Fit for Purpose: Networks and Health Checks
This post does cover quite a bit of territory. It starts with systems and networks. Moves to community projects and local authorities. Raises a question of network and organisational fitness and presents Health Checks as a way to understand this. Returns to connect community groups, health checks and networks into a single picture and basis for network wide intelligence. Talks about good collaboration and good facilitation. Takes a step back to consider larger questions connected to ‘the state’ as a singular entity and its transition towards a more distributed form. Finally a quick summary of why this is all important.
Several years ago I was struck by the notion that networks can be viewed as a form of structural material from which new architectural forms could be constructed.
I spent some time looking for others who were thinking the same way.
The closest I could find was Buckminster Fuller talking about tensegrity back in the 60’s.
At the same time I had also been giving some thought around systems in society like the health system or policing.
Why didn’t they function as they should? And why did we get told by senior officers, management or politicians that the nature of the problem was changing.
For a layperson their explanation didn’t tally with my reality.
If you need an appointment at the doctors then you need an appointment at the doctors. This isn’t nature it’s need and our needs remain fairly static.
It sounded far more like the system was being altered in some way which left it less fit for the purpose it was designed.
Perhaps it was cutting funds or having less resources?
In my mind this was like deflating a football and then wondering why it didn’t rocket towards the goals like it did last season.
So now goals aren’t being scored, people are unhappy, but everyone is still running around and doing their best.
That there is a failure somewhere is obvious to everyone.
The people within the system ask for their resources back but the people outside of the system cannot see that this is the problem and instead bring in management or consultants or whatever it is that is needed in order to get the world to match with their well worked plans and expectations.
The system is still failing but now the goalposts are moved.
Contracts are signed, targets are changed, departments are reorganised and managers are sacked.
The public all know it’s falling to bits. They expect to a very personal type of goal every time they call the police about a burglary or go to the GP with more than one problem.
Something perceptible ‘has’ now changed for the public.
It is the nature of the service they are getting.
Yet the experts tell us that the nature of the game has changed.
It’s probably impossible to give an answer once the system starts shifting.
I’m not saying I’m right about any of the above. It’s a singular perspective and most uninformed. This means I’m most probably wrong!
I’m just putting you in the picture of where I was with my thoughts at the time.
The important thing for now is the ball.
So, with all of these thoughts in mind, when I saw Bucky and his ball talking about tensegrity. I was able to see an object that allowed me to bring these conceptually very different sets of ideas together.
Tensegrity structures are interesting because they can bring multiple types of elements or entities together through the interaction and understanding of the different types of forces and tensions that can operate between them.
This behaviour also takes place in networks consisting of people, organisations and goals.
It is all about things and relationships and unobvious or unseen forces.
On the large systems side of things (for example health or policing) it is possible to understand them as a kind of highly complex network or tensegrity structure.
They are all about relationships organised around a specific purpose.
This is where some of my ideas around networks comes from.
It was a combination of these different thoughts and activities along with the visual catalyst.
Bucky’s ball allowed me to conceptualise networks and systems from a different perspective as well as provide something concrete that could act as a place holder from which to then consider other matters and possibilities.
Bucky’s ball wasn’t the exact ideas that I was thinking but it was useful for understanding, exploring, orienting and holding together the different ideas involved.
If you’re interested in my thoughts on networks and systems then there are plenty more posts from me on Medium.
Seeing beyond constraints — An infrastructure of the social commons (Part 1)
Reader caution advised… I’m just getting these ideas out into the open! I’m no expert in these matters, it is just me…
The Health of a System
For the purpose of this post I’d like to bring your attention to a question of health.
i.e. is it possible to assess the fitness of a network/system to achieve a specific purpose.
To give the example some background I was involved in a project as a District Councillor for a local authority park.
As discussions and activity surrounding the project, proposals and committee began to conclude, the local authority wished to step back and hand over to a local community group.
