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CEO Blog: Surrounded by idiots

The gist of a recent best-selling book by Thomas Erikson (Surrounded by Idiots) is that most of us at some point or another throw our hands up in the air in frustration at the behaviour and actions of others and wonder if we are in fact surrounded by idiots.  

We look in amazement and disbelief when someone says something we don’t recognize. How could they possibly think that? We form groups that reinforce our views and put us further out of touch with other groups, who are not like us. The idiots over there, who occasionally stare back, at the idiots over there.   

Thomas Erikson got a bit of stick for the title. It’s not very nice to call people idiots. But for me, I think what he is saying is that we are all idiots because we end up talking and judging more than we listen. We take perceptual short cuts; we go on automatic pilot; we tune people out.  It’s hard not to really.   

The book puts forward four personality types: red, yellow, green, and blue spanning people who are extrovert, active, implementers (red, yellow) to those who are more introverted, passive and reserved (blue, green) and likewise those who are task and issue oriented (red, blue) and those who are more relation-oriented (green, yellow). Most people have a combination of two colours that predominate.  

With every personality type there are positive and negative features – it’s a blessing and a curse, as Detective Monk would say on Netflix.   

I am familiar with other exercises like this – Myers Briggs, Belbin etc., and I recommend anyone to exercise a degree of skepticism. These things are not an exact science but if it helps us get a different perspective that is more productive for self and others, I’d say go with it.   

My idiot rating. 

I did this exercise with others, leaving out the bit about surrounded by idiots and all the theory but as a blind exercise and it was surprising how, from a wide choice of adjectives, the same words cropped up multiple times, when people were asked to choose for each other.  I had bits of all the colours, red was most common – ‘strong willed’ came up a lot, as did ‘analytical’ (blue), but plenty of dashes of green and yellow.       

I am happy to be seen as strong willed, I’ll take that.  As I explained to one senior stakeholder earlier this year, when I felt like things might be getting a bit too directive, I don’t want to be in anyone’s pocket.  Maybe that came across as a bit aggressive?  On balance I’m ok with it but it’s not for everyone.  You can see the potential for clashes.   

An idiotic voluntary sector. 

I’m in a sector that tends to value the more caring, passive, relation-oriented side of things (green, yellow).  I’m sure of it.  That’s why the voluntary sector gets pushed around and lacks the respect, reward and recognition gifted to other sectors.  It hardly ever stands up for itself. It wouldn’t know how to.  That’s the downside to being caring and sharing. Sometimes it is not a mistake to take kindness for weakness. 

That’s probably a partial truth.  I’m an idiot after all, with red tendencies (independent, pushy, hard).  When I feel I need to be.  A more respectful, supportive, pleasant (green) approach might do wonders.  I can sometimes do that too, allegedly.  

Useful Idiots. 

Lenin coined the term ‘useful idiot’.  It has been taken to mean someone who is being used.  A naïve fool, susceptible to manipulation, who is propagandizing for a cause without fully comprehending the cause’s goals.  When I see the voluntary sector talking about collaboration, trust, and partnership uncritically I sometimes get that vibe.  It’s like these words are spells that make all the bad things (tokenism, placation) go away just because someone in authority says them often enough.   

Ladder of participation. 

Sherry Arnstein showed how people get suckered into thinking they are participating and sharing power when mostly they are not – she called it a ladder of participation. Next time you are in a meeting or at an event that purports to be about engagement – consider what rung of the ladder you and others are on.  The lower rungs are for useful idiots. 

Cash rules everything around me. 

Councils in London feel like they’re in a death spiral right now. Those who avoid section 114 bankruptcy notices are reeling. The minutes of cabinet monthly papers see threats everywhere and the cuts go ever deeper. Elsewhere if you follow the money, land value is a gift that keeps giving. The borough’s population will near double within a generation or two. If you can build housing units, admittedly of variable quality, safety, and price, then that’s where the financial opportunity is, that’s the ticket to escape austerity and public services rationing. Council policy is increasingly built around asset maximisation – sweating what you have for money. What no one will tell you publicly is that there is a trade-off between profit and social need – guess which side is winning? 

Residents driving change. 

