#knifefree - Why governments should be prioritising community involvement from the start

Yesterday morning the Home Office woke up to an unexpected surprise - 200 of their newly designed chicken shop boxes with policy recommendations from the public delivered to their front door. The counter-campaign, by Word on the Curb, was a direct response to the Government’s plan to tackle knife crime by writing stories on the back of chicken shop takeaway boxes.

On the face of it the government’s chicken box idea was a good one - inspire young people with the stories of role models who have succeeded without carrying a knife. But - and it is a big BUT - it was executed in a way that preached from on high. It didn’t engage. It didn’t listen. It didn’t help.

This is a classic case of bad policymaking. Government doing something “to” people when we know change is only truly successful when governments work ‘with’ people. At Nesta, we have been advocating for collaborative, open governments and policymaking for more than a decade. People power, in and alongside government, can be a force for dramatic social change - helping improve school grades, reduce loneliness and even save lives. But it all starts with government being open that they are not the real experts - citizens and communities are.

Has the Home Office asked the communities most affected by knife crime what they think will help? What is their resolve to be involved in changing behaviours themselves? Which initiatives are already having traction that could be amplified using some of the £50k the Home Office spent on boxes, design and distribution?

The counter-campaign by Word on the Curb, a youth culture creative insight agency, is clever and simple: take a chicken box, write your own #knifefree policy on it and ship it straight back to government. The group stood outside Stratford station in London and tapped into what the community see, feel, think - what their experience tells them about what needs to happen.

So what now? It’s about how big institutions- the police, the government - can support initiatives that have proven impact to adapt and scale their ideas - without hijacking the whole process and alienating those they are trying to help further.

At Nesta, we continue to work with people, groups and organisations who are harnessing social action and gaining momentum through social movements. Today we’re working with:

  • Street Doctors who are teaching young people life-saving skills after knife crime
  • VIY - volunteers train up young people in construction skills and, in turn, they go out and fix up their local community spaces like much under-invested youth clubs
  • One Million Mentors - who are matching young people with mentors in Manchester and the West Midlands
  • Grandmentors - Where children in care are matched with a mentor who can act as a grandparent
  • Collaborating with seven Social Movements for Health to help build their influence and impact on health and care.

It’s clear that the £57,500 the Home Office spent on the campaign was not money well spent (and pretty pitiful at less than approximately £200 for every person killed with a knife last year). My hunch is that as well as investment in infrastructure like youth clubs and skilled professional youth workers, to tackle knife crime the Home Office would be better investing in mentoring schemes so young people know successful role models they can look up to and learn from, rather than just reading about them on a chicken box.

But don’t take my word for it - ask the communities! The people living, studying and working locally. To bring change that will really help, we have to start listening to and working with those who know the problems best.


Vicki Sellick

Vicki Sellick

Vicki Sellick

Chief Partnership Officer

Vicki was Chief Partnership Officer

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