The local authority had had great outcomes in another area and park where a small group of committed locals had taken on responsibility for organising events, running projects and accessing funding and the council were keen to do this again.
There wasn’t any pressure on the local group’s representative to comply with this in the ordinary sense. But local authorities, committees, peers and chairpersons, do by their presence in a room, exert a certain influence on people.
The park itself adjoined my ward (electoral area) so I had fairly friendly relationship with the group and an insight into where they were. In my assessment it was very early days and some recognition of this and a bit of support would have been helpful and well received.
I gave some arguments on how a short extension of our committee and a focus on this support might allow everyone to fully understand where there were strengths and gaps within the group’s potential and ambitions as well as between the understanding and expectations of the local authority.
At the time there was training (capacity and skills) available to local charities and community groups through the local VCSE organisation, but there was a need to recognise that training for the group might be beneficial.
How do you know you need something if you don’t know you need something?
The initial identification of needs for the group would be difficult to achieve without some time, support and outside perspective.
As it was the committee felt confident, the chairperson pushed ahead, everyone nodded their heads (or acquiesced in line with the authority) and we all went home.
The committee never did meet again and my time as a councillor was complete.
I do not know what happened after that.
It was my observation though that nobody was doing anything wrong. Everyone was doing what they thought was right from their perspective and the facts at hand.
I will also say that the local authority was always very responsible, considerate and diligent in their working with local communities and had there been a measure with which to ascertain the group’s ability and capacity it would have been in place.
The problem was that there wasn’t a tool or process in place to do this.
Any needs would remain invisible and overlooked.
Sadly, it is my belief that unmet needs within community groups, project teams or collaborations convert directly into aspirations and potential becoming unrealised and a reduction in positive outcomes and impact.
Plus, if we don’t have good understanding and visibility then over time all parties have a tendency to fill in the blanks from their own perspective. The blame game is easy for everyone to fall into and relationships can become ineffective, politicised or toxic.
Between the local authority and the community group we were missing a way of surfacing that understanding and creating that visibility so that a suitable remedy could be applied in advance.
A prescription for something protective, preventative and life enhancing.
What was needed was some kind of organisational Health Check.
Just what the doctor ordered
So I was interested to learn of the ‘Better Friends’ Health Check which has been developed by Parks Community UK.
Parks Community UK supports Friends’ groups across the country to feel better equipped and more confident in their active involvement with their local park.
It is organisations like Parks Community UK which help small groups to build up a picture of what they might be able to achieve and how. There can be quite a gulf and a long journey between a community groups very early beginnings and achieving their long-term potential.
There will most likely be gaps in capacity, experience, knowledge, skills and ability.
There can also be mismatches between a group’s aims and desires and the needs of the local community.
Health Checks like ‘Better Friends’ help to give light to these questions and considerations.
They bring understanding to the surface and create visibility.
It is this which allows for informed conversations to take place and better decisions to be made.
I have cheekily taken the test to get a feel for it and I must say it’s been very well put together and thought out.
Most importantly it isn’t a dry report that you get back. It feels much more like the start of a conversation which I feel it probably is intended to be whether that is within your group, with Parks Community UK or with your local community and local organisations.
Here’s a link to mine if you would like to get an idea — https://drive.google.com/file/d/1r9FR5cOU0NncAz4EspgJl2pS8OyHCVbe/view?usp=sharing
Connecting the Dots
I’m covering a lot of different ground here and I apologise if it seems indirect or unconnected.
To connect the concepts and ideas a little for you we could view a local community group as a tensegrity structure (it is also a network, which is a far simpler term but doesn’t implicitly include the relational and tensional factors I’m trying to communicate — please read as interchangeable).
For the structure to perform well it must balance forces and tensions.
When it is unable to do this, it fails to perform optimally and positive outcomes and impact are reduced.
Different types of Health Check allow us to see and understand certain otherwise invisible aspects of the system, network or collaboration. By doing this we can ascertain where we might need to strengthen, tension, train or build capacity etc.
