Community accountability: it's the way we do business
Sally Lowndes, 2018
For Community Business, accountability isn’t an add on, it’s part of the fabric.
People often ask how we practice accountability, and while we have many mechanisms, as discussed below, it’s also just inherent. In Watchet, we facilitate the different perspectives of the town to come together and create vision and actions, and so we are, by our very nature, accountable.
‘Sustainability is a dialogue of values,’ so says Blake Ratna in his 2004 peer reviewed paper of the same name. But what does this really mean, and how do we know if we are doing it well? What are the tools, and what are the pitfalls?
There isn’t a prescribed set of mechanisms for accountability. A community business can adopt many tools to be sure it’s speaking on behalf of its community, and for funded projects, grant providers will always want to see that a great effort has been made, whether that’s through community board members, staff recruited from the area, meaningful consultation, or transparent reporting. But it’s about more than pleasing funders for groups like ours. We live in the community we’re working in – if we don’t do it right, we’ll be slaughtered!
For us, the reality of doing business in this way – in and with our hometown – comes with a huge sense of nervous responsibility. There isn’t a united voice from the community, there are myriad of values and engaging everyone is nigh on impossible, so even for us grass roots idealists, we have to accept a certain level of democracy as enough. These are just a few of the major accountability tools we use to get us to that point, and the truthful bits about why they aren’t always easy:
We are Watchet citizens, with a huge emotional investment in the future of this town. This also makes us personally accountable.
We’re a team of eight, and we all live in the area; seven of us within Watchet itself. And while we may not have many generations in the graveyard, we have kids in the schools. This is very much our home, and we’re personally invested in its future.
Being ‘of the community’ is a major, innate accountability tool, but also a major cause of stress. Everything we do is on show and will be judged by our neighbours, kids’ teachers, hairdressers, builders, shopkeepers, plumbers – there’s nowhere to hide. And because we’re all friends and go to the same parties, we talk about work literally ALL THE TIME.
But this is what we care about, so it’s actually fine. Great, even. It’s why we give up most of our evenings and countless weekends. We want our town to have a sustainable future, so it can flourish for years to come, and we get excited about what the path there might look like.
While we’re generally blown away and humbled by the support in this town, there are some who find it hard to understand our motivation, and we’ve been met with distrust and misunderstanding along the way. The transition from councils being able to carry out this work, and community businesses being passed the baton, is a bewildering one for many, and can lead to some harsh judgements. We’re not perfect, but we do work really hard, so it stings when this happens.
Cue gin, deep breaths, and another one of those ‘we need to be empathetic’ conversations. Deep, visceral empathy is a kind of nirvana in community business, if also the cause of many breakdowns.
Stake and onions: we engage stakeholders through endless consultations, and respond accordingly.
In order to respect the myriad values, we practice consensus style democracy as best we can. With the East Quay development in Watchet – our flagship project – we have discussed, negotiated, and compromised between stakeholders over three years-worth of iterations. Of course the stakes are high with a game changing development like this one, so it’s taken us this long to reach a level of democracy we feel comfortable with, and to accept the level with which we’ve responded to the different stakeholders. We’ve been to the school, to fairs, to church, to the football club, the Legion, the Visitor Centre, visited hairdressers, shop keepers, local cafes and pubs for one-to-one discussions, and we’ve hosted sessions with all the local community organisations.
Still I was told the other day that we haven’t consulted enough... Cue gin, deep breaths….
We locate and make the most of externally moderated communication streams
Print press is vital for reaching a large section of the community, but social media is brilliant for creating instant webs of conversation. We’re lucky in Watchet that we have a few social media pages that are hugely popular with the local community, where posts will reach a large portion of the community in a very short space of time and we can monitor public opinion on various projects. These are places where people can openly discuss their views.
While we monitor conversations, we’ve learnt not to respond to threads about our work unless we’re asked a direct question – it’s important people feel free to discuss the issues. It can be very hard not to correct misinformation, but as more people understand our business model, these pages are becoming self-regulating. But again, the dehumanizing effect created by a keyboard can lead to some brutal conversations. In all honesty, these are now a rarity, and we’re often heartened by the positivity of the town. Phew. This trend towards more positive conversations is a brilliant outcome of an engaged community. We often feel humbled to be part of a town that must have more social capital than just about anywhere else in the country.
We are finding ways of reaching deeper into the community, in a two-way conversation
For us, what began as stakeholder consultations, quickly moved to stalls at carnivals and markets and town wide surveys, then more recently evolved into a kind of ambassador programme, where we identified a group of ten local people, who work and socialize in different areas of the community, and could represent each. They were all invited in for tea and cake and a good two way discussion about our work. Now fully informed, we’ve asked them to counter any misinformation they hear out there, to let people know how to contact us with concerns, and to report back with any general worries they hear discussed in the town.
So far so good, but we almost certainly need to develop this idea further. In this instance, cake will suffice, no need for gin.
Monitoring and reporting
For each of our projects we carry out a thorough logic framework, which identifies the short and long term outcomes, as well as the risks, and makes us think about how we will monitor all this. Annual surveys, feedback forms, volunteer engagement, verbal feedback and case studies all help us to monitor and report on the work we’re doing. Each year we create an annual report with particularly visual content, that’s appealing to read. These get circulated throughout the town and can be found on our website.
We (mostly) embrace our thin skin, while stocking up on gin and cake
People will tell you that you need to be thick skinned. While this may help with your personal capacity to survive being part of a community business, the impermeability of thick skin makes you less responsive to those who challenge your own views. And remember that deep, visceral empathy being our nirvana?!
One of our key difficulties has always been differentiating between the few who object with loud voices, and what the majority truly believes. We used to get bogged down by the few, but are learning to listen better to all. At consultations now we try to get everyone in the room to share an idea or express an opinion.
We are yet to engage all members of our community in the dialogue. Years of top-down
bureaucracy has left some feeling disenfranchised, and redressing this takes time. While the number is decreasing all the time, there are still those who simply don’t trust our motivation. We don’t have the answers for this, so for now, we’re keeping all channels open and hoping that time will enable better conversations.
Community business may have endless personal rewards – we invest all of ourselves in order to make the place we live better; to give it a more sustainable future, with jobs and opportunities, especially for our young people, with mechanisms for capturing the skills and knowledge of one generation and passing them on to another, with projects that increase civic pride and the vibrancy of the town, for increasing the sense of collective endeavor and combatting loneliness – but this does come at a personal cost. We work almost all the time, are always on show, always being judged, and pay a heavy price for any fallibility. But, you know, the end game is worth it. It’s a hometown with a stronger future, where our kids can prosper, and, in the bigger picture, it’s a more socially just world where business isn’t just about profit.
Sustainable development is a cultural process that requires multi-level ownership. Leadership here isn’t top down or solutions based; it’s all about process. Sustainable development is a big ambition, and it can only be truly enacted as a dialogue. And for us, this is what accountability is all about.