It’s crazy that we live in a city that has so much money and yet people In Barking and Dagenham live in poverty. They die early. That is what poverty means ultimately. A lot of that money is bound up in property – who gets to build it and who can afford it. It’s crazy. For those who suffer we appear to be surrounded by idiots. Listening to the apologists for regeneration, residents are to blame, they lack aspiration. The alternative would be that the council and developers bear more than a little responsibility.  The councils and developers might also blame central government, the framing of accountability ripples out, keep going and central government might point to a global market. You intervene then hot money exits your economy.  

What would it take for the Thames Life vision to be true – ‘a diverse and vibrant community where residents are driving change’? There are different perceptions. I’m making the case that long term sustainable change is only possible when residents and their community groups lead it and set the agenda from the start. That would be partnership. That would be aspirational. To do that we will need to double down and be stronger willed. Is that realistic? Does anything important or worthwhile start from making an accommodation with someone else’s view of what is possible or appropriate? With our thoughts we make the world. 

By Matt Scott



Arnstein, S (1969) Ladder of Citizen Participation.Journal of the American Planning Association, Vol. 35, No. 4, July 1969, pp. 216-224. 

Colenutt, B (2020) The Property Lobby. Bristol: Polity 

Erikson, T (2014) Surrounded By Idiots.  London: Penguin 

Trust for London (2024) London’s Poverty Index: Barking & Dagenham indicator rankings: 

  • Infant mortality – worse compared to all London Boroughs 
  • Premature mortality – worse compared to all London Boroughs 
  • Qualifications at 19 – worse compared to all London Boroughs 

Allies & Morrison – Barking & Dagenham character study: 

“The pressure for housing within London and the shift of development eastward has positioned the Borough of Barking & Dagenham for growth. Located in east London, and with a population of 210,000, the borough has scope to increase the number of homes by 70% over the next 15 years”. 

Director blog December 2022 – How change happens

Funders often ask for a ‘theory of change’ statement. Here’s one I made earlier, from our 2017-2020 strategic plan:  

‘long term sustainable change is only possible when it is defined and led by local people, who initiate their own agenda and build it from within the local community.’

It is specific – change only happens when residents lead it from within their communities.   

It is also different from most of the other statements, which tend to assume change comes from working across sectors and sharing power. That assumes by working across sectors and sharing power, residents and communities will benefit.  That is a lazy assumption and a dangerous one.     

What I can confidently believe in, is that when residents and community groups come together, things can genuinely change for the better.  Everything else is much less certain.   

I put it to you that there are three basic ways to make change happen.   

  1. Change imposed from above by the powerful 
  2. Change from below (when those who are not individually powerful take collective action) 
  3. Change where we meet in the middle, with different levels of power, and thrash things out 

My feeling is most change is imposed from above – option 1. And what option 1 does is pretend to be option 3, claiming to be about equal partners finding common agreement.   

To avoid this, I go with option 2 as an antidote to phoniness. In archery the idea is to aim and shoot high because of gravity. I know option 2 is going to hit some headwinds, but to hell with it, let’s give it a go!

If we can agree in advance that community-led change often gets derailed, if we know this, in our guts, to be true, then let’s skip the statements about change being possible when powerful organisations come together with less powerful ones. Partnerships and power sharing can happen, but even when it does, it is less than what it is cracked up to be.   

Mostly we don’t think much about how change happens and settle for platitudes about how we are all in it together. Let’s be clear: we are not all in it together. There are very real differences of power, identity and money. There are different agendas and that is healthy. Without these differences being made visible and expressed, we might as well settle for dictatorship – see option one. 

Because change from above is brutal, we are supposed to all agree that partnership and meeting in the middle is possible and taking place. But it mostly is not. When you next go to a partnership meeting ask who chairs the meeting, who sets the agenda, who does all the speaking, who is getting paid and how much? It is unlikely to be residents or community groups. Better to call it what it appears to be: change from above.   

Another way to look at it is, who are the partners who are supposed to be sharing power? 

  1. Public Sector (example: council) 
  2. Private Sector (example: developer) 
  3. Community Sector (example: small volunteer group) 

Think of partnership as a three-legged stool. Council, developer, resident group. Then ask if all the legs are equal and how that might affect things.   

These sectors – public, private and community – are not remotely equal. The first two have organised people and money, the community does not. Having organised staff and millions of pounds of money is power. Not having money or people who work for you, limits your ability to act. Before buying into the warm words of partnership across sectors, it is worth thinking through how the power imbalance is likely to play out and not pay lip service to what was never the case in the first place. 

