Sue Tibballs: Devolving power brings its own new challenges

New ways of working disrupt all the 'norms' about where expertise lies

Sue Tibballs
Sue Tibballs

The nature of change changes. All the time. So the ways in which people, communities and civil society look for ways to pursue change also change, perpetually evolving.

Unsurprisingly, it is often smaller or newer organisations that are quickest to adapt. Large organisations find it relatively easy to read the world and change strategy, but it is another thing to change organisational culture and practice.

Many of the biggest shifts in change-making revolve around themes such as devolving power, being led by lived experience, focusing on relationships, bringing movement-based approaches and taking advantage of tech to find new ways to connect, organise and deliver.

Linking these is the theme of accessing and unlocking the untapped potential in people and communities to drive change. To do this, organisations need to devolve responsibility and resources, take themselves out of the picture and cede control. These are not easy things to do: professionals across disciplines have been inducted into a model of campaigning that is all about holding control from the centre, from brand guidelines to messaging crib sheets to carefully laid out internal approval processes.

It is encouraging to see that a goodly number of bigger organisations that can really help lead the charge are trying to change. They are embracing new trends by doing things such as bringing in community organisers, or training users or supporters to become activists. But they are finding that even these apparently limited forays are bringing profound challenges back to the organisation. What do you do if your community organisers find that the community doesn’t agree with what HQ thinks is the problem? If you start to empower service users to become activists, what does this mean for colleagues who are still in client-facing service delivery roles?

New ways of working disrupt all kinds of "norms" about where expertise lies. They can leave individual staff wondering where it leaves them as professionals. What is their status and value if they are not in charge? New ways of working can strain the risk register. What if someone says something ill-considered? What if a local group does something the central office would not have? And they can cause havoc for monitoring and evaluation. How do we keep track of what is going on? Are we even on track?

Once the genie of new power is out of the bottle, it is very hard to put it back.

These larger organisations need help with internal culture change, and people need more support to rediscover their roles. As with so many other types of high-quality capacity-building, there is an industry working in culture change in the private sector. Where is the equivalent for the social sector? And support for individuals is virtually non-existent as far as I’m aware. Please do shout if I am wrong.

Emerging patterns of social change tell us that if we are to effect more change in the world we are going to have to spend more time changing ourselves. Or as the Persian mystic Rumi put it more eloquently: "Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself."

Sue Tibballs is chief executive of the Sheila McKechnie Foundation

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