Sometimes challenging the brief provided by a client pays off for all concerned - and so it proved yesterday when Drew Mackie and I were invited back to Pendle for a conference on community cohesion.
The event featuring work we had done aiming to help different communities - white, Asian, rural, urban, young, old - understand each other better following riots in north west England a few years ago.
The brief put out to tender by Pendle council last year was fairly conventional - carry out a study of local attitudes that could be used as a baseline to see how far new programmes to promote cohesion increased neighbourliness and trust.
We've never been ones for clipboards on the doorstep, and prefer doing projects that lead to action and not just another report on the shelf... so we suggested something entirely different. As I've written before, we proposed that we run workshops at which residents invented fictional characters and told their life stories, so we could analyse the issues that surfaced. To our surprise, we got the job - and pressed ahead with a storytelling kit developed by Drew that we could use and also hand on to local groups to use. It's the sort of thing that could fall flat, lead to pieces in the paper about wasting money on tale-spinning focus groups, or at best a polite thank you for the report but no follow-through.
In fact it all turned out really well, thanks to the enthusiasm of those taking part, support of the council and Pendle Partnership and some excellent local voluntary groups like the multi-faith organisation Building Bridges. You can download our report here (4M pdf).
Yesterday Pendle council proudly invited groups from around East Lancashire to hear what had been going on. We did a presentation along with others, but the most interesting parts were the reports from groups who had developed stories using the kit - without our help - and the discussion among participants of what other techniques were working well. Roy Prenton, editor of the Nelson Leader, talked about the "myth busting" cartoon strip they were now running as a result of our work, and there plenty more new ideas bubbling up around the tables.
I think the whole exercise was successful because of two things: first that there were some individuals and organisations in Pendle ready to try something different and carry it through. Second, the technique that we used was designed to stimulate the sort of stories and conversations that are part of people's day-to-day lives.
Drew and colleagues are now using similar storytelling techniques in Blackburn and Bolton. Clearly it's something that appeals to Lancashire culture.
Programmes for social inclusion, community cohesion, civil renewal and regeneration operate at two levels: that of the official policies, targets and consultancy speak; and that of the people living in communities being studied, renewed and evaluated. The easy option for public bodies is to stay in the comfortable setting of the first levels - but more is likely to happen if they support ways of doing things that are part of the second.
You can hear first hand what the council thought of it in this Quicktime movie from Sarah Gaskill (right), our main contact during the work. I'm editing more videos to post in a day or so.
Previously published at Partnerships Online
Update: more movies
Brian Astin, Pendle council corporate strategy and partnership manager, says that storytelling provides a useful complement to harder edged policy and legislation. Both carrot and stick are needed.
Rauf Bashir, from Building Bridges, explains how they used the storytelling approach in primary schools.
Marcia Allass, developing the Pendlelife portal, explains how the Internet can help with community cohesion.