This post is by Jemima Gibbons FRSA. Follow her at
Tomorrow (Tuesday 30 April) the RSA in conjunction with Kingfisher plc will host a roundtable discussion looking at ways to build sustainable communities, with particular focus on skill sharing. The discussion will be chaired by Matthew Taylor, and will kick off with presentations by Ian Cheshire, Group Chief Executive of Kingfisher plc and John Compton, Manager of the Streetclub initiative. Participants will include 30 stakeholders from business, government and the third sector.
Since 2010, the RSA’s Connected Communities programme has been exploring communities of place as social networks. The project team is now testing the concept of informal skills sharing as a way of connecting people based on common interests and concerns, with the belief that this may lead to more sustainable, inclusive and empowered citizen networks. Meanwhile, Kingfisher plc is implementing a new approach to doing business which seeks to create social, economic and environmental value for business and community alike: its ambition is to make a ‘Net Positive’ contribution to society. This event is part of an ongoing series led by Kingfisher plc, exploring ways of building resilient, sustainable communities.
In the business world, an increasing awareness of finite resources at global level, combined with the ongoing need to solve big social problems and the change in consumer expectations have led to a boom in revenue models based on collaborative consumption. A host of new companies has been created with a sole remit – to encourage sharing between neighbours. Such businesses include Zipcar (shared cars and vans), Gocarshare (carpooling) and Storemates (space sharing). Big corporations ignore this new space at their peril – it is no surprise that major car companies like Hertz, BMW, Ford and GM have all announced partnerships or investments in car-sharing businesses in recent years.
For nonprofits too, sustainable communities seem to be a key obsession. Initiatives like The Big Lunch (founded in 2009 by Tim Smit of the Eden Project and funded by the National Lottery), Incredible Edible (led by RSA Fellowship Councillor Pam Warhurst), The Amazings (an offshoot of London agency, Sidekick Studios) and We Will Gather (set up by social artist turned activist Dan Thompson) all seek to foster community spirit in different ways. Meanwhile, new social enterprises and charities have been created to address specific social problems at a local level – such as repurposing disused shops and office buildings (3Space) or finding voluntary activities for under-employed young people (vinspired).
Even broadcast television has got in on the act, with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall/ Channel 4’s Landshare and the BBC’s DIY SOS – The Big Build calling on local communities to contribute time and resources to help their neighbours.
So, is facilitated skill sharing a good way to improve local communities? And how can businesses and other organisations persuade people at grassroots level that they have their best interests at heart? Will a ‘commercial edge’ start to become apparent (or harden) in business led community-building initiatives, or will they resist forms of direct marketing to participants (StreetClub, for example, has made it clear it will never direct market to its members)? Should we be leaving people to self-organise, or is a helping hand essential? How are common needs and interests brought to the fore? How can we motivate people? And how do we ensure that help reaches those who most need it? Tomorrow’s roundtable will seek to answer these questions – and more. Follow the #NetPositve hashtag on Twitter from 12.30pm for live coverage, and look out for our roundtable review in the next few days.
This blog takes in some stories and reflections from last weekend’s 4th UK Recovery Walk, some related learning from the RSA’s own work programme on recovery, and links to our new work on commissioning.
When I arrived at the assembly point on Hove Lawns half an hour before the scheduled start, I was somewhat concerned. Where was the large number of people registered to attend this year’s recovery walk? Perhaps the unseasonal sunshine had offered up other opportunities more appealing than a two and a half mile uphill walk through Brighton? The stewards and volunteers (who did an excellent job throughout the day) left it as long as they dared before finally calling people to gather round the opening speaker. Then, as the first words of welcome projected from the speakers, the crowd swelled as previously hidden people flocked in from the beach, the promenade, and the nearby shops and cafes. The scattered fragments of recovery had become a recovery network, humming with anticipation and excitement. The promised turnout had been reached (or perhaps even surpassed).
The speakers finished and the walk commenced with a palpable sense of joy and shared experience. T-shirts and banners testified to the fact that this was indeed a national walk – recovery groups from Warrington, Lancashire, Durham, Birmingham, Westminster, and nearby Adur (among many others) made their presence known, adding great voice to the colour (WARRINGTON, LA LA, LA!). We snaked our way through the town, swapping stories and good wishes. The crowd was peppered with familiar faces from various RSA projects – it was wonderful to see so many people from Peterborough, Bognor Regis, Crawley and Kent where we have worked in recent years looking so well and celebrating their recovery.
