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Making innovation work for good. T:@inspirechilli

Friday 18 January 2013

People Powered Change: A game of shadows

Last night I attended an event by the Institute for Government (IfG) and the Big Lottery Fund (BIG), called ‘Connecting Policy with Practice: People Powered Change’.

It is a partnership designed to engage policy makers and commissioners with the insights of VCS leaders involved in the latest round of strategic investments from BIG expressing their new People Powered sision.  As the IfG website says, ‘It is increasingly clear that traditional delivery models, and silo working, will not be effective in addressing the most intractable social policy problems especially against a background of reducing resources.’

Of course we’ve heard the concepts of cross sector partnerships, new deals, learning from what works, etc etc, before.  But at the heart of this endeavour is something with potential: a desire to solve the intractable issues repeated through the poverty and exclusion engrained in our social order.  In Sherlock Holmes terms, it’s a return to the elementary business of hunting down the Moriarty behind the ‘Game of Shadows’ in our rather murky world of policy, funding and civil society delivery.

I want to pause for a moment to be mindful about what the BIG vision of People Powered Change means. The event at the Institute for Government included excellent insightful presentations from Peter Wanless, Chief Executive of BIG, and Dharmendra Kanani, BIG England Director. It is quite clear that BIG are beginning to occupy the territory of a thoughtful funder, trying to push the focus of investments away from just ‘random acts of kindness’ towards something more strategic, evidenced, and transformational. It is refreshing to hear BIG beginning to talk the same language of what we call at the Foyer Federation 'Open Talent': the theory of co-production, how the experiences of people can provide solutions to the problems they seem to pose, the importance of working with people based on what they can do rather than just supporting what they can’t.  The challenge for this progressive dialogue is whether it can deliver on the promise in People Powered Change. Can BIG help lead a change in the ‘power’ dynamics by which the VCS, policy makers, commissioners and funders perceive and act on ‘people’?

This question here is not just one of co-production, or representation. It is also about the language we use to identify and understand the people who are meant to be powering the change. Because one of the changes urgently required in the shadows is the way policy, funders, and the VCS perceive and diagnose people through a lexicon of needs, deficits, problems and vulnerabilities which often negatively directs what and how services get designed and funded.

There is a paradigm moment here: we are collectively stuck in a way of thinking – a form of ‘disadvantaged thinking’ -which labels people in ways that influences how society works with and misunderstands those people.  It is a vicious cycle that promotes the disadvantage we seek to address.   Moriarty is in our minds.

People Powered Change must be about people as they really are, not people as a set of entrenched stereotypes. Part of the power we must learn is the power of language itself.  What we choose to call people is key to what reality we create with and for people.  Whilst the Institute for Government and Big Lottery Fund partnership is refreshingly important, it is still in part thinking from and connecting within the shadows of language it must find the power to change. That is its starting point.  There are people who are experiencing the challenges of not being in education, but none of them exist as NEET, and not one of them deserves the type of services and policies we continue to clumsily shape to address the stereotype that they are not.  People Powered Change – really - yes please. 

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