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  • Writer's pictureNick Smith

A is for Ask, Act, and Accountability

Updated: Aug 5, 2020

'About as useful as reading a newspaper to a piece of fruit': that's one of many striking images in Darren McGarvey's powerful book Poverty Safari. In it, he repeatedly argues that if our aim is to see deprived communities change we must involve those communities in shaping that change. In a crucial chapter ('Outsiders') McGarvey talks of people being told by someone from outside the community to be "more constructive" when their aspirations are not in line with the programme's plans: the result - those in the community feeling insulted and voiceless. Talking of one area he writes:

If you don't have [their] trust, then nothing can be achieved ... [There's] apathy due to decisions being made ... without consulting the people that live here ... The tools to fix the place are already here rather than parachuting ... initiatives in who don't understand the area ... People can sense when they are being patronised, which is why many ... become sceptical and disengaged

Sound familiar? It certainly reminded me of some of change programmes I know - where there may be real commitment to engaging with those impacted by change, but fundamentally it's so that they will listen, learn, and do as they're told. Feedback is welcome, as long as it's 'constructive'. The result is, as above, teams that don't trust those looking to bring change, and are apathetic or sceptical about that change. We're reading a newspaper to a piece of fruit.

And, frustratingly, that's often in the context of these same teams recognising that things are (at best) far from perfect and need to change - and understanding either what change might work or how that change might be introduced so it would be adopted. These are teams capable of sharing both in shaping change and also, perhaps, in accountability for making it happen.

So, what if we took more time to ask (and really listened) before casting vision or planning, and included those impacted in our initial coalition for change? What if we chose to act on what we heard? And what if we shared accountability for the change with those most impacted?

This is why Epion talks about enabling change and empowering those impacted by it - so that they can embrace and embed it - not about managing change.

And, yes, this is sometimes a harder route, at risk of seeming naive. But categorically, no, it's not an abdication of leadership: if we don't win the trust of the people we're leading, if we don't ask them, listen to them, and act on the basis of what we hear, the likelihood is they won't be following us. And if they're not following, we're not leading effectively. We'll come back to this, perhaps when we reach 'L'.

What do you think? Let us know.

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