Everyone wanted to talk and connect to those around them. I struck up conversation with a young guy next to me. ‘Is that a Bichon Frise?’ he asked. I had brought my dog along on the walk. ‘It is, yes.’ ‘I’ve got one of those. I used to have a twelve stone Rottweiler, but I got rid of it when I got clean. Much as I loved him, it just didn’t kind of fit me anymore. I’m not angry like I used to be, you lose all that don’t you? So, my mum comes round with this box, I open it up, and there’s this little ball of fluff inside – a Bichon. I wouldn’t be without him now. Says a lot about how recovery has changed me I suppose. Mind you, I was always a Bichon at heart, on the inside’.
The police, shoppers, and locals added to the sense of celebration, in places cheering the walk along like an Olympic event (although perhaps an equal number of locals seemed bemused and tried to work out the theme and purpose of the march). We reached our destination at Preston Park, grateful for the water handed out by CRI. We had more speakers and more celebration. Caroline Lucas, the local MP for Brighton Pavilion described the event as incredibly inspiring, providing a chance for people who have sought and gained recovery to come together with family and friends to challenge the stigma around addiction, improve understanding, and bring hope to those struggling with substance misuse. Several bands kept the natural high going through the afternoon.
Scattered around the stage and stalls were message boards, offering people a chance for personal reflection, remembrance, and celebration. I started talking with a woman (let’s call her Sue) from South London, a long-time alcoholic recently in recovery. She told me about her broken relationships with her children and siblings, exhausted from the stresses of trying to live with and support someone with an addiction. The very fact that she had come on the walk had prompted her sister to get in touch for the first time in years. She had found out from a friend that Sue was now in recovery and had made the effort to travel down to Brighton by herself to cement and celebrate her recovery. The relief and nervous joy in her face in retelling the story brought a lump to both our throats. From here she looked forward to reconnecting with her kids.
I am pleased that the RSA in some small way supported this excellent event. Local Fellows provided a small grant to help in the planning stage, and our staff sat on early planning committee meetings and helped to promote and transport some people to the event. This is one of the things that distinguishes the RSA and makes it a fantastic organisation – its interest in and commitment to landing both policy change and action, as our new Action and Research Centre attests. But the real plaudits go to the group of people in recovery who organised such an uplifting and well-executed event.
More broadly, raising the profile and visibility of recovery is an important part of changing the public perception of those suffering addiction and of reducing the stigma felt by some of those most marginalised in society. The RSA’s West Kent Whole Person Recovery programme aims to generate this visibility and promote public dialogue, connecting the notion of recovery and the people in it to the wider parts of their communities from which they are often removed. By weaving together disparate individuals and interests (of service users, RSA Fellows and other citizens and local organisations and businesses) into productive networks, we can provide our service users with opportunities for engagement, action, influence, and skills they might otherwise not receive. (If you live or work in Kent and would like to participate in one of these community hubs, please get in touch.)
National walks and local recovery networks can help to create the cultural shift, social spaces, and support that aid people in moving away from entrenched networks and patterns of problem drug and alcohol use. For the individual, they can inspire a difficult step to be taken on a recovery journey. More broadly, they help society to see people with substance misuse issues for the fellow citizens that they are.
The UK Recovery Walk achieves the necessary scale to raise visibility because of the fact it is a UK-wide event and many people make the effort to march and show solidarity with others from different communities. But does the Walk also manage to add value to host cities, this year Brighton, last year Cardiff? This may not be its core purpose of course, but it is worth asking the question of how we capitalise on these events locally.
My sense is that hosting the walk imparts a confidence, status and pride in the existing recovery communities in host cities, positioning them as national hubs of recovery and inspiring local people with substance misuse to begin and/or continue their recovery journey. But I fear this direct impact at the local level is fleeting, and walks have yet to break new ground in host cities in significant ways. This previous blog touches on how recovery in Brighton could become a genuinely community-wide concern, engaging and working with a much broader range of city-stakeholders.
What is the role of the walk in affecting this kind of engagement? Perhaps a city would need to repeat the walk annually, turning it into a regular fixture on the community calendar and embedding it (and by extension recovery) in the fabric of the place. But does a city by itself have the critical mass to sustain an annual walk, and what are the consequences for the policy of rotating the venue around different UK cities and the benefits this brings? Perhaps a smaller, but regular, visible local event (in recovery month), that grows over time and through repetition is the answer. Further, what is the best way to engage those city’s citizens, businesses, and other institutions currently not actively engaged in recovery? This is a challenge the RSA’s Whole Person Recovery programme has confronted in its work in West Kent in trying to establish local recovery communities.
