Are You an Institutional Radical? (no, don’t duck…)

I spend a lot of time in blogs and publications that aren’t exactly household names, and the brilliance of what you find there is often stunning.  Cormac Russell is revered among a certain subset of the community development world for his work on articulating Asset-Based Community Development principles.  As benign as that sounds, it’s often a hard sell for the kinds of reasons the book identifies as so crucial to the emerging economy — interconnecting resources.  incremental progress, small scale, Little Bets, attention to future impacts and potential unintended consequences, etc. etc.  Doesn’t sound like rocket science to me.

In many specific organizations, however, both Cormac and I have noticed that you have to be a bit of a radical, in the generic sense, to move an organization toward those kinds of ways of working.  And so I loved this list of Institutional Radical characteristics from Cormac’s blog.  The full post is much longer and tells an interesting story about a social services and  prison re-offender issue, which colors the social services tone of this excerpt.   But I thought that the principles in this section were pretty universally applicable to conventional government and nonprofit work.  We have a tendency to see ourselves as professionals who do things _to_ communities, populations, people, instead of seeing ourselves as the manager or caretaker or capacity-builder for the community.  As I’ve talked about elsewhere with regard to the challenges of Business Recruitment and Retention in economic development, and the rush to develop civic apps without learning deeply about what communities actually need, and methods of public engagement in urban planning and all types of local government that give residents no options other than applauding or throwing tomatoes, we need to shift our fundamental approach away from doing to, and toward doing with.  

So without further ado, here are the

Seven Habits of Institutional Radicals

Habit #1: Get Out of the Way

There are certain things that only communities can do; beyond a certain point institutions become useless, and a community response is the only viable one….

 Institutional radicals understand that institutions forget that they have been hatched from the nest of associational life, and, through arrogance and an over eagerness to help or regulate, often get in the way of community alternatives.

Radicals heckle and disrupt their systems, like protective lionesses they patrol the boundaries between institutional life and community, and snap at the heels of those who would seek to grow the influence and hegemony of the system.  To achieve this they lead by stepping out of civic space, and not doing for individuals and communities what they can do for themselves. In simple terms they get out of the way.

Habit #2: Reduce Dependency

Their mantra is clarion: if we are to reduce dependency on our institutions, we much increase interdependency in community life. They are driven by the belief that extended time in their institution, whatever it might be, is time lost making a life. ‘Get a life, not a service’ is their motto:  they see services as only there in reserve, while they believe community and free association is the preferred front line of social change and well being. They do not therefore, measure their success by the number of clients they have in their programmes, but the extent to which they have built community, and, accordingly, reduced dependency on their services. This may seem counter intuitive, and so it should, it’s radical!

There are many ways of increasing dependencies on services. From the outset needs analysis is about the best, since it confuses service categories with human needs and simultaneously convinces those that are being analysed that their capacities are irrelevant, only their needs matter. And so the most disruptively innovative step a radical takes is to move from needs analysis to a participatory asset inventory that is led by communities themselves. Radicals know that we can’t know what people need, until we and they first know what they have.

Habit #3: Increase interdependency

Deinstitutionalisation is not a new concept. Today I spoke at the Swedish National Social Care Convention. I addressed an audience of some 700 social workers, many of whom led the drive to close institutions across Sweden over twenty years ago. But they tell me that for many, community care is tantamount to lonely living.

Radicals don’t just shut down institutions, they are intentional about promoting a great level of interdependency between the people they serve and the community at large.

Habit #4: Be Authentic about the limits

Systems and institutions are not designed to care; people care, systems produce services to a standardized format and are structured to enable the few to control the many. Radicals get this, accept it, and move on; they do not try to reform the system to do what it can’t. A radical is also a pragmatist who accepts that institutions have functions, and so to do communities. They are clear, that institutions cannot and should not replace the functions of individuals, families and communities.

What is the service for loneliness? There isn’t one! If you think that befriending schemes are the answer, then I hate to break it to you, but you’re not a radical.

Habit #5: Clear and vocal about what Community can do

Radicals understand that communities have irreplaceable functions that if not done by them, can not be done by any other. They are clear, therefore, around what it is they believe communities must do to be the change they seek. Their voice is a revelatory one, they often see what is invisible to most, and invite it into expression.

Habit #6: Do no Harm

Radicals understand the harm they can do; they know that helping hurts as well as heals, and they see clearly the iatrogenic effects that their systems regularly bring about. Their prime directive is, therefore, to do no harm to the individual agency of the people they serve, and the community capacities that can serve to grow interdependence beyond institutional boundaries.

Habit #7: Don’t reform; re-function.

Radicals are not invested in reforming their institutions and its systems. They understand that form follows function and that most institutions have never figured out their function, and therefore are formless. Many public sector institutions and some civil society organisations have lost sight of their function to serve the public good. Local governments throughout the world, for example, have become so focused on the provision of statutory services that they have failed to attend to their functions as stewards of local democracy. Consequently they have come to treat people as clients of their services, and not as citizens with authority; at the centre of local democratic life.

Hence we do not need reform, we need re-function. Institutions, which were once hatched from associational life, have become bloated and arrogant. Their function is simply to do what we cannot do in associational life, no more, no less. Yet they regularly colonise our lives and our neighbours, attempting to manage, regulate, curricularise and otherwise control free space. Restoring the function of our systems is the work of radicals, and in essence is an effort towards halting the expansion of the systems world into the associational world. Another motto of the radical is: Institutions know your place.

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