This blog is part of an online learning platform which includes the Pathways to New Community Paradigms Wiki and a number of other Internet based resources to explore what is termed here 'new community paradigms' which are a transformational change brought about by members of a community.

It is intended to offer resources and explore ideas with the potential of purposefully directing the momentum needed for communities to create their own new community paradigms.

It seeks to help those interested in becoming active participants in the governance of their local communities rather than merely passive consumers of government service output. This blog seeks to assist individuals wanting to redefine their role in producing a more direct democratic form of governance by participating both in defining the political body and establishing the policies that will have an impact their community so that new paradigms for their community can be chosen rather than imposed.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

ABCD Conflict Consensus Debate and Systems Thinking 2 of 2

The last post suggested that two community development approaches, what is being called a Scottish conflict model (SCM) and Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) (we will avoid the term model) are not in truth in direct conflict but out of sync and potentially constrained in their individual methodologies.

Both are dealing with the reality, as noted by the authors of the Scottish conflict model, that the UK is experiencing the most significant transformation of its welfare state since its founding after the Second World War with key social welfare services being eliminated, means-tested, dramatically curtailed or privatized to save money. As the state withdraws from different aspects of public life, governments are unilaterally arguing that individuals, families and community groups will be able to fill this vacuum through their local knowledge, assets and energy to rebuild local services, ostensibly or not on their own terms and in ways that meet their interests and needs but without the expenditure of resources by the government while still under the regulation of government.

It is also recognized, as stated by Prof. Jody Kretzmann, Co-founder of the Asset-Based Community Development Institute that, ‘ABCD is essential, but it is not sufficient’ in addressing this.

I think it is very important that we make this amendment, especially in the current climate where some institutions are now turning to communities to ‘step up’, and fill the space of services that are being cut.                                                                                                               
                                                                                                              Cormac Russell

Supporters of both SCM and ABCD recognize ‘systems’ can be used to both harm and protect liberty and rights. It is SCM though that asserts that the purpose of community development is to pursue an agenda that makes the local and national state work better for the most marginalized, focusing more on the structural level of the system.

As was said before, the SCM authors seemingly define community, more as a amorphous whole, basically in its relation to the state and the state to the community. They recognize that the [welfare] state can be a cumbersome, bureaucratic and self-serving institution that undermines individual liberty and innovation. Nevertheless, they still see it as the key guarantor and protector of equality and rights which makes individual liberty possible and meaningful, at least no other guarantor besides what is supposedly influenced or replaced by SCM is provided. 

Reforming the state then by transferring various state responsibilities to  communities and especially individuals is not seen by SCM as the best or even the most effective means of doing so, raising concern of an assets agenda possibly marginalizing needed discussions of significant structural and economic inequalities. All of which could be a fair point but if the welfare state system does not fulfill the needs of the marginalized, failing as a guarantor and SCM steps in attempting to appropriate the locus of control without establishing deep relationships with the individuals of the community is it then truly democratic or even have a chance at being successful? It could be argued, if it ever succeeded, to be a change in a form of  structural democracy but not a transformation to deep democracy.

Asset Based Community Development has a set of common features described by John McKnight. It is an approach that is relationship focused between the fundamental agents of the system or community members, capacity oriented /asset based and internally driven/place based. In terms of assets, five are the core of the work with the focus on relationships being largely internally networked.

1. Individual resident capacities
2. Local associations
3. Neighborhood institutions – business, not-for-profit and government
4. Physical assets – the land and everything on it and beneath it
5. Exchange between neighbors – giving, sharing, trading, bartering, exchanging, buying and selling

These assets have three critical aspects, simplicity, usability and universality. As with all complex systems, these can then be combined dynamically in a number of different ways. Things that only residents/citizens can do independently in response to an issue.  Things that residents/citizens can lead on and achieve in cooperation with the support of institutions (governmental, nongovernmental, for profit) in response to an issue. Both of these are premised on a substantial locus of control laying within the community and the individuals making it up

Next comes things that only institutions can do. The locus of control is now closer to the institution or entity that attempts to influence or appropriate the role of the institution. It can then be asked what is it that institutions can be made to stop doing which would create greater space for resident action, but perhaps more importantly what can be done to induce institutions to not only do so but also start offering services beyond that they might currently offer to support resident/citizen action? 