Our experience is showing that a blended approach to local engagement is required with two connected strands. We have organised a cluster of debates, activities, workshops, and training events that are clearly positioned as being ‘about recovery’. We then work through existing networks and one to one engagement to bring in other stakeholders to these events from outside existing recovery communities. Similarly, we are developing a cluster of events and activities that are broadly about local community and economic development. This clusters starts from the broad concerns of many local stakeholders and ensures our service users are included in these co-productive networks to tackle common areas of concern and aspiration. This strand helps to surface commanilities and create bridges between seemingly unconnected people and organisations. Such a two-pronged strategy imparts both a shared understanding of recovery, and wider social and economic inclusion for those in recovery. All events are facilitated carefully to ensure they are empowering, inclusive, value-adding experiences for our service users, and for other local people.
But such approaches require significant work. Commissioners should ensure that these kinds of recovery capital strategies, that add value to broader policy domains, are included and supported (through funding and through the use of existing networks to local businesses and so on) in future commissioning.
This raises the question of the balance commissioners should strike between investing in services that generate personal recovery capital, and the extent to which they should foster wider social, community recovery capital that creates the spaces, networks and conditions for people to more easily sustain their recovery in their communities. This is one of the themes the RSA is exploring in a new project on Best Practice Commissioning in the substance misuse sector, but I will leave that for another blog. It also links to the question of how commissioners can use the Public Services (Social Value) Act to generate more local social value through public procurement. Again, that is for another blog – but this time, here’s one I prepared earlier.
This week I was at the Lib Dem Party Conference in Brighton, where the RSA put on an event in partnership with ASDA on how business might help to meet social need in hard times. Paul Buddery has given the toplines from the discussion in this blog, and in it he poses the question of how we make the transition from good practice at the margins, to common practice in the mainstream. How do examples like ASDA’s Community Life Programme, and B&Q’s interest in co-producing shared value with its local communities, become standard business MO?
In discussing social value in the event, Lord Newby touched on the Public Services (Social Value) Act, which places a duty on public authorities to consider the economic, social and environmental well-being they (could) generate in the procurement of public services. For example, in considering tenders for a catering contract, a local authority might ask a potential supplier about local job and supply chain opportunities, and broader questions about how they intend to develop and utilise local social assets and networks.
In considering the potential of this legislation in the context of our event, an obvious thought occurs. What is the private sector equivalent of this act? How can we prompt businesses to consider how they can use their purchasing power to generate more social value? There are a number of avenues to explore. Firstly, would an equivalent ‘act’ work? What levers do we have to encourage businesses to buy in goods and services in such ways that create additional social value? Could businesses amend their procurement decision-making criteria to include an assessment of the social value generated by a potential supplier? If so, could this account for say 10% of the overall ‘score’ that determines which supplier gets the business? To incentivise businesses to adopt such procurement practices, could they qualify for a tax discount equivalent to a small proportion of the social value created?
There is probably not the appetite in any quarter to tinker with the tax system in this way, and such a proposal runs into another issue raised in our discussion: how do you measure social value in a fair, consistent, comparable way?
Parking the measurement issue for a moment, an alternative model might be to connect a ‘Private Sector Social Value Scheme’ to the Public Services (Social Value Act). Rather than merely considering the social value a supplier will create through their proposed delivery of a public service contract, a public authority could also consider how the supplier uses its own purchasing power to create social value. This could form part of the assessment for the award of the specific public service contract. Public authorities could require that businesses wishing to be placed on approved supplier lists/supplier frameworks consider how they use their purchasing power to create social value. Care would have to be taken not to privilege big business through such assessments. Returning to the measurement issue, it is clear that a form of relative measure is required instead of (or alongside?) an absolute measure of social value, and that such measurements are rigorous and not onerous to produce.
There are other avenues. Corporate Social Responsibility needs to progress from the sometimes tokenistic PR, peripheral to the core business proposition, to the notion of shared value through which the processes of enhancing business competitiveness, and the social and economic advancement of the communities the business serves/operates in, are brought together. Many businesses are moving in this direction. Could a voluntary scheme (adopted by big businesses with multiple local operations, or by the business community more widely) catch on in which businesses would change their procurement decision-making processes in the ways described above? What status could we give such a scheme to create value for participating businesses? Would a ‘Standard’ akin to Investors in People, or an accreditation and award scheme such as the RSA’s Business Awards for the Environment programme incentivise businesses to adopt these practices and provide sufficient reward for doing so? Perhaps this is an avenue for Business in the Community to examine. Part of the strategy to drive participation in the scheme would require making a clear case to business as to why this is in their best interests. The RSA’s recent Community Footprint report provides some evidence on the competitive advantages such behaviour generates for business.
