Bethia McNeil: what does it take to improve a place?

Collective change and collective impact

I work in the business of measuring and understanding change. I do this because I believe that understanding whether and how the work of the social sector creates change will improve that same work. It’s an interesting tension that improving how the social sector relates to and engages communities (arguably its primary role) might not lead to change. It might mean keeping things the same, or preventing them from getting worse. One of my main reflections on nearly 20 years in the social sector is that we’re not very good at focusing on the status quo.

Does it always need to be about change?

And so, I think about this question: what does it take to change a place? Assuming a place needs changing in the first place (though many do, I’m sure), this sounds like a question we should want to answer. I like thinking about questions, but in my experience, one question always leads to another.

Most of us who work in the social sector would probably say that we’re in the business of supporting or enabling change. It’s not terribly fashionable to proclaim “change? Oh no, that’s not our thing”. And so, any social sector organisation worth its salt will likely take care to point you to the scale of change it has achieved of late – that is its raison d’être. But this somewhat binary approach to change (change = good, no change = bad) has crowded out space for a whole series of other questions that we ought to at least attempt to answer:

Firstly, what counts as ‘good’ change?

It’s perhaps implicit in the question ‘what does it take to change a place?’ that we are focused on good change, but it’s not always straightforward to define what’s positive. We seem to find it easier to agree on what constitutes negative change. Some things are simpler to agree on: most people would concur that positive change to a place might include better transport links, for example, or less dog poo on the streets. Even transport links can be contested though: does that mean more or less traffic? Do transport links take precedence over green space? But it gets much harder when we start to talk about aspects of place that are subjective, like trust or cohesion, for example. One person’s good might be another person’s bad. I’d also argue that changes to a place can frequently be about symptom, rather than cause. Reducing graffiti, for example, might feel like a positive change to some, but perhaps not to those who feel frustrated by an inability to express their identity publicly. Maybe good change feels different to them? Whose voices will we prioritise in listening to what counts as good change?

Secondly, in whose gift is change?

Who has agency when it comes to making things better? I was recently challenged to come up with one intervention – across social services, education, health and civil society – that directly achieves change on behalf of individuals or communities. I couldn’t do it. As far as I’m aware, every single intervention (in the very broadest sense) functions by building the assets, capabilities and skills of individuals and communities to achieve change for themselves. Changes to ‘place’ potentially challenge this, as it’s possible for things to be ‘done to’ communities that change how they live – pedestrianisation, for example, or building a new commercial quarter – but is it possible for these changes (whether good or bad) to be sustained without people? I don’t think it is.

Thirdly, what are we talking about changing?

Is it people, services, systems, geography, communities, emotions….? This really matters. There’s a vast difference between changing the odds for young people, and changing young people themselves. I believe this is a social justice question. A ‘place’ is a complex interaction of people, memory, relationships, services, systems and the physical environment – and probably some other factors alongside. A place is both actual and perceptual, and change can work at both, either or neither levels. This is a more methodological question about how we know whether change has even occurred, and how we account for it. For a start, you can’t change the odds without knowing what they are to start with. And again, who decides what matters and how we ‘measure’ it?

Fourthly, as I’ve already suggested, does it always have to be about change?

Sometimes the provision of ongoing support can feel like the most important thing, and sometimes it’s keeping things the same that really matters: preventing deterioration, or maintaining the presence of vital ‘infrastructure’ in people’s lives. In part, this is about listening more to people talking about what they want and need, but it’s also about leaving space for aspirations other than change. Change is seductive. It’s more efficient at mobilising and securing resources. But at some point, the change has to become the status quo, otherwise it starts to become as destabilising and destructive as no change in the first place.

Finally, what degree of change are we seeking? Are we seeking total system transformation or the mitigation of the worst effects of poor system functioning? This question in particular, I believe, encourages us to reflect deeply on whether we’re attempting to co-operate (share ideas), co-ordinate (avoid overlaps), or collaborate (seek long-term solutions). Too often, I think, we rush to collaboration without thinking about co-operation and co-ordination. We try to change (particularly innovation) without addressing areas where we could address system failure. In many cases, this is because we play our own part in where the system falls down, and change for ‘beneficiaries’ is easier to think about than changing our own role.

So where does this leave us?

Much as I like to ponder questions, there has to be some point at which we start to look for solutions – or responses, at least. Collective impact is one form of structured collaboration that has been used as part of efforts to ‘change a place’, and it’s a concept that I’ve thought a great deal about. Done well, a collective impact initiative should create space for and spend time in reflecting hard on the questions above. According to FSG, the leading proponents of collective impact, there are five conditions that need to be in place for collective impact to be effective: a common agenda, shared measurement systems, mutually reinforcing activities, continuous communication and backbone support.

These features are potentially powerful. They should guard against unfocused, unaccountable initiatives, which are very busy but achieve little in the lives of those who matter most. However, FSG has itself recognised that the five conditions are not sufficient for the ‘deep and nuanced work’ that is place-based change: they are foundational, but not complete or comprehensive. FSG recently reflected on nearly a decade of work on collective impact, and proposed five ‘principles’ that should advance such initiatives:

  • Design and implement the initiative with a priority placed on equity
  • Include community members in the collaborative
  • Use data to continuously learn, adapt, and improve
  • Build a culture that fosters relationships, trust, and respect across participants
  • Customise for local context

So, what does it take to change a place? Like any good researcher, I’d say “it depends”. And as for what it depends upon, I think that equity, community voice, data, relationships and an understanding of local context are very good places to begin the process of finding answers.

About the author:

Bethia is the Director of the Centre for Youth Impact, which is a community of organisations that work together to progress thinking and practice around impact measurement in youth work and services for young people.

The Centre is co-located with Renaisi in our Hackney Central offices, and we sometimes work together on projects thanks to our shared perspectives on impact measurement.

Twitter icon@bethiamcneil