Partnership has been called ‘the suspension of mutual loathing in the pursuit of money’. That’s a bit harsh but you get the point. Partnership is where voluntary sector groups and ‘partners’ live. This generates gaslighting – mystical vague theories of change about power sharing, a triumph of hope over experience if ever there was one.   

If you can imagine a different world, where change flows upwards from communities, it is possible to take the actions to bring this, little by little, into being.  For some people this is unimaginable, and it stops there. Community-led change requires imagination and creativity. It will lead to endless frustration and disappointment. Worse than that, community-led change will get turned inside out, manipulated into serving the purposes of other sectors, public and private, endlessly made into a vehicle of convenience.   

But imagination and creativity will tell us it can be different, and we will find a way because that is what communities and people do. 


Matthew Scott 

Thames Life Director 


Director blog September 2022 – Riot Days

Maria Alyokhina wrote the book ‘Riot Days’ (Penguin: 2017) about her experience of activism and imprisonment.  Every page a testament to living one’s truth in the face of real and actual oppression. In her case, a feminist in modern day Russia as part of the punk band ‘Pussy Riot’. For those that don’t remember their protest in February 21, 2012, directed at the Orthodox Church leaders support for Putin during his election campaign, first of all where were you and second, never doubt the importance and impact of creative dissent.

Unlike much of the art we see in London, in galleries or regeneration makeovers where something communal or edgy ends up co-opted and corporatized, this is real. Something the powers that be couldn’t pretend they were down with.   

I mention it because I think so much of the way charities, the public sector and wider private agencies operate locally can feel like a mutual conspiracy to suck the life out of things. Deadly boring and deeply ineffective. On top of that, repressive – shunning different ideas and perspectives. Under the Best Value regime for commissioning and procurement government spoke of the guiding principles are being the three E’s – equity, economy, efficiency. This could now be updated as the three C’s – control, contract, con-trick.  That is sometimes how it feels, repeatedly – control, contracts, conning people. Three card monte.      

I am of course being deeply unfair if I leave it there. To quote a former council leader ‘we are all good people stuck in a bad system’ (Barry Quirk – Esprit de corps: leadership for progressive change in local government). He goes on to say: 

“Councils are public institutions and as such have a legal and constitutional status, but they are socially constructed. It’s the people in them that make them work or fail. It’s no good blaming the construct when the essence of organization is something that we have built ourselves… if local government is ineffective it’s our own feckless fatalism… that are at fault. If things are not going well, there is no one to blame but ourselves. We socially construct the system that we then claim traps us from being effective. So how can good people escape the trap? First, by being open and honest about the failings and deficiencies” 

Taking my lead from this council leader, I also want to be open and escape the trap. My sense is that all is not right, which is why I do community work. I don’t assume equal partnership is a given and I rarely experience it, either for myself but most importantly for community groups and residents. They are not treated as equals.  They do not get the justice and respect they deserve. The heating and water supplies often don’t work, the parking fines mount up, the rat problem isn’t tackled, the GP waiting times get longer, the cost of housing goes up and up. Land value rules everything around us – a license to print money. Since 2010 councils have on average at least 50% less money due to cuts. Think about what that means in terms of who does and doesn’t have power and remember ‘if you want change you need power’: land values go up – those who control land that can be developed control everything and stand to profit by it. The rest of us are trapped. So trapped it becomes routine. Which leads me to one of my favourite quotes from an Italian author Italo Calvino: 

“The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.” 
Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities 

Our new vision is about ‘residents driving change’.  Our mission ‘to create positive spaces and opportunities for resident empowerment and wellbeing’. Quirk warns of feckless fatalism, Calvino speaks of escape, exhorting those who would not be feckless and fatalistic to be vigilant and give such people ‘space’. Hence our mission – positive spaces. We want spaces – not just buildings and community centers that don’t cost the earth due to spurious notions of financial viability but also the head space and the oxygen in the room to speak up and not be closed down, shouted down, but space to be, to endure, to act in alignment with our own beliefs and agendas rather than incorporation into someone else’s ambitions. 

Yes I got all of this from reading a book about a Russian feminist. I do tend to read a lot of books though. It is how I decompress and feel enchantment with the world that is all too often dreary.   

Maria Alyokhina writes: 

‘You have a routine; you have a schedule for life and living. Do you also have a set schedule for thinking?  Why don’t you tell them no?  Why can’t you even think about telling them no?  Why does this thought seem pointless to you?  When did it become pointless for you?’  – p.75 / isolation 

Later on she quotes someone else: 

‘If you dream alone, the dream remains only a dream; but if you dream with others, you create reality.’ – Subcomandante Marcos 

Long may we dream and act together. 