Better Friends provides deeper understanding for Friend’s Groups.
In an ideal world something similar would be available for all the various types of groups, collaborations or networks that can operate at the community level.
Additionally, there will be alternative methods and tools that could be used to look more closely at health check highlighted areas such as ‘local engagement and social media’. i.e. so that we can improve specific areas of organisational fitness and ability.
On a more general level we could look at collaboration (communication, relationships, trust, transparency etc.) as a system wide determinant of organisational health and effectiveness.
These three types of primary Health Checks; Purpose, Operational, and Collaboration could provide a complete and thorough understanding of the systems health.
Within these exist more specific elements (Expertise, Knowledge and Skills / Design, Creativity, Innovation, Problem Solving / Ethics, Bias, Discrimination / Inclusivity, Accessibility / Health & Wellbeing, Mental Health etc).
It is this kind of in-depth understanding of a system (network or organisation) which helps to create intelligence.
Intelligent Interventions, Investments, Capacity Building and Support
Network or organisational intelligence is of benefit to the group and members but it can also be of benefit to local partners, authorities and funders.
Knowledge of an organisation’s health, capabilities, and capacity allows funds and resources to be more effectively delivered to where they can be best utilised or bring the widest benefits to a community or a specific group of beneficiaries depending upon the intended local outcomes.
Working in this way would allow investments, funds and programmes of support to be utilised to build early growth and capacity or to help move a group or collaboration towards their next stage in development.
Accordingly, support, funding and resources could be reduced as confidence and ability is developed.
Zooming out from the local would allow opportunities for peer exchange and support to become visible as well as the potential to fund or develop Communities of Practice as shared assets of expertise between groups and localities (in effect intelligently distributing the benefits of investment and intervention (funding and resources)).
A system which provides visibility of this strategic picture allows for intelligent intervention and support as well as ensuring evenness and fairness in access to activities, amenities, events for the population as a whole.
I return to this evenness question at the end of this post as part of a larger set of questions.
I will try to extract some points for you.
- It is possible to understand groups, collaborations and organisations as networks.
- It is possible to understand networks as a type of tensegrity structure.
- It is possible to understand networks as having certain types of health or fitness indicators which enable deeper understanding of their potential effectiveness in a number of important domains.
- With this understanding it is possible to develop and strengthen networks so that they are better able to function.
- It is possible to zoom out and understand the smaller network as part of a larger network of networks. This strategic view allows for greater strategic insight and understanding.
- This zoomed out view is again a tensegrity structure and network.
- It’s networks all the way up and all the way down.
- Any part of the network can have its health and fitness understood and improved.
- Improve the health and fitness of a network which connects networks (regional, professional, community of practice, peer support, community connectors etc.) and you may also see benefits ‘distribute’ themselves across the wider network.
Good collaboration isn’t easy but it can be easier
Much of what I am trying to bring to light is that which is, in my personal experience, often not perceived.
Power is one such aspect and if you look at the two examples above (big systems and community groups) you’ll see that it exists in between all of those relationships between of those different people, organisations and things.
It’s part of the structure but is mostly invisible or unstated.
The way in which change is implemented or not in large complex systems as given in the first example very quickly begins to emerge as a set of invisible power dynamics.
The way power is exerted in a hierarchical structure can be a problem.
Without transparency, openness, trust, rapport, camaraderie — these very human relational qualities — difficulties, unwanted tensions, poor responses and bad reactions begin to occur.
It’s very easy for everyone to blame everyone without good understanding, visibility and trust.
This is why good collaboration requires a lot of work in these human, relational and informational areas!
At the community level a very similar set of invisible dynamics exist.
When we bring professionals and communities together we begin to see imbalances reveal themselves in different ways.
Suits. Education. Confidence. Experience. Authority. Offices. Security. Chairpersons. Processes and Procedures.