So there are my top of the head thoughts on a Private Sector Social Value Scheme. At the end of our Lib Dem party conference event, in the time we had for networking and hoovering up the remaining ASDA muffins, I put the idea, in its equally embryonic state, to Lord Newby. He seemed to think there was potential. What do you think?
Today the RSA publishes its first book around our wider work on recovery from substance misuse. ‘The everyday lives of recovering heroin users’, by Joanne Neale, Professor of Public Health at Oxford Brookes University; Sarah Nettleton, Reader in Sociology at University of York; and Lucy Pickering, Lecturer in Anthropology at University of Glasgow, provides detailed accounts of the day to day, practical journey of recovery. By way of a blog and a book review, below is the foreword I wrote for the publication. Limited copies are available from the RSA – contact me by email.
This is a fascinating, in places touching, and, most importantly, useful book. Seldom heard personal accounts from 40 recovering heroin users reveal the psychological, physiological, and emotional journeys as they overcome their addiction. Ultimately, they are human stories that reveal simple and modest aspirations: recovering heroin users want to participate and feel valued as productive members of society. In the words of several interviewees, they just want to feel “normal”.
Starting the recovery journey can be a frightening and anxiety provoking prospect to many, and continuing it requires high levels of personal motivation and commitment. Yet, once embarked upon, the relief and refuge that recovery can provide is invaluable. We learn that although there are many common milestones on the road to recovery – the demands of detox, the need for support and to rebuild relationships – so too, within these categories, are journeys highly personalised and multi-dimensional in nature.
The interviews explore many aspects of recovery. One theme that emerges is the need for users to develop new social networks. The accounts in this book highlight the necessity of gaining distance from drug-using circles, which can all too often lead to relapse, and to make a new start in life with new connections, influences and opportunities. Repairing relationships with family members is also often a key part of (re-)building a support network and of relieving the feelings of shame and remorse that may arise from reflecting on past behaviour.
As people start to think about and come off heroin, there is a clear need to develop their ‘recovery capital’: the personal, social and wider community and cultural resources they need to support their recovery. In particular, the need for meaningful activity (including volunteering, paid work, education/training, and specific recovery activities such as fellowship meetings) comes across clearly in the interviews.
In trying to develop these elements of a ‘normal life’, interviewees reveal their fragility and the dangers of relapse that can be triggered by confusing and frustrating emotions and situations that emerge in the recovery process. The difficulties in sustaining recovery highlight the need for various forms of support to be available for potentially considerable lengths of time.
But despite the difficulties, there are many gains, even early on in recovery journeys. Interviewees rediscover their appetite, health, libido, sense of fun, pride and new sense of self and moral conscience. All these elements and more are qualitatively explored in the chapters that follow.
This book deepens our understanding of recovery, and provides a rich complement to the RSA’s Whole Person Recovery programme. It offers insights and prompts into how we can better design services and support for those navigating their recovery journeys. As the government continues to develop its thinking and guidance about how the recovery ambitions of the 2010 national drugs strategy can be achieved, commissioners, keyworkers, peers in recovery, users thinking about recovery, and families and friends of those using drugs or in recovery would benefit from reading this book.
Interviewees’ accounts clearly signal the need to design and commission services and support that take adequate account of the expansive nature of recovery, and of the time it can take to nurture its sometimes vulnerable roots. Services need to combine treatment with methods that build personalised social and economic inclusion and the wider social attitudes and behaviours that encourage and allow such inclusion.
A move to a recovery agenda presents new challenges to front line recovery workers. Staff in these positions need to give consideration to all the themes explored in this book and how they interact, and give attention to the individual details and circumstances that will help to make recovery stick and mitigate the risk of relapse.
For those contemplating starting out on their recovery journey, and for those who are some way along, the individual stories provide frank accounts of the challenges and rewards that lie ahead. I hope this book becomes a valuable reference point to those recovering from substance misuse, dispelling myths, providing encouragement, and cementing the necessary motivation, hope and resolve to recover.
