The dark side of collaboration

| Christina Ashworth

Covid-19 presents an ongoing existential challenge to every aspect of what we used to call ‘normal life’.  As individuals, we are being forced to face fundamental questions about the balance between individual freedom and communal obligations. The nature of time itself has changed. For many, it has slowed and yet huge adaptations, which six months ago would have seemed impossible, are being made at a bewildering speed every day. It has also exposed more fully the huge inequities which are not only systemic throughout our former social, economic and political life, but more shockingly appear to have been essential to it.  

So what should we do in the face of this challenge? Particularly if, like me, you count yourself as one of those countless numbers who committed yourself to a life of public service? Our responses so far have followed those typical of members of our species. After the initial shock, many of us have engaged in denial or yearned to go back to the way things were. Others are angry, or depressed. Therefore, the entirely understandable impulse is to seek a new certainty, to attribute blame and responsibility outside of ourselves, and to move quickly on to putting things back on course again.  

But should we? I suggest we should not. The public sector prides itself on its ability to collaborate with others in order to achieve joint goals. But I would argue that, in reality, we were as often collaborators, in the negative sense of that word. That is, people who are willing to betray others by working with an enemy. The enemy, in this sense, is not an invading army but an attitude of mind cultivated by a system that dehumanises people, in which subtle transformations in people’s lives or their circumstances are reduced to measurable indices. Or where client groups identified by one single criterion, such as that they are elderly, can be casually assumed, for the purposes of service design and delivery, to be identical in terms of need. It’s an acceptance of a version of the world where outputs are promised and resources secured with near mythical predictions about the relationship between inputs and such quantifiable results. Memorably someone once described himself to me as an “escaped output” having decided to join in with some gardening rather than going on an outing arranged for everyone in his sheltered accommodation. He thought it ridiculous to expect him to want to go on a day out with the same people he had no choice but to live with every other day of the year. These processes elevate those who are willing to ‘play the game’ in the public sector rather than those fully committed to articulate, advocate for and engage in the messy and unpredictable world that is reality.  

Many skilled ‘game players’ would explain that the ends justify the means. I have worked with many brilliant project leaders so committed to their service that they are prepared to represent it in any way which the funder wants, rather than risk a more mature and honest relationship with them.  Others claimed that whatever it is that they are doing to fund services did not have a direct relationship with the experience of those who receive those services. What I have witnessed, in the last 30 years, leads me to a very different conclusion. Clients know only too well the part they have to play to fall into the right spot between deserving and desperate.  

It forces clients to collude too, rather than challenge us or the wider inequities of the status quo. They are often forced to adapt their stories to ones they think society will be more sympathetic to in order for them to get or retain support. A victim of child abuse now a young mother in sheltered accommodation agonised by the act of repeating her story and yet constantly put on parade by a Housing Association eager to put a face to their proud boast of empowering support. A neighbour so worried that her recent improvements in mental health might result in her losing her housing and benefits regressing to a drug dependent half life to stay secure  Unsurprising then that in one of my previous roles, observing admissions interviews for a place in a drug and rehabilitation project at times seemed more like observing an audition, keen as the potential clients were to prove their suitability. Or working with offenders who pretended to accept what they knew to be an entirely false narrative of a world outside the gates, that if they were good, would be able and willing to support them on a path towards a settled life. As well as having negative effects on individuals, this dishonesty also infects organisations with the widespread cognitive dissonance that comes with any gap between what we pretend is happening and what actually is. Such gaps erode trust because they undermine credibility. 

One area in which this is the most obvious is in the area of consultation and citizen involvement, where many of us have colluded with processes which far from living up to the promise of sharing power or responsibility are, in Arnstein’s framing, at best tokenistic and at worst cynical manipulations to create false endorsements of decisions already made. Thus parents of one Nottingham School found that answering yes to questions like “do you value high quality education” were ‘interpreted’ as endorsement for a plan to demolish their secondary school. 

Again whilst it might sound reasonable for an organisation to take on work which can be characterised in this way on the grounds that it might be the beginning of a more authentic relationship with the commissioning organisations, that does nothing to mitigate the negative impacts for those they have already involved. The scepticism that some communities now demonstrate about any worthy intervention clearly has its roots in lived experience where phrases like ‘community empowerment’ were corrupted in practice. Like any relationship which becomes abusive, there are only so many second chances before any guarantees about future collaboration begin to ring hollow.  

So, before we attempt to move on in the public sector, perhaps we need to consciously, deliberately and mindfully choose to be more radical? By, to borrow Joanna Macey’s phrase, first honouring the pain which needs to be endured if we are going to really face up to how bad it really was. Not least because this requires us to both stay in a place of shame, humility and uncertainty and to accept that we have no real idea how to put it right.  But if we have the courage to stay vulnerable and to openly examine what we have done individually and collectively, we do have a glimmer of a chance, to borrow Brene Brown’s phrase from her famous Ted Talk, to make this moment an awakening rather than a breakdown. This depends on us inviting those who, in the past,  we have kept out of the ‘real’ conversations, into genuine partnership as well as having the courage to stay in this place of discomfort and uncertainty long enough so that we can find fundamentally new ways of understanding how to move forward, and together.  

This guest blog was written by Christina Ashworth who has a wealth of experience in public service delivery, community engagement, training and coaching, some of which she hopes might continue to be relevant into our uncertain futures. She is currently interested in any opportunity to help in honestly facing up to the challenge before us. 

Follow Christina on Twitter @christina66a or email her

Photo by Timotej Nagy 

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