All you need is....cohesion

Everyone wants community cohesion, but no one seems to know what it is or how to achieve it.  We can tell that this is the case, because so many column inches are devoted to definitional issues, or to definitions which seem somehow inadequate.  This is a brief note or how to improve cohesion.  We can say that it is about cohesion strategy, if that helps.  Whatever we call it, it needs to be about artificial friendships, the power of love, and meteorite strikes.  Not obvious components, perhaps, but bear with me.

Before first,  we first need to look at what we mean by “progress”, as in “progressing community cohesion”.  People see progress in a number of ways.  Some see progress as achieving a purpose (greater cohesion).  Some see it as an improvement process (more cohesion activities).  And some see it as a thing human beings need to feel they are doing in order to have meaning in their lives (let’s have important meetings about cohesion).

None of these perspectives quite does the job.  In practice, most people claim to see it as the first (achieving something useful) whilst behaving as if it is the second or third, which add little value.  But even the first perspective – let’s call it the scientic approach – is flawed.  A scientific approach to progress should start with the purpose – What exactly are we trying to achieve and how will we measure when we have got there? – then evaluate the processes most likely to get us to that point.  But what we are trying to achieve is more love (don’t snigger, I mean the “love thy neighbour” kind of love).  Love is what we are after.  And love is, as every teenager discovers, awkward stuff.  This is why progressing cohesion is so slippery-difficult.  We are trying to treat something which is the subject of the artist and the poet as if it were the subject of the engineer and the scientist.  It is, essentially, internal, subjective – and at the core of what it is to be human.

Love is certainly not easy to measure.  And it starts and finishes with the people, not with processes, structures and mechanisms.  An alternative approach to progress, one which reflects the reality of the way many things actually get done, and which works far better for this slippery subject, starts with the people and asks, what can we achieve?

So, if we are starting and finishing with the people, how do we build the love (man)?  The answer is that, instead of trying to engineer progress, we nurture.  Building cohesion is not like building a house or a car, where blueprints and mapped out activity planning is at a premium.  It is more like gardening, where personal care, responsiveness, and a deft touch are the points of focus.  Our job is to effect a culture change, and our most tangible points of leverage are public sector employees.  We must demonstrate that we care for them and for the conviction they bring to their work; we must encourage them to show that same compassion towards colleagues so that cross-functional and cross-organisational cooperation, not points scoring, is the order of the day.  We become the change we wish to see.

Ok, so it’s all a bit wishy washy so far, and we are all of us paid to be hard edged achievers.  But here’s the thing.  There is not much evidence that the engineering approach has much effect.  In fact, there is some pretty compelling evidence that engineered interventions have a disempowering effect, creating the next generation of problems.  Great if what you are trying to do is ensure the long term growth of the public sector, not so great if you are trying to build a fairer, happier society.

At this stage, you may be saying – ok, I accept your argument.  But the plain fact is that we operate within a public sector culture that values the masculine, engineered model.  And I am paid to make progress in those terms.

Right - so let’s run with it.  Let’s take the national indicators: good, hard-edged, scientific measures of the kinds of progress we want to make.  If you look closely, you will see they fall into three categories: (1) love indicators (e.g. NI1, people getting on well together); (2) disguised love indicators (e.g. NI8 people participating in sport); and (3) inter-personal capability indicators (e.g. the educational achievement indicators).  It is, frankly, all about love.  It is dressed up in pseudo objective terminology, yes; but it is actually about our humanity.  This is not surprising, since we know that improved social capital is linked to better performance in a population’s education, health, crime, and economic outcomes.  Put simply, the more people know the names of their neighbours, the lower the levels of crime.

So the National Indicators are really disguised love indicators.  But, because they look like scientific indicators, we tend to adopt a blinkered, engineering response.  If we have a problem with high rates of teenage pregnancy, we think need a teenage conception initiative.  If we have a problem with gang violence, we need a policing response.  When we recognise, however, that these indicators are just symptoms of a relationship or love issue – then, yes, we would have to develop those containment strategies for the short term, but we would be putting much more focus on the long term solutions, all of which are based on relationships.