Interviewees acknowledge that there is more support available now than in previous years. Our collective challenge is to sustain the gains we have made through investment in treatment (and the net benefits that expenditure has brought to individuals, wider communities and the public purse), and extend services and social support to improve the likelihood of sustainable recovery. By doing so, we will enable more recovering heroin users to feel ‘normal’. As Beth, 43, says “My hopes are to be happy, without drugs or alcohol, easy as that.”
While waiting for This Week to start, I channel-hopped my way to the ‘highlights’ of a Lords debate on BBC Parliament. (I told you Brighton, my home town, was notorious for partying.) The focus of the debate was Law and the Big Society: something that resonated with the recent talk given at the RSA by the excellent Larry Sherman, and with my own interests in restorative justice (I helped to establish New Cross Gate in South London as a ‘restorative community’ some years ago).
The debate was wide ranging, covering the representativeness of the magistracy (improving, but still poor); court administration (too slow, and with uneven access to and use of technology); and public faith in the justice system (variable). Much of the debate, however, focused on the relationships between community and the criminal justice system and the purpose of sentencing. Broadly, what is the relationship between the law and the idea of the Big Society?
Several of the contributors pointed to the magistracy, celebrating its 650th anniversary this year, as perhaps the first example of the kind of voluntarism and localism that is at the heart of the notion of the Big Society. But how can the magistracy (and other local administrations of justice such as restorative approaches and the forthcoming neighbourhood resolution panels), contribute more to the development of the Big Society, particularly given the public scepticism around community-based sentences?
Lord Patel, admitting his lack of enthusiasm for and understanding of the term ‘Big Society’, saw it is a model of social inclusion, but he focused only on inclusion within the magistracy and the need for the administration of justice to be delivered by and reflect all constituencies within a community.
Lord Thomas built on this theme, remarking that order is preserved in a community not by the police, but by the people. He pointed to work done by the Centre for Criminology at Oxford (with whom the RSA is researching co-production in recovery from substance misuse), which points to co-production as the central principle of the Big Society. According to the work, communities have very little engagement with the courts and “live in two separate worlds”. On the one hand, communities were disappointed with the level of engagement from magistrates, while on the other, magistrates worried about their judicial independence in building strong relationships with community stakeholders. The research concluded that courts have yet to embed principles of community justice, seeing their role as “adjudicators of fact and meters out of punishment and no more”.
If the law and the Big Society are to be mutually reinforcing, “community engagement and problem solving in partnership with community groups and agencies should become a formal, standardised part of a magistrate’s training and part of continuing professional development for existing district judges and magistrates”.
Baroness Seccombe argued that the Big Society means ”bringing decision-making back to communities so that local people have a real stake in running their own lives and supporting those who need a helping hand so that they can improve their lives. It means giving people the opportunity to bring colour and happiness to others less fortunate than themselves, while at the same time experiencing the genuine pleasure that can be had from joining a group of people who get things done, so contributing to a thriving community. The Big Society is where we can all help each other as we try to do our bit to promote local well-being.”
If the law is to be in part a driver of the Big Society, what scope is there for the criminal justice system to foster group collaboration, the inclusion of marginalised people, and thriving communities?
Community sentencing seems an obvious first place to look. Community sentences often include ‘community payback’, which focuses on unpaid work such as removing graffiti, clearing public areas/wasteland, or decorating public places and buildings such as local community centres. Such sentences have undergone changes in recent years: the renaming from community service to payback emphasises the focus on punishment, and the enforced wearing of high-visibility jacket emblazoned with ‘Community Payback’ aims to improve public confidence in community sentences and increase deterrent and shaming effects.
Are we missing a trick to make sentencing more socially productive?
But are we missing a trick to make sentencing more socially productive? In visibly marking offenders as ‘other’ and by focusing on payback activities that mean offenders work in isolation (either individually or only with other offenders), are we limiting the rehabilitative potential of such sentences? The RSA’s Connected Communities programme has explored the ways in which our relationships influence our attitudes, behaviours and opportunities. Our work on recovery from substance misuse, for example, shows how those who use drugs problematically are caught in social networks in which most, or in many cases all, of the people they know and/or receive support from are other drug users.
Given this kind of example, can we use sentencing to widen the constructive social connections of offenders and provide the possibility of more positive social influence? Rather than separating off offenders, can they undertake ‘payback’ that is equally demanding and useful, but that requires interaction with the parts of their communities from which they are removed?
