Every now and then I get regeneration panic attacks. My entire body goes rigid. My thoughts cancel each other out. I’m gripped by the fear that the jargon conceals a bottomless pit of meaninglessness; that the funding programmes are a bureaucratic placebo; that nothing ever changes. Hope springs eternal but eternity doesn’t take a blind bit of notice.
This week’s attack was brought on by the government’s interim evaluation of Local Strategic Partnerships. LSPs, it seems, are so weighted with jargon they can hardly get off the ground. Burdened by worthy concepts such as mainstreaming, liveability, sustainability. Pulled in opposite directions by cross-cutting issues, thematic issues and single issues, by organisational concerns and partnership concerns, by national pull and local push. And then of course, inevitably, coping with a lack of skills and resources.
Everywhere, the report concludes, LSPs experience the tension between process and delivery. And at the end of the day it’s hard to tell whether they’re making a difference.
As the panic set in, I allowed myself momentarily to be comforted by Figure 4.1. Figure 4.1 illustrates how LSPs can add value. Oh what neat little boxes, what confident straight lines.
Figure 4.1 tells us there is a way through all of these complexities. It tells us that ultimately, if you work at it long enough, you can develop a system that will get you to where you want to be in the same way you can engineer a car to get you from A to B and build a road that takes you there quickly and efficiently.
The problem is that in telling us how things should be, organisational theories define failure as the distance from the diagram.
Conflict, ignorance, tripping over each others’ priorities are no cause for panic. What should make us worry are the neat little diagrams and straight lines that tell us how the world would be if it had been built by bureaucrats one Friday afternoon.
Quite apart from the real, difficult problems regeneration professionals face on a day to day basis are the problems of systems that are meant to guide and support but can take away the confidence to act outside their confines. When this happens, when we spend so much time perfecting processes we can’t get round to delivery, that’s when we should panic.
Susan Downer, assistant editor
- New Start Online Online magazine
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