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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”. 

Making the connections – May 2021

Community coalition building can transform adult social care outcomes (and much more).

You may have noticed that there are a lot of collaboration type meetings going on right now. Twenty or thirty people on a teams call, an even mix of council officers and second tier charities, a consultant or two.  I like that all over B&D people are chatting on shared online calls about collaboration and partnership working right now; it will all help us build back better after the pandemic.  Paulo Freire, a Brazilian community worker, said we ‘change the world one conversation at a time’ and I believe that.  Margaret Mead said it was a ‘small group of thoughtful committed individuals’ but what I think matters even more is how that conversation happens.

The thing I’m noticing about the ‘reimagining adult social care group’, one of those many larger online meetings about better partnership working and delivery, is that it is pretty open in a way that most of the spaces I’ve encountered in the borough are not.  The council has talked about moving away from a paternalistic culture and that can only be a good thing.  There is something about the culture of strongly political and hierarchical organisations that inhibit wider collaboration – the higher up you go the more brutal it can get; people learn not to bring their whole self to the job which is a shame because the fearful and transactional only gets you so far.  With the reimagining adult social care group it is a big shift and it becomes contagious when people behave like they’ve got autonomy, stuff gets done better and quicker.  

My assumption is that the adult social care meetings I have been to are highly provisional spaces – some ideas might fly, relationships build and hopefully some very specific piloting of work.  This blog is about a proposal for the latter (specific piloting of work).  At these meetings I’ve found myself talking about getting resource (money) and support (capacity building) into the hands of smaller community groups – the ones who don’t go to these meetings, who are not constituted or contract ready but who make up the overwhelming majority of resident collective action.  

We need to dismantle the winner takes all system.  Hence the value of coalitions – if commissioners placed greater social value on consortiums and coalitions it would be transformative – not just reaching and involving more people, leveraging a greater contribution but fundamentally changing the rules of the game.  

In terms of how it might work, the approach we’ve taken at Thames Ward Community Project is to build resident-led coalitions.  We listen to what people are angry about, what they care about.  We distinguish issue, solution and action and start planning together; we ferret out what works through testing and reviewing. We find small pots of money, then deliver, then repeat at maybe greater scale – all done by resident-led groups.  Those groups work together as a wider network or coalition – as we get more success we bid for pots of money as consortiums and coalitions because we are not and never have been in competition with each other.  It would be great to get other local examples of shared funding and delivery.  But what I’d say is not enough of us are working like this because if we were, there’d be more money pushed downwards whereas mostly the money flows upwards to a few.

Michael who chairs the meetings said there were an estimated 7,000 community groups in the borough.  I checked on the Charities Commission website and there are very few charities, well under a hundred and of those only a few with significant turnover, so basically you can count the number of groups on a set of fingers who are going to win contracts and play an active, mature partnership role.  

What I’ve learnt in Thames Ward is that residents want jobs and the social solidarity that comes from working together; they want their creativity and entrepreneurial flair to lead to more control in their lives – control over work, money, personal and professional development.  The journey to that kind of social business sustainability is a rare thing but we should champion this intention, go beyond occasional contracts for the ‘trusted’ few and open up mainstream budgets to smaller groups controlled by local people, especially in a borough that has more developer investment than anywhere in Europe (so I’m told) and a council that exhorts inclusive growth.  

When we have these exploratory conversations about collaboration it is easy to rein in ambitions, seek pragmatic and incremental change.  I think we should go much further: shift far more money, decision-making and delivery to many more groups via coalitions, consortiums and networks and be explicit about that.

Matthew Scott

TWCP Director

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