‘Social sentences’ speak to restorative models of justice, and encourage ‘reparation’ agreements that tap into victims’ desire for wrongdoers to make amends in meaningful ways
Such ‘social sentences’ speak to restorative models of justice, and encourage ‘reparation’ agreements that tap into victims’ desire for wrongdoers to make amends in meaningful ways. Examples might include helping to organise and put on community events, working on specific tasks for voluntary groups, assisting with community organising, helping with consultations and so on. Such examples might be particularly effective where sentences involve a relatively high number of hours work that enable sustained interaction and influence.
Norwegian criminologist Nils Christie argued some 35 years ago that conflicts belong to the people that are involved in them and that in transferring ownership of them to the state and courts, we ‘steal the conflict’ and remove communities’ opportunities to resolve them directly and the benefits that might result in doing so. Even in restorative practices, and in prescribing (or directing) the kinds of reparation wrongdoers might make in community payback, we still limit the social benefits and rehabilitative power of local resolutions.
In a Big Society model of locally administered justice, the balance between punishment and rehabilitation, and how each is delivered, should be for communities and victims to determine, within the wider legal framework. And of course, we have to take care to respect victims’ wishes, and ensure social sentences do not cause problems and burdens for those assisting in carrying them out.
In the Lords’ debate, Baroness Miller felt that the “possibility of rehabilitation is a very worthy objective, but one which perhaps all too often does not work. Community service orders are regrettably inadequately staffed and funded and sometimes consist of futile lamppost-counting operations.” Social sentences make the possibility of rehabilitation in the community more practicable; provides more meaningful activities to be carried out in the sentence; and provides more capacity for administering the sentence.
Such options can be applied through the magistracy (which deals with over 90% of all criminal cases), neighbourhood resolution panels, and other restorative mechanisms. In fact, there is the possibility of developing more socially productive sentences through existing means. Community payback currently offers the opportunity for local people to nominate work/projects. So go on, nominate a social sentence, and let me know if you are successful.
Of course, other readers may just want to nominate people whose company or conversation feels like a (different kind of) social sentence. I can feel my colleagues exchanging knowing looks already…
On Friday I went to a debate hosted by Mike Weatherley, MP for Hove and Portslade. It followed hot on the heels of a drug policy roundtable convened by Caroline Lucas MP, in whose Brighton Pavilion constituency I live.
Friday’s topline theme was drug-related deaths. Brighton is the so-called ‘drug death capital’ of the UK, having the highest per capita drug mortality rate in the country and roughly one drug-related death a week, according to 2009 figures (although the trend is down). The event was structured into four themed sessions, bringing forth evidence, strategy, opinions and personal stories from a range of speakers, examining drug-related deaths from the perspectives of social exclusion, medical treatment and criminal justice.
Let me give you some feedback that will help me make my points, which are beyond the specific issue of drug-related deaths. We heard some statistics that offered up obvious responses. Most deaths occur in users’ homes, or in friends’ homes, and most are ‘witnessed’ – there are people (other users, for example) present, who are willing to act in an emergency but who often don’t have the requisite knowledge or equipment to intervene while they wait for the ambulance. Brighton leads the way in training peers and professionals in how to use naloxone, an opioid antagonist and ‘antidote’ to a heroin or morphine overdose. Further roll-out in training and availability of naloxone to the family and social networks of users is progressing, but nationally more could be done through service user groups, needle exchanges and so on.
We learnt that a high proportion of people who suffer drug-related deaths in Brighton migrate here: they do not have easy access to the social roots and support connections afforded by a local upbringing, education and family. Our own work on problem drug users in neighbouring West Sussex shows that they are often trapped in social networks in which the only people they are connected to and draw support and influence from are other drug users. This makes recovery more difficult.
And we heard that while Brighton has the worst drug related death figures, its rate of drug use generally is only in the top third nationally. Why this conversion rate? It seems there are clusters of problematic users and associated behavioural norms that are fed by a wider cultural image of Brighton as a place where, in the words of one speaker, you do things “on the edge”. On a related point, we heard that among young people, there is a perceived normalisation of drug and alcohol use.
When the sessions opened up for debate, there were some opposing views (to decriminalise or not, to focus solely on abstinence based approaches or not), but it was clear that all those in the room were in some way connected to drug policy, commissioning or services. We were all energised and motivated to change things, but in essentially talking to ‘ourselves’, there were two themes notably missing from the conversation and participants.
