Community management

Paper given at the National Community Legal Centres Conference, Canberra, 2 May 1992

The terms ‘community’ and ‘management’ have the capacity to be contradictory. Perhaps we should start by trying to get some understanding of what is meant by these terms.  For conservatives the community is a naturally evolving arrangement of individuals brought together in an unplanned manner – organic.  Liberals and social democrats see communities providing a balance of rights for individuals as various pluralist interests compete.  Socialists often speak about community interests and the will of the majority as meaning virtually the same thing.  These brief descriptions are elaborated on in “Towards a socialist concept of community”. In that paper I set out a far more sanguine view of the ‘helpfulness’ of communities than the descriptions provided today.

This leaves us with the problem of defining what we mean by management. In the stereotypical 20th century Australian firm management is control of the workers by authority figures.  Management in some community agencies is collective. In others it is more like typical business management, and in other agencies it is virtually non-existent.

If we are going to talk about community management we need to have some concept how community leaders and /or community representatives are derived from the community. This has been a contested issue for community workers since the 1940s.  Do they somehow naturally emerge as the conservatives would have us believe or are there more deliberate processes involved?  It is even possible that some community representatives are selected by community centres (even staff of centres) not because they are representatives of, or leaders in the community but because they’ll fit in with the prevailing ideology and management style of the community agency.

Now, I have not been able to check this out, but there has been a rumour circulating in some quarters for a while that some community representatives have been chosen for no other reason than that they’ll support the chairperson and/or the chief executive officer of the agency. I know this would not happen in any of the centres represented here today – but…

Whether your centre’s management style derives from a Stalinist or a collectivist base or anything in between there are issues such as consent, approval, compliance and opposition. This is not to say that every centre is a hotbed of unrest as lawyers struggle with clerical staff and social workers with administrators: while the community representatives strive to enhance their individual power at the expense of staff and other representatives on the management committee,or that staff only come together to protect their perquisites. But it does happen in many agencies.

Why do we want community involvement?

Irrespective of whether the centre grew out of a community-based struggle to develop the service or was plopped in there by some well meaning government initiative – designed to prop-up an inadequate local membe. Funding bodies (government or non-government) get that warm inner glow when they can be conned into believing that the centre has considerable community support. The easiest way to con the funders is to point to the involvement of the community in the running of the centre.

The other reason why we as workers in community centres want community representatives involved in our centres is that most of them provide useful insights into how we are perceived in the area. Provide insight into ways we could improve our service, emerging needs in the district, innovative ideas for handling old problems and often a huge amount of unpaid work for the centre. The perception of what constitutes useful advice and what is just bloody-minded interference is occasionally dependent upon whether one is the giver or the receiver of the pearls of wisdom.

Whose centre is it?

Well it’s not just the staff’s, nor just the management committee’s. Saying it is the community’s is not an answer because without the committee and the staff and the funding bodies it would not exist.

Why have the centre anyway?

The provision of the service to the community is the raison d’etre for any community-based centre. That’s cool. But the greatest temptation for any profession – legal, social work administrative – is to deny or fail to recognise that a problem exists until there is a professional solution “discovered ” for it.

Let’s look at the merry-go-round. People ask for services, centres ask for funds, funders ask for accountability (fiscal, political, social) which often results in funders having control of both the clients and the community. The issues which are selected will depend on taste, fashion and style of the centres and the funders.

Whose agenda?

After the Black Deaths in Custody report many citizens have become aware that Aboriginal people in this country, with the exception of those who were flogged to death, have not received a fair crack of the whip. This insight seems to still be eluding most state and many federal politicians. Now I’ll accept that we cannot un-rape, un-murder, un-plunder all the Aboriginal victims of the last 200 years but we could put in place equitable national land rights legislation, recognise Aboriginal sovereignty, and pay adequate restitution for our theft and violence as part of the process of building a national reconciliation between the original owners of this land and the invaders.

But we as a nation will not do this even though we realise that the present Australian racism is a direct result of our exploitation: what we will do is try to limit the extent and intensity of police violence against. Aborigines by better funding of legal aid services. We will refuse to accept that violent police are simply agents of economically powerful white interests and of the invading community generally. This is just one example of the way in which community centres accept the prevailing definitions of good taste, fashion and style as they attempt to define problems and community solutions.

The greatest social security fraud in Australia’s history is not some petty amount of money knocked off from the Department of Social Security by someone who was not entitled to it – but the Social Security system itself. Our national income maintenance system is sold to the Australian people as a comprehensive safety net, as adequate to sustain the needy and as caringly administered.

We know that the levels of payment of Social Security are grossly inadequate, we know that through the increasingly targeted administration of benefits, the extended waiting times, the pitiful youth rates etc. that many people in severe financial hardship are denied benefits and that those who are granted payment are forced to eke out an existence at or below the poverty line.

We do not work in centres adequately funded to pressure governments to introduce universal income guarantees set at levels capable of sustaining the entire population in dignity – instead we work in centres funded to support the unintended victims of the system – those who have been excluded from payment incorrectly.

We should be working to help the intended victims of Social Security rather than having to spend most of our lives assisting those whom the social security system just ran over accidentally.

The reality

Ok, we are not funded to address the big questions in our society like ending racism and class exploitation, housing the homeless, creating employment for the workless, finding meaning for the alienated, abolishing military machines, providing a decent guaranteed minimum income for all, developing universal affordable child care nor working towards a system in which we would aim to take from each according to their ability and provide to each according to their needs.