Let’s run with these two (teenage) examples.  If you ask a teenager what they want from public services, their answer will be less about the content of what is provided than it will be about the relationship within which that provision happens.  Or, to put it another way, what they crave above all else is “respect”.  You might also call that “love”.

So we can – and should – put in place programmes to address teenage conception or gang violence, but it is the way we do them that is the key question.  If the people that run them are in it for the long term, if they go out of their way to connect to young people, if they have a genuine affection for teenagers – then results will come.  It is the engagement that matters most.  Not engagement as transaction – like a one off purchase in a shop you will never visit again – but engagement as relationship, like the neighbour who walks your dog three times a week.  And real engagement takes time, since it is nothing more than a relationship.  Relationships don’t happen between organisation and client; they happen between individual human beings.

While we are on the subject of connecting with people, I want to touch on a related public sector bugbear: partnerships.  I prefer to call them “artificial friendships”.  Do you recall that sinking feeling when, at the age of nine, you were told by your mother to go and make friends with that nice boy or girl across the road?  Friendships don’t happen because they are convenient; they happen because the chemistry is right.  Central government does not seem to understand this.  It has also made a fundamental logical error.  It notices that when good things happen in economic or social development, there tends to be a partnership of agencies involved.  It reasons, therefore, that if it requires local areas to set up partnerships, more good things will happen.  This is poor logic – of the kind which says, “if it is a dog, it has four legs.  That (table) has four legs, therefore it must be a dog.”  If partnerships are forced upon people, they are more likely to spend time managing their resentments than cooperating.  We have ended up with huge partnership overheads requiring considerable bureaucratic servicing – but with little to show for it.

Let’s get back to the National (love) Indicators.  If we took off our current transaction-oriented glasses, and put on a relationship perspective, how would we go about doing it all better?  Instead of inventing new cohesion intervention mechanism, or tinkering with the structures of existing ones (since when did restructuring add value?), we should be asking ourselves these four LOVE questions in relation to any specific public service issue:

  1. Low relations:  In general terms, which poor relationship types hold us back the most? (e.g. between boys and their fathers; between doctors and drug addicts);
  2. Outrage relations:  In specific terms, which personality clashes get in the way of progress (e.g. the long running fued between Tim, who heads up the housing association, and Jane, who is Director of Regeneration)?
  3. Value relations:  What other relationships, (individual or role/structural) could achieve greater leverage on the issue, or indicator, at hand?
  4. Enhancement:  How can we support, improve – or cauterise – these relationships?


This is a powerful alternative approach to the community cohesion challenge.  It is also a highly effective approach to wider service improvement, not least because, as noted above, cohesion (social capital) is so fundamental to the wider public service challenge.  And it is an approach which enables, over time, the building of genuine, value adding public sector partnerships.

I suggested that cohesion strategy should cover the power of love (covered), artificial friendships (touched upon), and meteorite strikes (not yet discussed).  So here’s the thing.  If a meteorite is spotted on collision course with the earth a year hence, normal rules no longer apply.  A sensible response dispenses with issues of budget ownership, complex accountability processes, and efficiency measures.  It does not allow everybody to do what they have always done.  It recognises a crisis, decides on the best responses, and does everything it can to make that response real before the Earth is destroyed.

We are in a crisis, and it’s called the recession.  In a recession, there is less to go around; the poorest are hit hardest; and social tensions increase.  The cohesion challenge we thought we were facing is about to get bigger.  With a hot summer, there will be trouble.  So, if the existing cohesion frameworks and rhetoric have not made much difference so far, would it not be wise to look for alternatives?  It is painful, for those of us brought up on a public sector diet of detachment and objectivity, but perhaps LOVE is the answer after all.

posted by

Peter Latchford

Professor Peter Latchford is Chief Executive of Black Radley, the public sector consultancy and systems business.  He is also Chair of Urban Living, the housing market renewal pathfinder and Vice Chair of the Community Development Foundation



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