All of these subtly alter and shape the nature of the relationships, thoughts and behaviours of everyone involved.
It can be a problem if we don’t know what’s going on.
Once we do understand more fully, it may be that much can be tackled in advance leaving us with far more conducive ways of working together.
The most important thing is to understand and recognise that this invisible layer (structure) exists and that it can get in the way and trip us up.
Good collaboration can build on this structural understanding and recognition.
Good facilitation works to address imbalances in all of these areas. It seeks to create understanding, build trust and foster good relationships. It seeks to recognise power and move it into a space where it becomes visible, depersonalised and deinstitutionalised.
Work to get these things right and this previously unseen aspect of people working together is no longer something which gets in the way or surprises you.
It becomes instead the very foundation of everything you do.
Wider Questions and Considerations
Maintaining level on uneven ground
I do question the lack of evenness which may exist as a result of citizen interventions.
I’m sure I’m not alone in seeing responsibility handed over a little too early and eagerly to groups, organisations or communities.
Parks, community gardens and public spaces are there for the public to provide benefits for the local community. They are most often a local authority responsibility.
When groups are not fully functioning i.e. at a reasonable stage of growth, development or maturity. Then their ability to deliver benefits to local people is reduced.
This should be recognised.
Secondly, outside funding for projects may result in less favourable outcomes than if a group is performing and operating well.
Any kind of organisation or group should at some point in their life meet a level of development and competency in a number of areas so that they can make full use not only of their own time and the time of others but also their own funds and the funds of outside funders.
It should be possible to ‘level up’ if you will.
There is an additional question of evenness which leads to questions around democracy, fairness and rights.
As public amenities there is no just reason why the local community near an actively group supported park should get a dramatically different experience than those living near a similar park in another area of the district.
I understand that different groups have different levels of time and skill and ambition and local engagement.
I understand that parks have different types of potential as well as different communities having different types of needs today as well as maybe having different needs again in the future.
I understand that local authorities can see this all as a way of ‘doing more with less’ and as it is volunteer led it can be perceived as something which should rise out of the community through their drive and volition.
But I also understand that local authorities bear a responsibility in getting it right for people and ensuring an evenness in quality and in what the public can access.
To get this right takes dedicated time, involvement and interest on the part of the local authority.
It requires the right information, deep understanding and good visibility.
This isn’t difficult stuff once the need is recognised.
Create the intelligence and the big picture comes into view.
Greater than the sum of its parts
To solve a problem you first have to understand that there is one or that one is on the way.
From my knowledge and understanding there is a problem that is currently unrecognised.
It isn’t only related to local friends’ groups it’s related to a fundamental change in the way things that have previously been done by the state are now happening outside of it.
This shift from a monolithic state delivering all things to all people to a more porous state supported by multiple organisations, groups and charities is opening up gaps and tensions which did not exist before.
There are holes appearing in the net and they may be getting larger and more numerous. They are a problem if we fail to recognise them or choose not to do something about them.
- Is it a problem or not if the people on the other side of the river get access to a local park which offers a choice of interesting activities and events but on your side of the river and on your park there is nothing?
- Is it a problem if a town’s only mental health support is delivered from a church and you are a Muslim or an atheist or a Jew?
- Is it a problem if your only local mental health peer group is held at a café where the owner has outdated and offensive attitudes towards you but not everyone else?
- Is it a problem if the only location for you to withdraw cash in a village is over the counter at the community run store?
The answer is that it matters if you are excluded from anything public for any reason whether deliberately, accidently or unconsciously. Because as citizens we should all be treated equally and with equal respect (this includes having the right to privacy and a private life).
The state as singular entity did and does this very well. It is an incredibly important part of living in a modern, equal, fair and even democracy.
It may be that as a distributed entity of disconnected entities it is far less able to do this.
As a singular entity it had singular regulation, policy and processes.
Intact and whole it could see itself and act more cohesively.