These questions are being asked in a Kettering Foundation oriented framework centering:

“..on understanding what are the irreplaceable functions of community, and only then to move on to reflecting on the functions of an enabling state, and how those unique and irreplaceable functions can become mutually reinforcing of the democratic experiment. This is classic Asset-Based Community Development applied to the wider political landscape.”
                                                                                                                 Cormac Russell 

Asset-Based Community Development practice seeks to save people from the system not to save the system money. Ethical ABCD practice is about having a life, growing free space and deepening democracy, it is not about service reform or redesign, it doesn't seek to create citizen-led alternatives to mainstream services.

Part of this discourse concerns the relative placements of the Scottish conflict approach and an ABCD approach in attempting to achieve this. ABCD emphasizes a proclivity to move away from individualistic consumer based definitions of a good life and any dependency on the nonexistent beneficence of institutions themselves (as opposed, I would say, to the humans working within them). ABCD also recognizes the importance of being honest about the issue of power. However, it is not as readily discernible what steps would be taken in unequal power negotiations.

“Actual work in and with neighborhood people has not been very common even though the “green book” was written primarily for them. In part this has been because institutions and policymakers have organizations that can find us and solicit relationships. On the other hand, local neighbors and their groups are not often organized to reach beyond their boundaries.”

                                                                                                         John McNight

ABCD seeks to attain maximum individual and associational freedom and total institutional neutrality in defining democracy while recognizing that community needs good government and a fair market willing and capable of providing a safety net when needed. Again, associational seems to focus on the internal relationships comprising the association and not the capacity of the association to negotiate effectively with agencies outside of the community. The issue for ABCD then is how to determine the proper proportionality and correct relations. It is desired that government form a dome of protection and do what the community cannot do for itself, as an extension of but not a replacement for community. 

ABCD even though it is not anti-state, still does not focus on the systemic structures of state.  ABCD approaches may be seen then to generate real dilemmas in the ability for some practitioners and community groups to articulate their views about structural problems and build solidarity at the grassroots. As a result, ABCD intervention, resulting in the shifting of state responsibilities for social problems onto individuals and communities without the requisite power to negotiate effectively with institutions of power can be seen as troublesome by some. The ability of ABCD to transform communities though can be emergent in nature if such a state can be attained but the path do to so is not evident, set or guaranteed.

We will finish by examining a potential limitation of systems thinking concerning this discourse. Agreement that ABCD while a system is not a model, has already been implied.

Asset-Based Community Development is not a model, it is a description of how people join together – at hyper local level – to use what they have, to get what they all agree they want. 
                                                                                                             Cormac Russell

Systems thinking is best suited to discerning relationships in aggregate and over time between elements or events and the systemic structures arising out of those relationships. For this, it depends primarily on data. It can also be useful in understanding how emerging mental models impact that system.

The connection though between mental models of a system and the fundamental individual elements, members of a community, who generate those mental models though is best discerned not by data but by stories. 

System thinking uses maps, a type of modeling which must be recognized regardless of how useful, and they are useful, wrong. Stories can bring understanding closer to the “territory” of those individuals who serve as guides even if only for their own individual  perspectives in addition to the broader perspectives discussed here, all of which can be brought together for a deeper, more complete understanding. 

ABCD Conflict Consensus Debate and Systems Thinking 1 of 2

This post is being written immediately after finishing and before publishing the last post, even though the last post is believed to have done an adequate job of delineating the issues of what is now seen as a core debate between what I will call the Scottish conflict model and, to use their designation, the ABCD consensus approach to community development. 

There is still a need to look into both sides more deeply to understand the differences. This post will focus a bit more on the ABCD perspective while still keeping in mind the concerns of the Scottish conflict model but to attain a sufficient enough level of understanding I will need to return to systems thinking. It has taken four posts to get to this point, it will take longer than one standard post, and a good deal will be contained within this space of exploration until reaching what is seen as possible limits and commonalities for the Scottish conflict model, for ABCD, and for systems thinking.

