Best of The Month – Radical Help
Kobus Cilliers | On 11, Mar 2020
I had the very good fortune this month to hear this month’s Best Of The Month author speak at a Summit held by the Welsh Government for 250 of its leaders. One of the themes of the day was innovation (which, I guess, is why I’d been invited to speak). As usual, much of it was the usual depressing combination of ‘innovation is easy’ naivety on the part of the speaker and can’t-get-there-from-here irrelevance as far as the audience was concerned. While it might be fun occasionally to be inspired to think differently, if there’s no way you can put any of the ideas into practice then, ultimately, what was the point? When it comes to the public sector just about anywhere on the planet, the Level of Innovation Capability Maturity is One. Right at the beginning of the scale. Which means that any high falutin’ talk about ‘transforming government’ and ‘ripping things up and starting again’ is frankly not just pointless, but depressing too. Politicians, it seems – or UK ones at least – appear to have a great fondness for The Big Project. The sorts of project that require Level 5 Innovation Capability. Such projects might sound sexy and thus make for great media coverage, but they have no chance of being delivered successfully. Usually, of course, the politician will have been voted out of office or, if they got especially lucky, been promoted to a different job before the chickens come home to roost. Level 1 enterprises need to take on very unsexy Level 1 projects if they want to have any chance for tangible success. Sad but true. Mostly true.
Hilary Cottam’s book, Radical Help, describes a number of Level 1 compatible community-based change projects that make for rather wonderful grass-roots cases of making a difference. They also demonstrate how it is more often than not necessary to break ‘logical’ Government conventions. The so-called Law Of Unintended Consequences in action: Government bodies typically only do things that appear ‘logical’, but end up delivering outcomes that are the precise opposite. Crime reduction programmes that cause an increase in crime. Poverty alleviation projects that increase poverty. Etc, etc. Taken at this level, Cottam’s stories are a real breath of fresh air. Authentic fresh air. Since here is a person who also understands the idea of ‘skin in the game’ (‘how can you expect to improve the lives of people living in a Dominican favela if you’ve never spent any time living with them?’), the need for keeping officialdom at bay, and – best of all – the need to aim for Ideal Final Result type outcomes. Self-organising, self-managing solutions that wouldn’t be out of place if this was a TRIZ textbook on social innovation.
True, Cottam also has her fair share of Utopian can’t-get-there-from-here visions for the future, but at least she is able to set those thoughts in the reality of the vital need to create a ‘sense of progress’ from the skin-in-the-game stakeholders. Add to the story the prospect of severe global chaos in the coming years (according to us!), and maybe then a route to ‘there’ does become possible. Because the only way forward when our bloated, stuck-at-the-top-of-their-s-curve public institutions have finally collapsed, is to build the pieces back again one community, one Level 1 project at a time.
Radical Help is about new ways of organising, living and growing that have been developed with communities across Britain. Cottam makes the point that the British welfare state transformed the lives of millions of people. And how the model was subsequently emulated globally, setting the template for the ways we think about social change across the world. But she goes on to demonstrate that this once brilliant innovation has absolutely now hit a dead end and can no longer help us face the challenges of today.
Radical Help argues that our 20th century system is beyond reform and suggests a new model for this century: ways of supporting the young and the old, those who are unwell and those who seek good work. At the heart of this new way of working is human connection. When people feel supported by strong human relationships change happens. And when we design new systems that make this sort of collaboration feel simple and easy people want to join in.
The vision is (ICMM Level 5) big but Radical Help is a (Level 1) practical book. It shows how we can make change and how we can make a transition now towards a new system that can take care of everyone. It’s also the most heartwarming and authentic read of my year. And, I hope, soon, yours too.