I’ve just spent two very energetic and creative days at GovJam in Exeter – and by ‘creative’ I mean there was play dough and pirate hats. Not your usual conference (more’s the pity).
The global theme was ‘Here be dragons’, and in the spirit of the thing my team was designated ‘Team Toothless‘ – named for the beast in How To Train Your Dragon. If you haven’t seen the film, you’re missing a treat. The books are also excellent, and a staple favourite in this household.
Now the dragons in this exercise represent unknowns and dangers – real or perceived. That was how we got started, and our product arose out of a community’s perceptions of danger in their area. Stranger danger, domestic abuse, crime, substance misuse, road accidents, household accidents were just some of the things that we discussed. We quickly settled to the theme of children and young people. Firstly because their safety is high on the public sector’s priority list, and secondly because young people with not enough to do tend to make communities nervous. The underlying topic of unused or threatening spaces came into play here because these tend to attract youngsters looking for privacy, adventure or territory. Combining all this brought us to our concept, which aims to connect young people with spaces in their community that they can own and feel safe in.
The product here – the tangible item that we were obliged to include – is a consultation vehicle (aha, see what I did there?) called the Action Van. Here’s the official page, including the video short we made to explain how it will work:
Now this will be great if it happens, but as one of our pirate-disrupters pointed out, it has been done before. There are probably dozens of funky graffiti-sprayed buses trawling around the country pumping out dubstep and luring teenagers in with their plasma screens and recording studios and shiny gadgets. How do we make sure that our project actually makes a difference?
We have two brilliant and crucial ideas for this.
1. We will pay attention to where communities are coming up with ideas already.
I’ve written before about how we moan about ‘hard to reach’ groups, and how people won’t engage. I propose to translate some of my previous whingeing into action, and demonstrate how we can find out what matters to communities and individuals by learning to listen and by being in the right place. The Action Van may be a part of that, but there’s so much more we can do.
2. We will use the natural inclination of our staff and partners to be helpful in small ways.
You may have raised your eyebrows at this. Maybe that hasn’t been your experience, maybe you know that we all have far too much to do to be getting involved in community projects. And maybe that’s right if the average working person is asked to sit on a committee, or man a stall, or clean a beach. But … sometimes all that is needed is the answer to one very simple question. That’s all I want from you. A sentence. An email. Two minutes of your time. And the best part is, this will be easy for you because it’s something you know. You could answer it in your sleep. This is your thing, your specialist subject if you will.
Because it can be the little issues that derail an undertaking. A community project may collect up committee members, funding and volunteers and then find they can’t proceed any further until they have more information. If they’re lucky their committee will be well-connected professional people who have friends or colleagues in the right places. But if they’re not? Then all that energy and motivation could drain away in the face of delays over whether they have the right planning permissions, or how to enrol volunteers properly, or debating the correct legal structure, or who owns the land. Questions that somebody somewhere could resolve in a matter of minutes.
So here’s the next step: I’m going to start a network of individuals who are willing to be experts on tap. There will be guidelines, of course, to make sure no one gets asked to put in hours of work for free … but I aim to connect all those colleagues who are happy to answer a quick question, signpost to the best information, or recommend a contact. I’ve been the recipient of just such kindness from expert colleagues when I’ve needed advice, and it has made a huge and positive difference.
Here’s an interesting thing … I discovered there is such an object as a toothless saw. It uses a mixture of bits of steel and carborundum too small to be of use anywhere else*, bound together in resin.Toothless doesn’t have to mean useless. Just because we have no money doesn’t mean the world stops turning or we can’t achieve anything. What we still have is knowledge, contacts – what we do well is talk to people and get information to other people so they can do things for more people. There’s a lot of repetition of ‘people’ in that sentence, isn’t there? That’s deliberate. People are important. People are the point.
*Great analogy, no?