This though may present an issue with some, previously having written Asset Based Community Development Lessons for Systems Thinking to find some points of commonality between ABCD and systems thinking, this post will use systems thinking to understand aspects of ABCD but many in ABCD see systems as synonymous with institutions and tools of bureaucratic manipulation.

This negative connotation associated with systems and especially “The System” is understandable.'s definition of a System takes this top-down management perspective of systems and while there is some truth to this interpretation, it is also limited or constricting in my view.  Particularly when “the” of “The System” is being used as a marker of unconditional preeminence rather than a means for specifying or particularizing. 

According to a more general definition by Wikipedia, and Merriam Webster indirectly:

"A system is a set of interacting or interdependent component parts forming a complex/intricate whole. Every system is delineated by its spatial and temporal boundaries, surrounded and influenced by its environment, described by its structure and purpose and expressed in its functioning. 

The term system may also refer to a set of rules that governs structure or behavior. Alternatively, and usually in the context of complex social systems, the term is used to describe the set of rules that govern structure or behavior."

I lean toward, Donella Meadows, one of the authors of Limits to Growth, who has a similar definition, “A system is an interconnected set of elements that is coherently organized in a way that achieves something…. a system must consist of three kinds of things: elements, interconnections and a function or purpose,” but her definition can be expanded upon from these simple foundational steps to Dancing with Systems. More importantly, in terms of endeavoring to bring about transformation, she identifies points of leverage within systems.

For myself then, the only thing that deserves to be called “The System” is “The Universe” and everything in it is parts of myriad instances of “a system”. Institutions are composed of multiple systems, sometimes espoused systems conflicting with actual in use systems, or systems of administration contrasted with systems of organizational culture. ABCD in my view fits the Donella Meadows’ definition of a system. It is a system, a complex, human based system, that must exist within, and by its purpose interact with the complicated, procedure based, institutional systems aforementioned.

Based on the premise that there is a difference between complicated and complex systems, what I see as the Wikipedia complex/intricate contrast could be replaced with intrinsic as a defining attribute of complexity and complicated as the manifestation of the intricate. For both, there has to be mutual iterative interactions between events. It does not necessarily have to be directly two way, it can be a one-way loop with numerous intervening events or elements in-between. 

Both types of systems, complicated or complex, are developed to influence or manipulate larger complex cultural or social systems. Their approaches to complexity are also different and these differences can be categorized according to Warren Weaver's Science and Complexity.

The rules for complicated systems are usually imposed from without even when those supposedly imposing are elected every four years or so or are placed by circumstances into leadership. An autonomous management entity usually comes into play even with oppositional or conflict models to lead the fight. Even fully human based cultural systems will involve some forms of complicated systems of control, the question is to the level this is true and how effective it works out to be.

The fundamental rules of complex systems arise from within the (particular) system itself. The rules of a complex system are defined by the interaction of the components of the system, intrinsically related to each other. It is this type of relationship which allows emergent properties to arise from a system, wetness attributed to a relationship between hydrogen and oxygen, life from the organic based relationship of carbon based chemicals as contrasted to inorganic chemicals, the emergence of consciousness from the holographically intrinsic relationship of neuron synapses within the human brain, the Arab Spring Uprising.

A conflict model often operates on intricate, complicated lines in opposition to an institutional system which also endeavors to operate imposed complicated systems of top-down control but through intricate lines that are often obscure or hidden. 

A complicated approach to a complex social system can be analogous to Warren’s disorganized form of complexity. As Daniel Bassill writes, after the 2009 Copenhagen accords, makers of a Collation of the Willing in 2013 proposed mobilizing people as a ‘swarm’ suggesting that with the Internet it is possible to create an online hub that could support the growth of the climate change movement. It had the laudable objective ”in order to address the climate crisis we have to first address inequalities”. These type of movements though, in my view, often seem to treat people as the molecules in a chamber of gas creating movement through heat or pressure thereby creating change through external sources of force. 

