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Standing orders 1, Allyship 0

This week I was asked to write a  guest blog on Tiger de Souza’s great website and was delighted to do so.  This is what I wrote –

Last week, an unusual thing happened. The internet was buzzing with a story about a parish council. Was this local governance getting some publicity and attention at last? Was social media going to finally help the public understand better the personalities, and the behaviours that are part and parcel of local community democracy? Sadly not. What we learned from a recorded and edited version of a Handforth Parish Council  meeting was something rather different.

The Handforth Parish Council meeting that descended into chaos

We could treat ourselves to the sight of technology tripping up a group of mainly elderly citizens. Then we could roll our eyes at the display of petulance, bad manners and temper tantrums, and gawp at the endless bickering over arcane standing orders, and finally, we could join in congratulating the stoicism and diligence of the clerk – there was even a hashtag #ImwithJackieWeaver to accompany a round of admiring media appearances.

We witnessed a number of men railing at a woman who was trying to introduce order. We watched as they proved themselves completely incapable  of dealing with running a meeting without shouting and insulting others. And we witnessed the way that the rules of engagement  – the much pronounced standing orders –  did nothing to help matters progress. Small wonder that we looked on with horror, and anyone who has never engaged in any local or  community action,  made a silent vow to avoid any such activity in the future.

Well, right now we can all do with a laugh and a viral clip of a disastrous meeting hit the sweet spot for many of us. But along with the hilarity, it’s worth thinking about four other things that the recording showed:

  1. It is hard to imagine that  any woman, who has ever attended a meeting – parish council or otherwise – did not wince with recognition at the naked and aggressive misogyny on such blatant display in this event. The sight of a woman, keeping calm and carrying on, when all around were bawling at her, insulting her or laughing at her maniacally is an all too familiar one to those of us who have been involved in making the hard slog of local democracy and community engagement work. Of course, this was an extreme example, but a quick poll of women friends and colleagues showed I was not alone in having flashbacks to many an unpleasant and difficult meeting.  And sadly none of us were remotely surprised that no one intervened to stop the appalling behaviour. Not one of the people on the call seemed to have either the awareness, or the willingness, to speak out against such bad behaviour.
  2. We all talk about the need for difference in community organising. We know how important it  is that younger people join in and take on leadership roles. That they are made available to people from black and minority ethnic communities, disabled people and with all of us so they can genuinely reflect the rich, diverse and varied communities they serve. This was an object lesson in understanding  why that desire needs much more than talk. As I laughed at the video, I also knew that all too many meetings actually seem just like Handforth’s, and that if you are new to this work, it will look as bizarre, as ill-mannered and as intimidating as this one did. We have to behave differently. And that take practice and serious attention.
  3. Handforth’s travails also highlighted that skills and training are needed when people who care passionately about their community, are put in a room together and start talking. Time after time we talk about the importance of engaging residents, of involving those with ‘lived experience’, of the importance of ‘local participation’ – and then we expect people just to get together (on zoom or for real) and we stand back. Then we are either amazed or delighted when things go wrong. Board members of PLCs get training, and expensive board evaluation.  So do those sitting on the boards of housing associations and hospital trusts. But members of community groups are all too often just given an impossible task  and told to get on with it.  If they are given any rules, they are often in a format (those dratted standing orders)  that do nothing to help genuine engagement; that give no ideas for generating vital and authentic debate and that do nothing at all to protect the voices that are too often shouted down or ignored.
  4. And yet local democracy has never been more important. We’ll never get through our current  terrifying predicament without people prepared to get involved and make change happen. If they suffer abuse, are laughed at and challenged with hostility, can we be surprised that they don’t come back? If the rules are so obscure that they are either discarded, or they dominate proceedings, can we wonder that community engagement is so hard?

A few years ago I wrote a slightly tongue in cheek piece about how to undermine community involvement. In Communities – Nine ways to break them – I talked about the overloading of community groups, the disrespect we show and the lack of support we offer.  If I were doing it now, I’d write about aggressive and undermining misogyny, a woeful lack of attention to the skills training in those involved, and a set of processes that do nothing to enable active and supportive involvement. And I’d conclude again, that if we are really serious about the importance of local democracy, we’d take it all much more seriously. But I’d still want to stand with Jackie Weaver!

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Governance – what do we mean and how do we do it?

Part 1

Who’s who on a board
It is very easy to download from the internet, or ask your solicitor, for a list of roles and responsibilities. What does the honorary treasurer do? Should you have a senior independent director? What about the chair and chief executive officer? Does a company secretary serve the board or the organisation? This is all very interesting. But in my observation of boards, both as an adviser and as a member, I have identified a number of different roles, and these all pose different questions:

The Peacemaker asks – can’t we find a common way? Surely there is a different approach?

The Challenger says – can’t we do better? This is simply not good enough for the homeless people in this town. Is it just because it has always been done this way?

But the History Holder says, do remember where we come from. When we started we thought that we could really change opinions about obesity. We need to go back to our roots, and remember what worked in the past.

And the Compliance king or queen will always say, can we afford it? What will the auditors say? Is this legal?

To which the Passionate Advocate will respond, for goodness sake, surely we must take a risk. People are dying of this disease, we must do more.

And the Data Champion says – it is all very well shouting, all the evidence shows that however often we do that, it makes no difference to the outcomes for mentally ill people.

And the Wise Counsellor says, we are not the only people trying to tackle this issue, we need to think carefully, plan properly, and take this step by step.

But the Inspiring Leader will describe her vision, will point to the hills, will enthuse and excite.

While the Fixer says, I think we can get together outside the meeting and sort this out.

And the Risk Taker says, the crisis in Darfur is simply too great. Let’s just spend the money, and it is such a good idea that the funds will flood in.

While the Strategist says, we need to think about what will happen in 2010, and recognise that if the Department of CPT does make the changes that they are planning, then our position will be much stronger and the whole environment will be different.

And the User Champion says, I am worried that we are ignoring the interests of our beneficiaries. We haven’t mentioned their needs all though this meeting.

All those voices, and all those questions, make a really strong board. All good boards hold in balance the entrepreneurialism of the strategist, and the risk taker, along with compliance king or queen, and the data champion. I have seen boards that are entirely entrepreneurial and they are pretty scary. I have also seen boards that are entirely compliance driven, and they are  truly terrifying.