Matthew Scott 

TWCP Director 

Director blog August 2022 – Impact-led Strategy

Our vision is of a ‘diverse and vibrant community where residents are driving change’. The vision is of residents driving change – residents as leaders not followers. That is the world as it should be not as it is. That is why it is a vision – a vision is a vivid dream; we are in the business of selling dreams. Of creating the world as it should be rather than scaling back our ambitions. That is a vision.   

Our mission is to ‘create positive spaces and opportunities for resident empowerment and wellbeing’. Every inch of land is monetised. Every conversation in the community and every action that impacts on communities can be liberating, to the extent that local people drive change.  Wellbeing allows people to make healthy choices and drive change in all areas of their lives.   

To enable this to happen we aim to develop leaders, nurture relationships, exert influence and support enterprise to achieve our vision and mission. 

When we started out, we tried out lots of different approaches; tech companies sometimes describe this as throwing stuff at the wall and seeing what sticks. Testing, reviewing, prototyping.   

We’ve done large scale growth summits attended by hundreds of people, weekly leadership classes for young citizens, social enterprise workshops, door knocking, street stalls, leafleting to every household on the area, meetings with politicians and bigwigs, monthly forums on planning and conservation, arts based events, community gardening, litter picking, campaigns, resident action groups, online arts classes, sports activities, walks and talks, newsletters and newspapers, videos, away days, training of all descriptions, volunteering programmes, service delivery, partnerships and collaborations across the borough, in fact across London, nationally and internationally.   

We have done a lot of things. A lot of events, meetings, outreach, activities, training etc. So what? How do we know it made a difference? How do we know it delivered our vision, mission and aims? We need to get smart, to work smarter. We will never know if we made the kind of impact we hoped for in our vision, mission and aims unless we spell out what impact we want in ways that are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, timed, evaluated and reviewed.   

Impact-led strategy is about being led by the impact you want to create and being your purpose as an organization, rather than having a purpose (Fisher 2020). It is very easy for any organization or group to be busy being busy, never pausing to consider if actions are having the right kind of impact. This strategic reflection needs to go with the flow because sometimes the same groups over-think things instilling a kind of paralysis by analysis. There is a sweet spot whereby the actions and analysis go hand in hand, so that impact is at the forefront. That’s the place I’m keen to inhabit. That is the place where true change is made. 

Matthew Scott 

TWCP Director 

Director blog July 2022 – Your silence will not protect you

Audre Lord is an African American author and poet who wrote about the difficulties in communication between people.  Her words have power and relevance for anyone who cares to hear them.  Audre saw silence as a form of violence and as someone identifying as Black, lesbian, mother, warrior and poet stated: ‘my silences had not protected me. Your silences will not protect you.’ 

The transformation of silence into action is something everyone in Barking & Dagenham should be concerned with. Too many are silent.  Too many of us are sleeping whilst standing up. The communities with the biggest struggles are the quietest. They get gaslighted. 

I think the first job of a community worker is to listen, actively listen to the torrent of frozen words and experiences people keep inside of them. The resident whose heating and water hasn’t worked for months, the carer who cannot afford family prescriptions, the council officer who feels powerless to help others because of the fear that comes from above, the partial truths of politicians and their soundbites. Listening to the violence that silences.

Call and response 

In different forms of music there is call and response, from spirituals, blues, gospel, and today’s pop – less so now but still crops up. There’s a phrase or cue and then you join in. Back and forth.  We feel connected. Less alone.  We improvise – the communication like a dance takes twists and turns. 

Listening is not a static act.  Listening, communication and action are all happening at the same time. Even when we are silent. Maybe there is no such thing as silence, only violence that shuts down minds and hearts. Your silence will not protect you.  

If all a community worker does is actively and deeply listen that would be something precious and rare. But it would not be enough.   

To listen well is a caring and loving act. But love without power is a sentimental and dangerous thing. Another form of gaslighting. Here’s where the top end of the voluntary sector cops out. If it bothered to listen in the first place.  Our job is not to cultivate victimhood; it is to support and take collective action.   

Poverty safari

The Scottish hip hop writer Loki describes a special circle of hell for professionals in the charity and public sector who go out on ‘poverty safari’.  People whose job depends on the existence of poverty and other people’s problems, who have an investment in maintaining and administering but never seem to fundamentally change anything. 

