Why listening and conversation equals deep learning
I had the chance to sit in with the Cities of Service City Leads and Chief Service Officers together with colleagues from Nesta, Tom Bryer (University of Central Florida) and Jolanta Vaiciuniene (Municipal Training Centre - Lithuania). It was a really rich learning opportunity for me. There is something quite powerful when people actively listen to each other and demonstrate mutual respect and trust for their peers opinions and ideas. Through such dialogue and interactions you can sense learning and change taking place.
The initial focus of the session was on the potential relationships that might exist between the City Local Authority and the University sector. I recognise that establishing and sustaining such relationships is far from straightforward and that universities have (at best) an uneven track record of working with local communities and city hall. Working in the sector I recognise too that we need the goodwill and support of a multiplicity of agencies and organisations (from schools to leisure centres, social services to health agencies) to provide the 'home' for those engaged in vocational or professional study.
Our students could not secure their qualifications without the active support, encouragement and mentoring of thousands of public servants and volunteers.
So how do we ensure that universities shift their perspective of the world and adopt a more localist approach?
Part of the answer (I think) is to draw on old fashioned community development practice. One of the key aspects of this approach lies in understanding how the agency or organisation you wish to influence works. What are its aims and values? Who are the key decision makers or those with influence and authority to make change happen? Universities are, at times, networks of different and competing interests. Going to the front door and asking to speak to someone who can help you is not likely to be the most effective way of engaging. What Community Development can help us with is how to read and analyse the ways in which universities work (or any agency we are seeking to engage with). And because it is based on meeting the needs of our reference group (in this case individuals and community groups who could benefit from volunteering and capacity building ) then we are less likely to be drawn into different conversations.
Let's imagine the university is the public authority - how do we seek to secure influence and change? Why does this matter?
Partly because what cities and municipalities are dealing with are the major transformation of public services since 1945 it's a huge challenge and we need the richness of thinking and understanding that universities could bring.
How do we seek to mobilise local actors to influence key decision makers?
By understanding their world we can begin to see how they need to work with city hall and those involved in promoting the benefits of local collaboration. I think there are three aspects to this which might help: firstly, it helps if we do think of the advantages we bring to the work of universities and not the other way around. Recognising and celebrating the centrality of the ‘local’ is one way of bringing key local leaders and civil society groups together. It is about forming alliances. Secondly, it’s important to link the local with the specific: highlighting the change that a partnership had for a specific group or neighbourhood or project makes the relationships tangible. Finally, it’s about thinking of how to sustain and support these networks. Mobilising local civic leaders and civil society groups in the short term is straightforward. Sustaining those networks is more complex. But thinking in terms of not just single issues but rather connecting the projects together as a patchwork quilt of initiatives and connections may assist in the sustainability of the work.
At Nesta I listened in as committed and engaged public servants reflected on ways to meet the needs of their services by assembling a broad alliance of insight and resources. Universities could play a key role there.