On energy for change

It’s widely recognised that complex social issues cannot be tackled by single organisations alone. But many large-scale change programmes still falter due to the inability of multiple institutions to deliver cross-sector coordination and harness the assets and energy of local communities in a sensitive and informed manner.

I’ve written a lot about this idea of “energy for change” in communities. At worst it can seem nebulous and theoretical; at best it can offer insights as to potential moments to act and courses of action to follow. At its heart is the idea that in any setting or context there are a variety of needs, assets and energy that exist, summarised as follows.

Needs Combining quantitative and qualitative data to identify areas of need for particular issues. Perhaps we are looking at how mental health services support children and young people at risk of or who have experienced abuse and neglect. Looking at needs data enables us to identify areas of high demand whether geographically or in terms of specific characteristics such as gender, family background etc. 

Assets Identifying the existing strengths in a community or geography, recognising that any initiative will be more effective if it is aware of, and sensitive to, existing initiatives and assets. They could be active and trusted local or national civil-society organisations, relevant local authority departments with particular strategies, or local boards who oversee service provision. It could include fundings, strategy and specific people in influential positions. In this respect we look beyond simple physical assets by defining assets as those tangible aspects within a community that support change.  

Energy Working where the energy for change is will more likely lead to a positive impact in a place – this is the need to ‘push what moves’. It is important to therefore identify the people, networks and opportunities for change in a place. We see trusted organisations as key sources of energy in the community that can offer local leadership as well as a gateway into those communities that can otherwise be hard to engage. Energy can also manifest from change: a child-protection disaster will inevitably outrage many and lead to demands for action, a change in regulation may present an opportunity to act differently.  

These three component parts of a basic analysis are then brought together to inform the development of a system map. It is then possible to identify the places across the relevant system where there is an alignment or misalignment of needs, assests and energy. If the ideal scenario is that assets and energy align with areas of greatest need, we look therefore for ‘cold spots’ where high need stands alone. The task becomes clear: how to shift the system to more closely align assets and energy with need. 

It also follows that communities with low levels of existing assets and energy will in all likelihood be harder to engage and work with, and therefore require more fundamental groundwork, than those communities with high number of assets and energy. In other words, assests and energy offer pathways into specific communities. 

It should of course be clear that these are dynamic relationships that change over time as different people, funding or priorities emerge and evolve. Any resulting system maps are therefore a point in time; to continue to be effective they need to be regularly maintained and up to date.

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