When does listening to other people’s silences not become parasitic? 

Many of the poorest in our communities are living with unrecognised trauma, hardly able to process what has been done to us, much less what we might do about it. Silence like a cancer grows.

Where are the silences in your lives? What silencing violence is being visited on you? 

What is it that makes you so angry you have to act? You probably know who will block you, but do you know who has your back and are you willing to reach out to them so you can act together?   

For me, it is simple. Really simple. Anyone can do this.  We listen, we act. Repeat. We do this together. End of.  

Matthew Scott 

TWCP Director 

Director blog June 2022 – Warm, Cosy Spaces

We were chatting at the corner of Thames View fields and the pathway to Thames Road. About thirty of us, one sunny Friday in March this year. It is a regular thing we do, walking from the Big Shops on Farr Avenue to the banks of the Thames, by the developers’ prefab offices. We walk and talk. We look around, absorb it all, open ourselves up to the overload. Stepping across the landscape of housing, roads, warehouses, schools, more housing, more roads, buses, vans and lorries. Walking, talking amidst the hum of wider movement on building sites and lives being lived.  

It is not just a social. We are researching. Asking what kind of spaces people wanted in the area.  All the building going on, housing units by the thousands, but yeah, what kind of spaces would you like for your community? Answer: cosy, warm spaces. Someone said it just like that and everyone immediately agreed. That was exactly it. The craving for togetherness, for spaces we can call our own.   

We’ve got a few community spaces but how are they working out? Are they places people want to go to? The group spoke about yesteryear, about the cinemas Barking used to have. About the fields and horses before the development. Each person taking turns spontaneously sharing memories. All the while the cranes on the skyline marked out remorseless inevitable changes.   

The arrival of 50,000 new homes in the borough, many of them in Thames View and Riverside, is impossible to really process, outside of the town hall or the top floors of Maritime House, Barking, home of Be First. How can you make sense of it? You can’t. The walk we did, makes sense in a different way, via the senses and feelings evoked. Looking at the pressures on existing spaces, the busy roads, the construction, people reflect on what they want and conclude: cosy, warm spaces.   

Another way of saying it is, people want an experience of community, not of estrangement.  Places of their own, where they get a say. Cosy, warm spaces. I love that, so simple. So clear, because only residents can truly get to decide what is and isn’t cosy and warm.   

I’ve been walking around Thames Ward, now Barking Riverside and Thames View Wards with groups of people, residents, visitors. Just walking and talking. Typically, I get to the end of a long week and get a Friday feeling, especially when the sun is out, of needing to decompress. When people ask me about the area, there’s so much to say, too much for soundbites. It needs to be experienced, absorb the changes that are underway – the HGVs, the people pouring in and out of schools, the warehouses and businesses, the ever-present building sites, pylons.   

If you do our walk you will end up by the river, the much-referenced riverside or view of Thames View, but you’ll have to dedicate a couple of hours for that, as we always start at Bastable because that way people get to experience the old and the new. The phase one housing units of Riverside rise like small teeth on the skyline from across the Thames View fields – the locals call it toytown. Different from the typically more spacious Thames View housing that was built on rafts because of the marshy nature of the area, so marshy that even now, mosquitos predominate over the summer and netting is required for many newer residents.   

There’s a new Amazon on Thames Road, a Lithuanian beer company, cake shops, so many businesses clustered in one place. Ripple Nature Reserve spanning the bottom end, with entrances padlocked so more recent visitors have never experienced the unique ten-hectare site, once a dumping ground for pulverised fuel ash, now a mixture of woodland, scrub and grassland.  We usually access Riverside via Crossness Road because you can see the exact point where Barking Riverside begins, a private estate. One side of the road is in disrepair, the other considerably neater and tidy, the side where resident’s pay council tax and a service charge.  Then the housing units with wooden cladding begins. We see small ponds with ducks and approach De Pass Gardens, site of the Barking Fire in 2019, where the cladding on that building has thankfully now been removed, if not yet elsewhere.   

The Rivergate Centre marks another stop-off point, a multi faith centre with a Christian Cross on the outside. Where Friday prayers takes place in corridors. A co-op alone in one corner providing much needed supplies for those that can’t reach larger supermarkets the other side of the A13.  There’s still a way to go to reach the river, another busy road to cross (River Road / Renwick Road), but once joining Fielders Crescent, there is a short footpath from the road to the river and the view of the Thames spreads out for miles, past Dagenham and into Essex. From the roar of roads and density of housing everything opens up – big sky, river sweeping out to the sea.   