In outlining ‘12 Domains of People Powered Change’ Russell provides paths for solving some of the most pressing social problems by restoring bonds among people. Rather than finding creative ways to ‘reclaim the state’ ABCD instead seeks to reclaim the commons. This to my mind is more analogous to Warren's organized complexity, later adopted by Jane Jacobs

"All of these [referring to a long list] are certainly complex problems. But they are not problems of disorganized complexity, to which statistical methods hold the key. They are problems which involve dealing simultaneously with a sizable number of factors which are interrelated into an organic whole."

As a systems thinking proponent, one common means of understanding the world is through the Systems Thinking Iceberg Model which has been featured before in this blog. The Donella Meadows Institute has its own perspective on the Iceberg Model. I am not going to go into detail about the Iceberg model on these pages but understanding it is important to what follows.

In my view, the Scottish conflict model primarily operates at the Event level and especially at the Structure level. The Pattern level is not necessarily ignored but there is less attention paid to understanding the patterns than there is to identifying and opposing what is seen as components of the entrenched system structure responsible. Mental models are often replaced by imposed established ideology. Patterns, as far as they are seen to exist, are set in terms of a continuing conflict. The question is whether this creates a truly independent system capable of replacing an existing entrenched system or is it rather merely an oscillating system in different states of conflict that never truly transforms? 

ABCD focuses more on the Pattern level and the Mental Model level. It focuses especially on those community generated Patterns ignored by institutional government service providers by which communities focus on their own strengths rather than being defined by others according to their weaknesses. These are the events celebrated and repeated across communities until they become an integrated part of the community. 

More important though is the creation of new Mental Models adopted by those following new patterns. This is not merely positive thinking but taking actions which has community, as well as personal, impact and repeating those actions in a manner which feeds back into the community creating the conditions by which they can be sustained and become resilient.

ABCD Conflict Consensus Debate

That Asset Based Community Development or ABCD is not neoliberalism has been both questioned and argued not to be true. The difference this makes and clarifying differences between asset based approaches and ABCD has been explored. Even so, there is still a basis for a debate between proponents of ABCD, with MacLeod of the University of Glasgow and Emejulu the University of Edinburgh, authors of the study authors of the study 'Neoliberalism with a Community Face’ who argue that, "The application of ABCD generates tensions within an existing Scottish social democratic framework for community development.” This post will focus primarily on the positions taken by the authors followed by ABCD oriented reflections.

In considering the theme of democracy, these two contrasting positions emerging from the study reflect the contrasting approaches of conflict and consensus based models of community development which the authors assert inform contrasting approaches to democracy. 

It is doubtful though that there is any disagreement that the state of institutional welfare systems in both the US and the UK tend be hierarchical, bureaucratic and inimical to meaningful democratic participation by marginalized groups. The debate is over how effectively both approaches interact with such systems. Each in their own particular way, see institutional government as a troublesome necessity. 

The concept that identifying and seeking to develop the strengths, skills and knowledge of individuals and community groups, helping people to become more confident to critically analyze and dissent from the prevailing views and representations of themselves and the problems they experience could be seen fitting both approaches.

One community development worker, Gill, identified an asset based approach as resonating very strongly with her own understanding of her professional role: 

"What our job is, is to support these “live” assets [sic] to become aware of what their rights are as a community and as a group and what power they have...It’s about us supporting them to become a voice, a big voice, one big voice out of the whole community.

There is a potential, recognized by more strategic-level professionals, that an asset based approach, which we will assume includes ABCD despite already having cited the differences in previous posts, might offer a sense of ownership and control in changing the power relationships over social welfare services. 

Karen, a study participant, thought that asset-based approaches could, “Allow people to engage round the table in a more equal basis”.  This, however, would be negotiations not community collaboration.

For some community development practitioners, ABCD, from a more positive perspective by the authors, is seen as a way to roll back the state, challenging what is seen as welfare dependency and promoting community empowerment in social welfare service planning and provision. In other words, it can be made a confrontational tool which is not an explicit purpose of ABCD.

