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Making sense of the links

Understanding how people and groups are networked together within a place can help plan for a more stable future. Clare Goff and Nicola Headlam look at a new tool to help test the strength of these connections

The ability to build strong social networks is key to the future success of a place

The need for leadership of place has never been greater. As local areas grapple with the impact of public sector cuts and a dwindling economy, those able to steward places through the current turbulence will be in high demand.

In particular, the ability to bring together the various elements of local economies – the public, private and social sectors – will be key to the future success of place. The analysis of social networks – the links between individuals and groups – has risen in prominence over recent years and is increasingly feeding into debates around the governance, wellbeing and leadership.

But can stronger local networks and greater connectivity boost resilience and economic performance?

The Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES) has piloted social network analysis (SNA) tools at two local authorities in England – Blackburn with Darwen Council in east Lancashire and Cherwell Council in north Oxfordshire – as part of its wider work on place resilience.

It used SNA techniques to gain an understanding of the strengths of the connections between and within governance structures within these areas. According to CLES’ place resilience framework, poor connections and a lack of balance between the public, private and social sectors within local economies can lead to a lack of resilience. Local economies that are over-dependent on an isolated silo of private sector activity, for example, or that fail to recognise the importance of the social sector, will be more exposed to shocks.

In recent years shocks to local systems – from the collapse of financial institutions to public sector spending cuts – have highlighted the need for well-networked places. Communities that prioritise local networks will make decisions around cuts based on protecting the strength of their networks and ensuring their local knowledge base is retained. Local economies where there is little trust or inter-connectedness between the private, public and social sectors will suffer more heavily when shocks occur.

In short, our places and lives within them are dependent upon connectivity and networks which, if too opaque, too unknown, or too dependent on long and complex connections, are very vulnerable to small disturbances.

Given the challenges we face, we need to think about how we make places more resilient in a way that recognises the importance of connections and relationships.

GETTING A HANDLE ON RESILIENCE
The following two case studies show the value of SNA in building an awareness of the resilience of place. These projects have uncovered wide variations between areas, raising questions about how far regeneration funding has proven catalytic in joining together local governance networks, as well as more fundamental questions about the role of the public sector in relation to the market.

In all cases the findings suggest ‘big questions’ about the role and relationship between governance networks and economic performance and about the need for greater stewardship of place, questions that are even more important in the light of the cuts to public services and the loss of strategic and governance capacity.

Many areas have a long way to go in repairing damaged networks. Network thinking represents a major shift in public policy; as Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the RSA, noted last year, ‘an emphasis on social networks changes not just the focus and design of public policy, but the whole way we think about success and failure’.

Understanding how to build the glue of relationships is a world away from more traditional regeneration interventions. It involves small-scale ‘relational’ improvements and, as Geoff Mulgan, chief executive of the Young Foundation has pointed out, requires a whole new set of skills.

‘What new skills, styles and the birth of the relational state structures will come to predominate? Will public agencies need to recruit different kinds of people, prioritising social intelligence relative to analytical intelligence; story-tellers relative to number crunchers; empathisers relative to economists?’

But the rewards – for local governance and for local communities – will be great, he says. ‘All of these developments, messy, and contradictory as they are, could be logical ones, natural aspects of democracy turning from being government for the people to government with the people.’

CASE STUDY: CHERWELL – BUILDING CONNECTIONS BETWEEN PUBLIC, PRIVATE AND SOCIAL SECTORS
The three sectors of the economy in Cherwell – public, private and social – were explored as part of the resilience research process. There are three hubs in the area – the CVS, chamber of commerce and the LSP – which should act as connectors, bringing the public social and community sectors together.

While the public sector is well represented on the local strategic partnership and the commercial sector via the chamber of commerce, the social sector looks smaller and weaker and has less connections into the LSP.  Thus functioning links between the council and local business are not operating in a way that includes third or voluntary sector activities and the Big Society.

CLES’ recommendation was to treat these hubs as key elements of the governance structure and to seek to support and develop ways in which the CVS, chamber of commerce and LSP hubs operate. It advised them to help those connectors to see themselves as linked to one another and the wider network as well as the interest groups they serve.

CASE STUDY: BLACKBURN WITH DARWEN – HIGH DEGREE OF NETWORK COHESION

In Blackburn the SNA element assumed greater importance as the process generated more new data. The analysis was a more fundamental phase of the research process and both informal and formal networks of the local strategic partnership (LSP) were mapped.

The formal governance networks when mapped showed that 262 individuals were involved in the structures of the LSP. One key person was asked to name their three key work contacts and then those contacts asked to name theirs.

This presents second and third order connections. The core people in the network demonstrated a high degree of network cohesion, a core stable set of people trusting one another and working together, and this was achieved across the public, commercial and social sectors.

This network, however, was not exclusive, due to the number of feeder networks and good connections across and between the other elements of the governance architecture. Analysis by CLES showed ideas could flow freely through to the core, demonstrating both bonding social capital and bridging social capital.

CLES recommended the SNA be used to build on the strengths of the LSP and help reform it.

CLES now has a variety of social network analysis tools aimed at helping local areas assess and understand their networks, and which feed that understanding into a broader picture of local resilience.

For further information about CLES social network analysis go to newstartmag.co.uk/tools/social-network-analysis-sna/
Alternatively, contact director of policy Sarah Longlands on 0161 236 7036, email sarahlonglands@cles.org.uk

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