The end of the walk marks another special place – often quite windy rather than warm and cosy – but nonetheless uplifting. Once again people want to stand and talk about what it evokes. No longer a rat run to rush through but a place of solace to share and hold close. When urban planners talk about assets and place shaping this I know – it needs to be warm and cosy, and it needs to inspire a sense of awe.   

Change is the one constant in our lives. Nothing stays the same. Nothing lasts forever. Change refreshes and reinvigorates but can also leave people feeling unanchored, lacking roots. The property pages of the Evening Standard that I read on the way back from the walk tells me every housing development is the best there has ever been. From nine elms in Battersea, Greenwich Peninsula, Silvertown, Royal Docks.  Every corner of London in fact. Every square inch monetised. Money for advertising that props up free newspapers. Money that underpins planning decisions – they call it market viability. Money like change is double-edged. You can have too much or not enough. Money gives you control but it rarely creates warm, cosy spaces for all. For that to happen, we need communities to come to the party. The more community, the cosier it can be. The newspaper ads talked the talk; I wish they’d joined us, they could have walked the walk as well. 

Matthew Scott 

TWCP Director 

Director blog May 2022 – Barking & Dagenham Citizens

On the evening of Wednesday 28th April 2022 over 120 people gathered in Dagenham Town Hall (now CU London aka Coventry University) for an accountability assembly, a private event for member institutions and invited guests. Having listened to over 1,000 residents two issues rose to the top of our priorities: youth safety and the living wage, which formed the agenda for the night and our asks for candidates and speakers who represented the two parties (Labour and Conservative) that received the most votes in the last election, in accordance with the Electoral Commission’s guidelines.

The chamber reflected the diversity of the borough, as community groups, faith organisations and schools made their voices heard.  Unlike many decision making spaces it was full of young people speaking their truth, winning commitments from power holders. 

During elections, accountability assemblies function as platforms for community leaders to secure public commitments from invited candidates for an agenda that benefits our communities.  They are not hustings and are strictly non-partisan.  The vision is for an organised, healthy civil society holding the state and the market to account. Engaging in a non-partisan manner means we want to seek public relationships and commitments with whoever has power over the issues we care about. BD Citizens also sought to hold other non-political decision-makers to account, which included the NHS, the Police, and Transport for London.

When students from Coventry University spoke of the insecurity of health and social care workers employment the atmosphere was electric.  The heroes that got us through the pandemic work amidst constant threats of job loss and poor pay, we heard how that affected children and families.  It was heart breaking but also exhilarating as everyone recognised the burning injustice and determined, as one to insist on a collective demand for conditions to change. 

When the young people from Elevate Her UK spoke of their worries of assault, harassment and abduction, Superintendent Butterfield from the East Area Borough Command Unit, responded with a clear commitment to work together. The palpable sense of threat bearing down on young people who grow up not feeling safe demands action, including access to public transport all too frequently denied for arbitrary reasons. The aggressive way stop-and-search was done was challenged alongside the loss of youth centres without consultation.

I’ve been involved with BD Citizens since 2017, when Peter Hill, Bishop of Barking invited Citizens UK to the borough.  The funding from the Lottery for initiating Thames Ward Community Project was for a community organising approach and Citizens UK, of which BD Citizens is a local chapter, are the stand-out national leaders of this approach. I’ve learnt so much from them. They get right to the point. Involving those closest to the issues, to take the action needed.

We’ve done weekly leadership classes at Riverside School, led by Jamie and Zainab and the young people have won several campaigns including over £1m investment in buses and getting the keys for the Barking Food Forest site. Most of our trustees and all of our staff have done the two and three day training and come back buzzing. Fighting together for positive social change is contagious, in a good way.  Barking & Dagenham Citizens are in the area. 

Matthew Scott 

TWCP Director 


BD Citizens member organisations include:

Director blog April 2022 – Handwashing guidance – what to do when policies invariably fail? 

1. Palm to palm.
2. Right palm over left dorsum and left palm over right dorsum.
3. Palm to palm fingers interlaced. 
4. Backs of fingers to opposing palms with fingers interlocked. 
5. Rotational rubbing of right thumb clasped in left palm and vice versa. 
6. Rotational rubbing, backwards and forwards with clasped fingers of right-hand left palm and vice versa.