Separated, distributed and diffused and this ability to see and understand itself in total has disappeared as well as the ability to provide equality, evenness and thus fairness for the population.
Responsibility has been moved outside of the state and something extremely important has been lost on its way out of the building.
If a community organisation chair or worker is a racist, sexist or bully and that community organisation delivers services which were previously a state responsibility. Who do the public complain to and how do they seek redress? What happens if the response is ineffective?
Though never as easy as it should have been, at least it was relatively more straightforward to take your complaint to the council, your councillor or to the ombudsman.
I would ask if this is less true now and likely to become more difficult and less clear in the future?
Are we able to guarantee the same level of treatment, care and diligence that was there before with the singular state? If so, then how?
People shouldn’t be excluded from public life, local amenities, community or services but it can happen very easily if we let it or are not cognizant of how it can occur. It can happen purely through a person’s perception that they are thought of in a certain negative way. It’s sometimes very subtle stuff and requires that we see the world from a perspective that is not our own or that of our organisations. It is something we can be completely blind to.
Maybe the state hasn’t recognised that it’s opening up doesn’t mean less work to do. But that it means that there are new and different roles that need performing and new responsibilities to take on.
If the state is unwilling to recognise this and act accordingly then do we as the public and civil society have a duty to act in their absence?
There is much good; logical, practical and ethical about the democratic state as it has existed throughout the 20th century.
There is much there that could be lost, diminished or forgotten in the next decade or so if we are not careful and aware of the dangers.
It is fine for community groups and civil society to rush into the space and the gaps left behind as the state washes out of society. But filling the gaps in a piecemeal and disconnected manner does not recreate the democratic state and protections as they existed before.
It may appear more friendly, bright and colourful on the surface but it is behind and below this line that we need to pay close attention to.
It can be viewed as a reactionary response and as such may be lacking strategy and direction or a dedicated body of knowledge and expertise to support it.
The end result may be something reduced and barely functional or recognisable as a modern democracy.
It’s a terrifying possibility to have less of a democracy than we have today.
Is there an alternative?
It important to recognise where society’s strengths are in relation to this; Individuals, Communities, Civil Society, and the state (local authorities in particular).
It is possible to bring all of these into new and radically democratic organisations that are built conceived, designed and configured for the task at hand.
The task being citizens leading the change and a state and civil society sector ready and responsive to their needs.
It is not a revolution and very little new is actually required.
It is though a reconfiguration and an organising of organisations.
Not less democracy, less transparency, or less accountability, but more of each and every one of these things.
All this requires is a few missing bits of the picture to come together and everything is suddenly very possible.
What does a society look like when it works together?
Why is all of this important?
Understanding community groups, projects and organisations as networks allows us to create a universal approach to understanding their work and effectiveness.
Zooming out to the next scale allows us to connect all of these networks into a larger network of understanding. This gives rise to a greater ability to see, intervene, develop and invest where most strategically appropriate.
Zooming out again and we see how the smaller organisations connect with the larger organisations, state functions, and national need and priorities.
The nation becomes a network of networks each of which becomes intelligent as well being intelligence creating.
This universal network view and understanding is useful.
Networks form the common building blocks and we are able to understand them from a health and fitness perspective.
We can improve them, develop them and connect them intelligently.
The foundations of democracy, rights, equality and evenness do not disappear here but instead become embedded into the structure.
The system can see and understand itself as a totality and any missing infrastructure, knowledge or expertise can be developed and linked in as required.
It presents the possibility of a form of ‘common democratic institution and infrastructure’ in which communities, civil society and the state all begin to work together.
The picture I’m painting above represents a paradigm shift in how we understand society as a network of networks operating at different scales.
The revolution isn’t the paradigm.
Changing our way of seeing the world and ourselves can change our way of behaving, operating, organising, connecting and working.
Radical in its potential as it is, it is connecting this to science and computation where the rapid leaps might really begin to take place.