In this view of asset based approaches, many participants spoke of building networks and connections both within communities and across different sections of society, including the public, private and third sectors. This again takes the focus to outside of the community but are there times when the focus of the community needs to be outside of the community?

Some practitioners, according to the authors, may be able to use an assets agenda as part of a discussion of community activism, to provide a constructive contribution to on-going debates about the nature and purpose of democracy in Scotland. The problem for proponents of ABCD, as stated before, this still tends to take the locus of control off of the community itself.

So while the authors do consider the possibility that ABCD could perhaps be used as a means to spark discussions about making the welfare state more open and democratic, for them though ABCD asks some of the right questions it still provides the wrong answer. ABCD proponents are likely to respond that the wrong questions are being asked of the wrong people who are giving the wrong answers.

What the authors doubt is that an ABCD approach provides an adequate  ability for practitioners and community groups to articulate their views about structural problems and build solidarity at the grassroots, again arguably to serve as part of a conflict model of community development.

An ABCD approach emphasizes the need to release a community’s own internal ‘untapped’ assets.  The authors argue that this could end up increasing inequalities between different communities by potentially advantaging communities already influential and cohesive, with one study participant, Sue, commenting, "You can end up making the gaps wider if the investment goes to the people who are able to ask with more clarity for what they want and need."

Sarah, another study participant, raised the idea of unintended consequences resulting from using ABCD.

For an asset based approach to work the community you’re working in must already be quite a strong community...That there are structures in place, that there’s already cohesion within a community and people know what their issues are and what their priorities are and that they are engaging with that. But there is the negative side that lots of people don’t want to engage and lots of people are facing particular challenges in their lives that going along to a community meeting is the last thing that they need to deal with. So there is the potential that some form of inequality could be increased. There needs to be a lot more work done to look at whether that is going to be the case.

The ABCD focus on the “positive”; relentless in the eyes of the authors, could actually marginalize any needed critical analyses of structural inequalities, undermining collective oppositional action to address these problems.

Although asset based approaches may offer the potential of working with community groups as equal partners, achieving such a shift in power, and the involved challenges of sharing power and changing established ways of working, is seen as a far more complex, long-term process.

The extent then to which taking an asset approach, and even extending that to an Asset Based Community Development approach, can help tackle deep-rooted inequalities is seen as questionable, or as the authors cite:

“community assets can only have a mitigating effect on the structural and social determinants of ill-health and inequality - poor housing, low wages, lack of jobs”  Foot and Hopkins 2010

The issues of structural inequalities that are seen as being absent in ABCD theory and practice were also of concern to study participant Kate, a senior policy manager in the third sector:

“When I hear people talking about asset based development I don’t hear them referring to, “Of course poverty has dragged these people down for the last twenty years” or, “the real problem here is unemployment”. I hear a completely different discourse from them.”

How the concept of ABCD should be redefined and applied in practice to address Kate’s concerns, for the authors then, would involve expanding the discussion of assets to include greater concern for deeper and more pervasive structural and material inequalities. The extent then to which motivations behind a desire for change in power are due to current interest in asset based approaches, whether authentic or politically manipulative is, as the authors say, open for debate.

Study participant Judi’s statement, "We know that people are motivated by problems, that’s what galvanizes them and I think for a long time people from an asset based approach perspective would see that as a deficit approach, you’d then be stigmatising people with needs and problems”, illustrates both sides of the debate, identifying and articulating that shared ‘problems’ or ‘needs’ can help shock communities into building solidarity and motivate people to take action but also raising issues of concern to proponents of ABCD of adopting a deficit model by beginning with what is wrong with people rather than strong

ABCD proponents have to win this debate with Judi and other practitioners in mind, recognizing both sides of her concerns, and clarifying for her where there is confusion about what is ABCD. Still, this does not preclude following the author's call to draw on, "...philosophical and activist traditions that help us to think and learn collectively about the nature of social problems and which also give us the practical tools to take collective action for social justice.

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