Learning to lead

Seizing the opportunities of community empowerment with Graham Duxbury

Graham Duxbury is Groundwork’s national Chief Executive.  He has over 20 years’ experience of helping public and voluntary sector organisations reach new audiences and deliver strategic communications and development campaigns.

In a month when we’ve found out from Professor Michael Marmot that our society is becoming more unequal and from the ONS that the bonds that tie us to our neighbours are weakening, there’s a renewed sense of urgency in the debate around the role and the limits of community action. A focus of particular attention is how best to ensure that communities who may have felt ‘left behind’ – or, as some would prefer, ‘who have been actively ignored’ – by the economic and political mainstream have a greater say in the decisions that affect them. Can ‘taking back control’ really mean taking back control?

The Government has committed to some industrial engineering – attempting to ‘level up’ prosperity and opportunity by building infrastructure – and some Whitehall re-engineering – sending more civil servants north as a signal of its commitment to redressing regional disparities. For many this will have no material impact unless it’s accompanied by a wholesale remodeling of the economy and a re-invigoration of local state institutions able to build wealth in communities, as advocated by CLES. For others, such as NLGN, what’s needed is a complete paradigm shift such that communities become equal partners in the design and delivery of the services that matter to them.

Whether the starting point is national infrastructure, local economies or community commissioning, one consequence of the debate is that there are increasing opportunities for people to influence the way decisions get made. It seems that in every area of public life there is a door opening for communities to play a bigger role in deciding how things get done. One of the answers to spiraling health and social care costs is social prescribing through which people can be referred to community-based services to improve their physical health and mental wellbeing. To help protect cherished social infrastructure – from pubs to sports clubs – the government continues to encourage communities to take on the running of assets. We’ve also seen the first citizens’ assemblies attempt to identify ways of overcoming barriers in the fight against climate change. 

These opportunities are only meaningful if people have the confidence, capacity, skills and support required to make the most of them. There’s no point referring people to community-led solutions if communities aren’t equipped and empowered to handle the responsibility. A new network of social prescribing ‘link workers’ can only be effective if there’s a strong and vibrant community sector to link to. By the same token, communities can only drive effective action to combat the climate and nature emergency if it’s clear which of their actions will make the most difference in terms of carbon or biodiversity benefit.

This is where we need to focus our attention. A recent survey of grass roots community organisations conducted by Groundwork showed that more than 90% of respondents felt their work was needed more than ever before, but more than half said it was harder to operate now than it was five or ten years ago. When asked what would make a difference to their ability to operate, money of course topped the poll, but there was also a call for practical support with volunteer management, wider community engagement and maximising the use of technology. 

After nearly 40 years of working with communities to help them improve their circumstances and realise their aspirations, we know that learning is both an outcome and a motivator for action. People want to understand more so that they can make better decisions and many use their new knowledge to make significant life changes. In the search for a new way of making decisions about the social, economic and environmental issues that affect our lives, empowerment and education must go hand in hand.