Firstly, there did not seem to be representation from the (local) private sector (outside of a local private health provider). Brighton has a rich creative and night-time economy and some of the comments from the floor suggested that there was a positive feedback loop in which Brighton’s image as a ‘party town’ and its provision for partying are mutually reinforcing. Our Connected Communities programme has been looking at ways in which businesses can move beyond what is often tokenistic Corporate Social Responsibility towards the idea of Shared Value, in which social and economic objectives align and in which the social problems that are currently perceived as externalities are brought into the core business model, creating value for both business and local people. This requires a significant shift and we have explored how businesses and local people can co-produce objectives and action for mutual gain. While Brighton’s economy and citizens gain a lot from its creative industries, this line of thinking might be brought to bear on Brighton’s drug and alcohol issues. (More on this line of work in later RSA Projects posts.)
The second issue is how to make connections to citizens and institutions beyond those already engaged and concerned with substance misuse. The saying (variously attributed) goes that in theory there is no difference between theory and practice, but in practice there is. In theory, the national drug strategy sets out a vision of recovery, with strong social and economic ambition for what drug users can be supported to achieve. In theory, we are driving practice towards what works through mechanisms like Payment by Results – functioning PbR should be more expansive, more ethical, and more empowering because of what is shown to work. And in welfare reform more broadly, we are demanding a ‘fairer’ exchange between citizen and state – with the right of support comes the responsibility of social and economic contribution. These elements should be mutually reinforcing.
But what about the practice? How we commission for recovery is key. We must ensure that re-integrative support, during and particularly after structured treatment, is available. Too often people return to the social networks in which problems developed and that are least able to provide the support, influence and opportunity necessary to sustain recovery. There is a danger that our vision of recovery may be undermined by commissioning that is too focused on cost, while the lack of public finance elsewhere erodes social support in the third sector and wider job opportunities.
Saul Alinksy suggests that in order to create change, we must start from how the world is and from people’s lived experience, and create a bridge to a possible future world. This bridge, in part, needs to be commissioned and co-produced with users and communities. According to our research (and others’) the overwhelming majority of substance misusers want to be drug free, in work or education, with nourishing relationships with family and friends. But as our Whole Person Recovery report illustrates, “a lack of confidence, stigmatisation, chequered employment history, health issues, criminal records, and addiction” mean the jump to this future world is often overwhelming.
To aid recovery journeys, we must both strengthen and extend networks. Without doing this we risk further excluding marginalised people in the re-drawing of rights and responsibilities. Localism, as Caroline Lucas has said, provides Brighton with an opportunity to develop a contextualised approach that taps into its culture and rich social capital and that creates City-wide networks of support for people recovering from substance misuse.
In reference to the earlier statistics, this might include, on the one hand building capability within drug users’ networks to administer naloxone. And on the other, it should include tapping into the social and economic capital of local people and businesses and extending it to those without access to it. This will not be achieved, however, until we think of and treat people exiting structured treatment as assets in communities, rather than problems to be contained or controlled in marginalised settings.
Next year’s national Recovery Walk will be in Brighton and can perhaps help forge connections and spread this message at scale. As one of Friday’s speakers suggested, treatment is but the soup of the three course recovery dinner. The proof of the practice of recovery will, if you like, be in the pudding.
On Tuesday 14 July, I’m chairing an event at the RSA asking if people need community anymore. The event is built on the assertion that modern Britain is characterised by significant advances in personal capacity and greater heterogeneity in society. With this backdrop, public services are increasingly being delivered as personalised entitlements, and people are perhaps increasingly finding connections in networks rather than neighbourhoods. The debate will ask what, therefore, is the role of community in today’s society? And does it have to be ‘physical’ community to count?
To help us navigate our way these through questions, we’ve got two great speakers. Amitai Etzioni, University Professor at The George Washington University, former President of the American Sociological Association, and founder of the Communitarian Network will kick us off. Following on from his vision for public services given at the RSA in March, the Rt Hon Liam Byrne MP, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, will then give a response.
To make up for our limited physical capacity and my leading introduction, I offer you this as some small compensation: I will put the best comment/question from comments to this blog to our speakers on Tuesday. So: what is the role of community in today’s society? Does it have to be ‘physical’ community to count? Over to you…
Here we are – Connected Communities’ first foray into the blogosphere. As a virgin blogger, I’ve been getting advice from Matt Cain on content, style and readership development. ‘You need a mix of news and research comment, and analysis of some of the high level concepts you’re dealing with. But your project is essentially about understanding and generating change at the neighbourhood level, so you really need to talk about some examples of grassroots action. But you probably need to set out all of this upfront, and simply, so you can take people with you and so they understand what they might be coming back for. You also need to make it personal – give something of yourself’ I paraphrase him as saying. Helpful advice, so…
A couple of weeks ago, I got a flyer from Islington Council. It was entitled something like: ‘Introduce-yourself-to-a-neighbour day’ , the idea being that on some pre-defined day in the near future residents across the Borough would be calling round to the people next door and organically generating a more cohesive community. The idea of a direct call to social capital arms is interesting and raises many discussions about how policy and public sector actors can intervene (and whether they should) to build social relationships. More on this in future blogs.
