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September 29, 2010

Investment in the wrong place?

This week, Scottish Government announced that an additional £2.4 million will be spent on new training resources and tools for local government community workers.  At a time when funding for the community sector is under intense pressure, many will be mystified by this allocation of cash.  If the Government’s aim is to build local capacity and community resilience, there is growing evidence that investment should go directly into the networks and individuals who are genuinely connected and trusted by their communities

Rosie Niven

Connected Communities:  A report by the RSA

Building links around highly connected individuals can help to tackle isolation, unemployment and antisocial behaviour more effectively within a community, according to a report.

The success of UK government plans to train 5,000 community organisers and increase the membership of community groups depends on identifying the most influential people within any given community.

Analysis by the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) of a community network covering more than 1,000 residents and organisations across New Cross Gate in London reveals two-thirds of people don’t know anyone who works at the local council, a third don’t know any employers and 40% don’t know anyone working in the local media.

But the research also shows the ‘most networked individual’ within a community is not always the usual suspect such as the local MP, councillor or community activist. Within New Cross Gate, one of the most networked individuals is the local pub quizmaster.

‘Familiar strangers’ such as postmen and dustmen appear to be under-utilised community resources, with more people recognising and finding value in who delivers their post than their local councillor.

Social network analysis can reveal opportunities to connect those who are disconnected, and ‘spread’ constructive social norms through these individuals whose behaviour is more likely to be imitated by those in their network, the report says.

Connected communities argues policymakers should have a better understanding of how social networks operate when making decisions that might reduce inequalities, combat isolation and support the development of resilient and empowered communities.

The RSA plans to test its findings over the next six months through small-scale projects and activities designed to take account of these networks.

Chief executive Matthew Taylor said: ‘From community safety to getting a job, social networks are the infrastructure of the Big Society. If we understand and exploit those networks then we can meet the challenge posed to us by austerity – achieving better social outcomes with static or falling budgets.’

The report’s author Steve Broome, director of research for the RSA’s Connected Communities team, said: ‘Visualising communities as networks helps us to see the assets they contain and how best to make use of them. We can make connections where there are none, and make better use of them where they exist.

‘And in replaying networks to people in communities we are better able to see our interdependencies, opportunities to collaborate, and realise that we influence a surprisingly high number of people directly and indirectly through our attitudes and behaviours.’