After having gone through the draft version of the Neighbourhood Strategy green paper, I took some time out of my day to stop by the Selly Oak meeting. I was hoping there’d a be a Q&A session about the draft document.
But it wasn’t to be. The Summer of Dialogue meetings are apparently conceived as something different, where discussion points are set out by facilitators, and the ensuing conversation parsed as concepts for further consideration. The Green Paper wasn’t particularly central to the discussion, and it turns out that I missed the chance to join in.
However, notes have been circulated, particularly here, and I’ve gone through them to see what kinds of topics emerged in discussion. Along the way, as a kind of detour, I’ve generated some word clouds to help identify the prevalence of certain topics and areas of concern.
For example, using the Selly Oak notes, I did a simple concordance. It is a crude way of identifying concepts central to the discussion – although they may simply be a shorthand form of words preferred by the note taker. The result is what you’d expect.
You could pretty much make a summary from stringing together the most frequently used words: neighbourhood working enables people community networks.
It doesn’t represent something actually said, but does give a nod in the general direction. You can see where the emphasis lies. It doesn’t give much insight, but it’s cute.
So, after gathering and collating all the notes from Edgbaston, Selly Oak, Sutton Coldfield and Yardley meetings, I tried something more complicated. But first, another detour.
The meeting notes are organised around four set questions, as follows.
- Why does enabling effective neighbourhood working matter?
- What are the risks of neighbourhood working?
- What do we want to see in a neighbourhood strategy?
- What can we do aside from a neighbourhood strategy?
Discussing and gathering feedback around these questions seems to be what the Summer of Dialogue is about. To get my own head round this stuff, I wanted to see what has been said, and look for two things: patterns, and gaps.
For example, in response to the first question, I wanted to see whether people felt Neighbourhood Working was at all useful, and if so, whether it made unique differences that would a justify continuation of the practice.
So this time, instead of doing a simple concordance, I went through every comment and tried to assign a category and a sign (positive or negative) to each. It’s a slow task, and some comments cannot be categorised this way.
Assigning categories is a largely arbitrary business, but some of the comments provide a clear steer, and once a category exists, it’s good to see what else fits. For example, on seeing that one response to the first question set at the Selly Oak meeting was that Neighbourhood Working ‘can be open and inclusive’, I set Inclusion as a category, then looked for other comments that fit the category.
So far, I’ve come up with some 20 other comments that relate broadly to notions of ways that neighbourhood working supports breadth of participation. I included comments about togetherness, linkages, mixing and so on. Some of these comments could be double or triple coded, but for now, one code will do.
Here’s what I coded as about Inclusion:
- Acknowledge people’s involvement
- Avoid labelling places as poor – they might be rich in other ways
- Can be open and inclusive
- Enables mixing and undermines silo based thinking
- Enables working between communities in the same neighbourhood including between generations
- Faith communities really matter – they are values-based and they join people from different classes together
- Faith groups, sports clubs and others create links between different classes and types of people who live in an area
- Faith organisations can often act as hubs for neighbourhood working
- Food is a good way of bringing people together – community lunches and breakfasts etc – and food growing projects too
- Giving feedback to the people who’ve contributed
- Help neighbourhoods to talk to one another and learn from each other
- It cracks open professional and specialist ‘silos’ and ‘jobsworth’ behaviour
- It enables agencies to listen more effectively to what people want
- It must cover CCGs , the NHS, police, schools, social landlords, transport bodies and businesses as well
- It strengthens (and depends on) good relationships between local communities and agencies
- Make links between neighbourhoods
- Mean that young people and children are more able to get involved
- Remember it applies to rich areas as well as poor
- Remember the importance of business too
- Respects the role of ‘resident experts’
- Sports clubs and activities can work in the same way
- Stress the importance of links between business and community
- We need business links
Having continued in that vein, my first pass through the notes generated 50 categories. Since I was trying to answer a question about the positive benefits of neighbourhood working, I divided the list into 3 further groups: positive, negative, and other. The negative comments were about fixing what’s broke, as in the comment about cracking open ‘silos’ and ‘jobsworth’ behaviour, or about what’s risky with neighbourhood working.
Top Down v Bottom Up
At this point, I’ve got a way of identifying some of the positives to come out of neighbourhood working. Most of my categories are one or two words long, and are meaningful in a word cloud. So I made one cloud of positive categories, and one of negative. Some categories are both.
Out of all that, I’ve created a tangle of conclusions:
- current practice has a variety of negatives,
- neighbourhood working could make some things worse
- and some things better
- while some things remain problematic either way
Current practice fosters disparity, but neighbourhood working can foster disparities too.
Money is an issue either way, as are matters of identity.
Where neighbourhood working shines, though, is in effectiveness and inclusiveness. It gets things done at a neighbourhood level by being open and geared to local conditions. It takes a holistic, neighbourhood view that, in the words of one Selly Oak comment, ‘means we can look at issues in the round’. This provides an interim answer to my earlier question about the utility of neighbourhood working.
That answer can also be used as a tool to get at different questions.
It seems pretty clear that people want a holistic, inclusive quality to their neighbourhood services, which should form part of any neighbourhood strategy. Is Neighbourhood Working the best way of making that happen, or could those things be accomplished more readily by other means? As posed in the set questions, is there something we can do aside from having neighbourhood strategies? Should we be focusing on the outcomes rather than the means of delivery? I expect those questions are being discussed in small groups, with or without being fed into the public forum.
Having done all that, I am still wanting to look for gaps in the categories of comment. As noted earlier, some comments defy categorisation, and it’s these that hold clues to more meaningful interpretations, and further feedback. An example of a gap that may be relevant is about training, facilitation and arbitration. If Neighbourhood Working relies on volunteers, what model/s of working will they have access to, and how will their efforts be managed? This turns into a question of resourcing, and about roles for organisations like BVSC.
I suppose the next thing I’ll do is go back to the four questions and see if I can come up with some straightforward responses.