the National Lottery Community Fund and Indy Johar from Dark Matter Labs. Some of the key points raised were like those I have recently raised around the need to acknowledge the social production of knowledge, and how some people are in a better position than others to assert their validity claims and thus make them true. They also discussed the need to evaluate and research at the level of the system rather than just the service, which is one change we are currently seeking to implement ourselves.

One particularly provocative point (raised and debated at length in the ‘chat’ as well as amongst the panellists) was the notion that intervention is flawed as it perpetuates precarity. That is, even adopting a capabilities approach assumes a willingness to have capacity built by those privileged enough to already have it. So who gets to decide what capabilities are useful and valuable?

I’d argue there’s potentially a pincer of intrinsic and extrinsic pressures. Intrinsically, both individuals and organisations themselves should identify the capabilities that are of most value to them and which they wish to enhance. Extrinsically, their networks and/or the markets in which they operate will also ascribe value to certain skills and capabilities, thus applying pressure for these to be mobilised and further developed. But this still doesn’t get round the challenge Indy raises of a power imbalance between those that then need to enhance these capabilities and those that are in the position of ‘teaching’ them. I realise it’s not as didactic as that, but it reminded me of the potential of Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, whereby ‘teacher’ and ‘pupil’ learn together through dialogue, providing a mutual exchange of skills and ideas rather than the ‘banking’ model that predominates our education system and also the third sector’s approach to capacity building. It’s almost as if we need some sort of Jedi training academy.

Before I finish, you are probably wondering who was the person from Star Wars I met this week whilst playing football? Unfortunately, they’re not technically canon, so I don’t think it is worth boasting about. Although I did set them up for a goal with an interstellar pass that they will still be talking about in thousands of years time. Plus it gave me a good excuse to squeeze in some Star Wars themed puns.

May the force be with you.

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Stephen Miller

Stephen Miller

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Social researcher and writer. Putting theory into practice, to make the world a better place.