How do you wash your hands of something? Some bold ambitious policy statement that politicians make but then it fails as most public policy does. Try the above. Send out technical manuals so everyone knows what to do and can practice together.  

Seriously – most public policy fails most of the time. It doesn’t achieve what it set out to do. But read evaluations and corporate communications and everything has to be a success even when it mostly isn’t. All that is solid melts into PR. Residents were listened to, communities were involved at every possible stage, and everyone is deeply happy even when they are not.   

One of the questions I wonder about is why do we go along with the pretence? A kind of open conspiracy against social change. People seem strangely frozen within the institutions and communities. In Japan they say: ‘the nail that stands out gets hammered down’ and I’ve seen that response many times, close-up and personal. The standard response to community work that shifts power is to shut it down. Fear and spite is the flip-side of a paternalism and there is a lot of it about. I think it is more than that though.  

My sense is many of us don’t feel it could be any different. That any kind of change is not on the agenda. Although everyone has a voice most people don’t feel they can use it. There’s a vacuum that more unscrupulous transactional people seize but only because they are allowed to.   

If you don’t act, you will be acted upon. And mostly we don’t act decisively – things happen to us.  Those things are for our own good – everything that happens will be attached to a policy that is always and only a stunning success. So it goes. 

My solution: have an honest conversation. Ask questions and don’t accept answers. Always question answers. If something sounds too good to be true it probably is. Historically power is rarely or never given – it is taken. It is contested, argued over. It can be done amicably and lead to much better outcomes for all, but it means taking a risk.   

Issue / solution / action 

The only way to break free from policy failure is to keep asking questions. Questions pinpoint issues.  These issues become an agenda and an action plan. Having a plan and working that plan is about developing and testing solutions and taking action, over and over again. If you want change you have to take action and not leave it to others who have great PR but a disappointing track record. Part of our task is also to create the spaces where people can grow in confidence and self-belief to take collective action, to learn and work together in more authentic partnership. 

But it only works if you ask questions. You have to question if the person in control really knows what they are doing, if the policy is really working, you have to be willing to disrupt the present to claim the future. Next time you go to a meeting give it a go.  


Matthew Scott 

TWCP Director 

Director blog March 2022 – The Body Keeps the Score

Trauma underpins our lives and our communities; it is hard to talk about and often talking doesn’t help, who wants to relive such things, but we carry it in our bodies and reproduce it in our behaviours anyway. That’s what I mean by ‘the body keeps the score’. We are lucky if we get through life without distressing experiences that injure us physically and emotionally. If we don’t experience it ourselves, we’ll know others close to us who have. 

We carry it in our bodies, but we also carry it in everything we do. It strikes me that community work and so-called ‘partnership’ working that seeks to address positive change, as opposed to maintaining existing inequality and power relationships, needs to exercise more care, because change is painful and is resisted.   

Trauma informed practice has six simple principles which if acted on would help: 

  • Safety 
  • Trustworthiness and transparency 
  • Peer support 
  • Collaboration and mutuality 
  • Empowerment and choice 
  • Cultural, historical and gender issues 

I don’t think our community and partnership spaces are always safe, trustworthy, transparent. Or that we have each other’s backs often enough (peer support). We compete rather than collaborate. There is compulsion in the workplace, not choice and we don’t talk about race, gender, class and other oppressions. Sometimes we create spaces for the above but not often enough. Because we live in the world as it is, not the world as it should be. 

Over lockdown I found myself thinking a lot about the world as it should be.

I was thinking about the pain in our lives and how it is telling us something. It can be redemptive; we can learn from it but mostly it just hurts and then we go numb, stuck, doing the same things and getting the same results. About love and how there isn’t enough of it in the world – in the absence of love, there is survival and how simply to survive is not to live a life.   

I thought about a recent situation that triggered me, where voices were raised. I don’t like being shouted at. It reminds me of a time in my life when my father would explode. He got sectioned. I remember social workers and police visiting. Questions being asked that had no answers. It just repeats. A year or so before lockdown my sister, who is autistic, got sectioned because the care home suddenly changed its staff and she literally started pulling her hair out. Social services answer was to put her into the same psychiatric hospital my dad spent time in. I then engaged with the health system my parents couldn’t cope with and it closed ranks. It reminded me that if you want change you need power; but that power without love is inhuman and love without power is anaemic, too weak. 