I like to think of myself as an active citizen, and as a Fellow of the RSA as well as staff member, I want to live the values we espouse as an organisation. I also like to think of myself as a nice guy and given a new couple have just moved into a flat in our building, I decided to invite them round for a welcome-to-the-area-get-to-know-you drink.
They came round. In working our way awkwardly through a few glasses of wine, the inevitable question was put to me: ‘So, what do you do?’. I have never been particularly good at answering this question – having worked in niche areas of economic development and community regeneration, and with a propensity to adopt and use the jargon of these disciplines, my replies have tended to confuse rather than inform. But I’d spent most of the week trying to give an answer to this question to RSA colleagues with respect to the percolating Connected Communities project. I was fired up by the possibilities that were emerging. I let them have it.
‘It’s about how social networks can be better understood and utilised in addressing social problems’ I gushed. ‘It’s about reviewing the utility of social capital theory, turning it into practical tools for social change. It’s about tapping into and building civic capacity, our willingness to do good things collectively, voluntarily’.
I realised I was sounding like John Prescott. I took a breath and tried to calm down. ‘OK, look, simply put, social capital theory 101 says that the connections, or networks, between people have value and there is evidence to show that they impact on important issues like economic performance, educational attainment, health, and crime. But these networks are hard to see, hard to understand, hard to measure, and hard to mobilise strategically in addressing any particular problem. Social capital can also take different forms: it can bond across homogenous groups; it can bridge across diverse types of people, and it can link people to power and decision-makers. These different forms are relatively more or less important depending on what issue you’re dealing with and with whom. So if you were to try and generate social capital, you’d need a kind of multivitamin approach that got the right balance of ingredients according to what mineral deficiencies you were addressing. Or, if you like, a great recipe for a hearty, nourishing soup. You’d also need to think about at what level you might act: most consideration is given to social capital at the meso level – the between, community, level – but some people also talk about the importance of and blend with the micro (family, close friends) and macro (national) level.
‘What I’m interested in is the best recipe for meso soup. What ingredients do you need and how do you measure them out, how do you prepare and cook it, who should cook it, what skills and equipment do you need? I’m interested in understanding how you might create the conditions that support generating the right social capital, particularly if this is then done in the spirit of a new collectivism that is bottom up, networked, spontaneous, resourceful, and not only driven by public sector actors and the usual third sector suspects. I’m going to find new ways of mapping and visualising these networks, and of doing it in ways so that local people are encouraged to own, join, strengthen, enjoy and use these networks for social progress. The ideal communityscape I suppose.’
I looked up. Our guests had subtly, but certainly, recoiled. They were leaning back, chins into chests, peering over glasses, brows furrowed. It’s a reaction I’ve encountered before when I’ve embarked on equally enthusiastic accounts of other favourite topics – logistic regression, spreadsheet functionality, and the like. Usually, one of two reactions presents itself. The first is a mixture of fright and bewilderment; the other simple pity. I waited.
So, pity had won out. I accept that I should probably get out more, but the speed and accuracy of the diagnosis was discomforting.
‘Seriously, I think you should go. Our friend lives at the end of the terrace, his next door neighbour, an elderly man, recently moved in, tripped and fell into his front garden. My mate came out and took him to the Café for a cup of tea. Long story short, they now meet for tea each week or so, he helps him with his garden, he’s plugged into the lunchtime social specials they have there, the police safer neighbourhood lot meet there and now know him and look out for him. They have weekend reading sessions for kids. And the Café itself buys all its ingredients from the other local traders, and they’re completely into fresh healthy ingredients through a local network. It’s all probably much more effective than anything the Council could deliver by itself. You could start to see it and encourage it as the hub of a network for social good. But isn’t who goes there just opportunistic to an extent? If you could identify who uses places like this and why; how to make them more inclusive and understand and address local problems effectively; how to identify and use these kinds of resources in the first place, well…It’s kind of social enterprise through reconceived existing networks. And if you could encourage other positive spin-offs: what good stuff could people who meet their together do? That’s what you’re talking about isn’t it?’ They waited.
‘That’ I said, ‘is exactly what I’m talking about’.