Donna Provoost: Social Investment + Community = Success
OPINION: So much is going on in the Porirua suburb of Cannons Creek now that it's hard to keep track.
Five years ago some locals began talking to each other about the impacts of poverty and debt in their community. They were seeing that the numerous services dropped into the community by central Government only went so far and they didn't want to be cast as helpless victims. There was a growing hunch that they could contribute to sound solutions.
These locals decided to tackle the high levels of debt particularly in low-income households, because this was a common issue trapping many families, and it wasn't being discussed openly.
The Good Cents initiative was born. Groups of people caught in the debt cycle began sharing their stories and their solutions. Rather than a straight financial literacy course that most people think is needed, Good Cents creates a safe environment for sharing and inserting strands of financial wisdom, and supports people to problem solve for themselves.
The key point of difference being that participants are aware it is them who need to make the change and they experience the buzz of moving to a better financial situation.
Other initiatives led by local residents have also created positive change. These range from winning a case against a liquor shop extending its hours, piloting and expanding a fresh fruit and vegetable coop (now spreading throughout the Wellington region) to a koha shed and annual blackberry festival harvesting blackberries on public land.
This is community-led development – working together in a place to create and achieve goals that are owned by the locals. When we put residents of a community in the driving seat, we achieve better, more sustainable results.
In Cannons Creek they are addressing their challenges by working together and using their strengths. They are growing a sense of self-help, building their skills and capacities, and a foundation for long-term positive change.
And it's not the community toiling away in isolation, they're using skills and experience from outside their community. The gold here is that even with this external support, the community is driving the change – it is not being prescribed to them from an office in Wellington.
There is much to applaud about the recent announcements on social investment and the new Social Investment Agency. Minister Amy Adams says, "Greater use of data and evidence, and a focus on measuring outcomes, means we can create a system that looks for more opportunities to intervene sooner and more effectively."
We agree – however, let's do this alongside communities. If the agency simply provides more refined measures and clearer targeting, then little has changed. We need to get a more nuanced picture and broaden the way we make sense of data.
In a community-led approach data and evidence is gathered and reflected on by the local community. It is their community and their data. With the support of evaluators locals increase their understanding of what is happening and whether the change is having a positive impact.
This shift enables local communities to determine what services and support they need to better support individuals in their communities. In complex settings, like Cannons Creek, no data will ever fully capture what is happening. For that, we need to have input from the people themselves to define what success looks like.
Social investment is when you invest today so that your costs and spending in future are reduced while increasing the wellbeing of society. The new Social Development Agency has the opportunity to invest in bringing local communities to the table. This is more than consultation.
Government needs to be prepared to put local solutions advocated by local communities more at the centre. This means supporting communities to decide what solutions will work best for them and sharing power and decision making. The agency may then need to get out from behind their Wellington desks and diagnostic tools and invest in genuine community engagement; listen, learn, adapt and act.
Spoiler alert – Government agencies do not have all of the answers; but then neither do the communities. Together though in true partnership – imagine the wisdom, the potential for change.
Sometimes the solutions may not work in a three year time frame, they might be risky or messy, and some may even end up on the front page of The Dominion Post.
But let's be clear, traditional social and economic policies are failing to generate the changes needed to address increasing disadvantage. We don't just need more refined versions of the same, we need different approaches.
While the social investment approach offers great potential, we are unlikely to realise the fiscal and social benefits we seek unless we broaden our view of evidence and support the wider community to be the main driver of change.
Donna Provoost chairs the board of Inspiring Communities, a nine-year-old organisation that works to achieve locally-led change.
- The Dominion Post