We will in the short term just have to be content to do what we can with what we have. But if in the process we come to forget these larger agenda then it can really be said that community management has succeeded for the economically powerful but failed the people.

So what makes a good committee

A good committee:

  • pays attention to detail without getting lost in the minutiae,
  • sets a clear agenda, sticks to it but not in such a rigid way that prevents community or staff inputs being built In as circumstances emerge, oversees what paid employees are doing.
  • takes an interest in improving staff salary and working conditions.
  • is involved and works co-operatively with staff, helps out when there are back-logs, assists with fund-raising. etc.
  • is supportive of stair efforts but prepared to be constructively critical, accepts that the capacity to be extraordinarily insightful after the event should be part of a review process not criticism, backs staff in when things get hot.
  • has the capacity to care about the Issues and outcomes in hand without losing sight of the main game, is committed to social justice and natural justice,
  • is directed to finding a way forward, conceptually orientated without being lost in some academic wank, basically accepts Glasser and Strauss suggestion outlined in The Discovery of Grounded Theory that it needs to express what it aims to do in language and concepts which will be understood by the bulk of community members,
  • involves clients of the service in management, speaks the language of the community and is committed to simplifying conceptual complexity. This is basically a process of doing with rather than doing for.
  • is partisan with the community,
  • involves people with disabilities and disadvantage in management.
  • is committed to a liberationist approach,
  • is composed of members with a breadth of ideas.
  • acknowledges the importance of funders without being captured by funders.
  • publicly defends the centre whilst working on constructive ways to improve it.
  • is open to review without that degenerating into constant change,
  • has an appreciation of difficulties without letting that circumscribe ideas of where the centre might finish up,
  • develops an appropriate/open/friendly complaints mechanism.
  • finds legitimate ways of rewarding community. members, and, finally and most importantly,
  • finds ways to rather than reasons why not.

Some Issues

In the time left to me. I’d like to explore a couple of these points in more detail.

Hopefully none of us work in centres where there are boards like there was on a NSW blind society a few years back – where the Chairperson was happy to go on the ABC’s AM program and argue that there was no place for visually impaired people on the board because they weren’t experts in blindness like the doctors, teachers, social workers and community representatives who constituted the existing board. In this particular case there were a couple of people with a severe visual impairment who were so lacking in appreciation of what was being done for them that they had the temerity to also appear on AM, stand for election, and horrors of horrors – win.

But many of us work in centres where the existing management committees don’t oppose people with disabilities or disadvantage being on the management committee. Some might even encourage such persons involvement. They might even sincerely desire it. But you don’t get a Lamborgini just by wanting it. Nor do you get people with disabilities or disadvantage onto management committees just by wanting it.

It is necessary have a significant number on the management committee committed to put in place a support process which will:

  • recruit members of the community who experience disadvantage or disability.
  • provide resource staff to support such people on the committee.

It is easy enough to alienate any community member who gives their time voluntarily but patronising people from disadvantaged backgrounds or people with a disability will always anger and usually result in people dropping out.

If your centre really is a community centre aiming to blunt some of the obvious disadvantage in your area then what better way to identify the issues and problems involved than to have people who are living, it help you fight it.

So having heard this pearl of wisdom (didn’t I tell you it depends whether you are, providing advice or receiving it) you are all going to rush back to your centres on Monday morning and proclaim “Bloody Tomlinson reckons we’ve got to put on resource people to work with people in the community so that we can-get Aborigines, migrants, people with an intellectual disability, he psychiatrically distressed. and the poor -onto our management committees.The administrator will look at you and wonder whether you are setting yourself up for some long overdue stress leave. Just to reinforce that you’ll go on to say “and what’s more that bastard says that once we’ve got them on the management committee we’re going to have to find appropriate support people to ensure that they are enabled to play a creative role on the committee.”

Well unless you know where the fish are biting and reckon you need some stress leave this is not quite the way to go about it. The lawyers and the social workers and your existing community and staff representatives might feel that they are in fact providing some useful advice and might be a trifle milled at your coup attempt.

It takes time to get the necessary resources in place to provide adequate support for those representatives from your community who are not rich enough to volunteer their time, who don’t have the physical strength to drag their body up the three flights of stairs to where the committee meetings are held, who haven’t-got the money to pay for a baby sitter for their visually impaired child, or who can’t see any point in coming to meetings when they can’t read and understand the minutes with out help. Maybe you won’t get all you need to make the process work smoothly but unless you are sincerely committed to the process and have staff and management committee support for the process, don’t do it. A half-hearted effort will not enhance your centre and will result in just another alienating experience for the people you try to involve.

Power differentials

The final point I wish to address is one of power differentials on committees. It matters not a dot whether it’s lawyers, doctors, administrators, or just a self-opinionated fools who believe that the answer always comes out of the lips of one section of the management committee at all times. If this happens you’ve got a problem. Now doctors are experts at medicine and one person in ftve is in hospital because of some mistake made by doctors. Lawyers know a lot about the law – ask the innocent in jail about that. Administrators have the inside running on how to make offices work ask the staff rep. When it comes to self opinionated fools ask the electors of Wills.

No profession and no individual has all the answers to even the basic questions in an individual’s life. The community worker or the social worker will see aspects of community life and difficulties, lawyers will have a different slant on it, the administrator will identify other facets, the community representatives will know about the local community or community of interest. Other stall will also have something to contribute.

The art – and it is not a science – of good community management is to pool the combined wisdom of the management committee rather than seeing one profession or faction as the font of all wisdom.