My sister is in a good place now and even when it was going on I was surprised at how calm I felt. I’d got used to that kind of thing happening. No big deal. Broken systems and broken people; I feel too much and then I feel nothing. I see how things get frozen. I try to remember to appreciate what is precious and focus on what it is possible to change, and that makes me happy. Sometimes.     

I’ve been thinking about how power is also about vulnerability. Trauma is caused when you are vulnerable and are powerless and overwhelmed so it is odd to say being vulnerable can also be powerful. How can that be?   

In that space of vulnerability we are most truly ourselves and from that space we can re-imagine what is important and worth doing in our lives. A lot of the things we do are probably not worth doing – the meetings we go to – the little competitive time serving rituals that divide and rule. Anything that can give a new perspective, new space to do differently, is worthwhile because when it comes to climate change, transformational public services, local democracy, looking after each other and being more human, much of what we do isn’t working and we can do better at every level. 

Matthew Scott

TWCP Director

Director blog February 2022 – #newpower – why outsiders are winning, institutions are failing and how the community sector will win the day!

The world is changing, faster than ever it seems.  I grew up without computers and mobile phones, without the internet – now those things define us, our data is mined and sold back to us.   

I was asked to lead on some group discussions with COMPASS, an independent think tank, on how the new power of tech impacts on communities and neighbourhoods.   

A new book had come out, entitled #newpower by Henry Timms and Jeremy Heimans. Books like #newpower try to articulate the zeitgeist, to explain why our times are as they are.  They have a big idea and even bigger hype so I am usually sceptical. The basic idea of #newpower is that for much of history things were straightforward – you knew who had power and who did not. But now it’s changing. For once the underdogs are winning. Just not always the kind of underdogs you might want. So as a community worker working in the community sector I know something about underdogs so I’m interested in changing the rules of the game.   

Evidence of this change might include the #metoo movement, Black Lives Matter but also ISIS and Q Anon. In the hyper-connected world ideas and actions spread very quickly and this can force change. How do we use that for good? How do we make it easier to do good?  The harm and downsides will be obvious, but this new world is coming ready or not. 

One of the examples I liked most was Lego, the company. It was in decline and had run out of ideas.  They talked to their longstanding fans and ran meet-ups for them over weekends where people indulged their childhood nostalgia but then soon ended up as an R&D arm, making successful products overnight. Lego in effect gave up control and handed over production and creativity to the people who cared most.   

See where I might be going here? Council – control – community groups – new way of working. What would happen if we turned local services and democracy inside out like Lego did? That is the kind of thought process the book invites. And more to the point, it illustrates examples of cutting-edge business practice that does exactly this, underlining the point that far from being fantasy it is sound market practice that larger charities and public sector organisations have yet to catch up with. 

What #newpower seeks to do is spread power much more widely to millions of people (crowds) and as much as possible, take it away from power holders altogether. Because power holders don’t have the answers or the insights and can’t grow anything. And now their power is flowing away from them by entrepreneurs who can code and activists who can tweet, video-edit and post.

In its better moments, the voluntary and community sector spreads power more widely and deeper. It was ahead of the curve in pushing power outwards and downwards when it remembered to collaborate rather than compete, in the pursuit of more equitable outcomes and a fairer world.   

The four group sessions we did included council leaders, former government ministers, charity CEOs, policy people and we had a great chat.  Mostly we didn’t talk about tech at all. We talked about how people behave to each other and how power changes that. The fear and cults of personality that so-called leaders promote. How large institutions create a culture that can crush people as a matter of routine.  We talked about our sense of déjà vu, of policymaking being doomed to failure because of broken promises.  The need for immediate ring-fenced money and buildings placed directly in the hands of communities, independent of anyone, in perpetuity (forever).  People spoke from the heart as much as the head so that was my criteria for a worthwhile discussion and hopefully something better to follow.  When it gets written up I’ll be sure to share.   

At the heart of #newpower is a vision of the world turned upside down. I’m not wholly sold on that.  I don’t think the underdogs are winning though some demagogues are gaining traction.  I’d settle for a more pragmatic view of partnership working and power shifting – where the top-down power holder can meet independent community groups and residents in the middle.  That middle ground does not come easy. But we can do much better than winner takes all; we can fundamentally change the rules of the game. 

Matthew Scott

TWCP Director

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