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Making the connections

Tamsin Stirling reflects on how boards might build connection and trust.

I’ve been thinking a lot about disconnection. How one person’s lived experience can be dismissed by others because it simply does not match their understanding or experience of the world or chime with how they think things should be. In essence, how someone’s life can be written off as fake news. The ‘othering’ that we see so often when homelessness and poverty are reported in the media. And how disconnection can foster disregard and even exploitation.

If we don’t know much about the experience of others, how do we know that the decisions we make that affect them won’t have negative or even catastrophic implications for them? For me, the way that Universal Credit has been implemented, the changes that have been made along the way and the constant Government mantra that it’s working well, is an example of disconnection in action.

One element of disconnection is increasing levels of distrust in organisations and the housing sector is not immune to this. The National Housing Federation’s Great Places Commission report[1] referred to a ‘growing sense of disconnection’ and how some communities feel distant from their housing associations. And we cannot ignore the impact of the loss of life at Grenfell, what went before the fire and what has happened since.

As board members, I think we need to pay more attention to ensuring connection and building trust both through the way that we work and in the decisions we make. For me, a starting point is being really aware of the issues in the communities in which we work. Issues that we may, or may not, be best placed to do anything about, but at the very least, acknowledging that they are part of the reality of the places that we have invested in. I am thinking, in particular, of poverty and destitution. But also issues such as county lines, cuckooing, child sexual exploitation and modern day slavery. Do our current ways of collecting information about tenants and communities give us a full picture?

[Tamsin adds: I have had some feedback on this article which points to the need for me to clarify the above paragraph. It is not my intention to suggest or imply that tenants are more likely to be the perpetrators of crime than any other group of people in the general population. My concern is with safeguarding tenants and their families and ensuring that housing associations, including board members, are aware of relevant issues and taking action to address them.]     

The Civil Society Futures inquiry report[2] published earlier this year sets out a useful framework for how we might think about ensuring connection and building trust, alongside really practical suggestions for action by both individuals and organisations, groups, networks and movements. It is structured around four areas: power, accountability, connection and trust. For each of these, the report sets out a series of questions that organisations can ask themselves alongside, for each question, a continuum of less to more helpful behaviours. The questions really resonated with me so I am including them here:

Power

  • How well do we understand our own power?
  • Whose views, voices and perspectives do we value the most?
  • How do we make difficult and important decisions about the work we do?
  • How do we work with other groups on issues of equality or justice?

Accountability

  • Do our actions line up with what we say we do?
  • Who mainly drives our group’s/organisation’s agenda?
  • What processes/systems are in place to seek feedback?
  • When something goes well who gets the credit?
  • How do we view our strategy and approach to change?

Connection

  • How do we view and actively describe people we work with?
  • What would people we work with say about us?
  • Are we well-networked with other aligned people/networks/organisations?
  • Do our efforts focus on causes or symptoms?

Trust    

  • Do we create opportunities, places or spaces in which people come together and build trust?
  • When people disagree with us and behave in challenging ways, what do we do?
  • Are we prepared to speak out on something fundamentally wrong, even when that might anger those who hold power over us?

Considering these questions is likely to identify implications for areas such as partnership working, engagement, communications, how complaints are managed and organisational behaviours, including board behaviours. But there are some perhaps less obvious links to be made.

For example, what different voices and perspectives do we validate through our board assurance frameworks and include in our annual statement of compliance to the regulator? Should we make any changes to the way that we identify and mitigate risk, for example, using a co-design approach? Might ways of measuring trust be part of our approaches to performance management?

I would recommend the Civil Society Futures report to board members; I think you will find it both interesting and provoking.

Tamsin Stirling can be contacted at [email protected] and is on Twitter @TamsinStirling1  

[1] s3.eu-west-2.amazonaws.com/files.events.housing.org.uk/NHF_Great-Places_Report_Online_FINAL.pdf?mtime=20181121153310

[2] civilsocietyfutures.org/

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