Civic Futures Pilot — A Synopsis

The first Civic Futures group at City Hall in 2019.

The Civic Futures pilot was an experiment in collective leadership, collaboration and culture change, delivered in partnership between Koreo, Dark Matter Labs, the Young Foundation, and the Greater London Authority (GLA). Commissioned by the GLA in late 2019, the project was an ambitious attempt to support civil society leaders across London while also supporting the development of community engagement and collaboration across City Hall.

Project Ambition

The project was commissioned by the GLA, and was part of a broader culture change within the GLA towards better engagement with London’s civil society at a period of profound change for the city. Originally conceived as an advisory group, it subsequently developed into a more ambitious project which intended to build leadership capacity in civil society, as well as something which could make a systemic contribution to culture and capacity with the GLA itself.

The 120,000 organisations and 3 million volunteers that represent London civil society are of vital importance in contributing to the vibrancy and resilience of the city. To ensure that civil society is able to effectively meet the significant challenges facing the city, it was understood as imperative that its leaders receive the necessary support in terms of their own development, access to networks and a voice in ongoing conversations about London.

In that context, this project was intended to build capacity within civil society to create systems change and lead the sector in meeting the challenges facing London, to help the GLA to engage with groups working across London and build its understanding of the work, opportunities and challenges facing civil society, and to support the personal development and capacity of London’s civil society workforce, benefitting the organisations they work for and the groups they serve. Suggested outcomes were stronger partnerships across civil society in London, stronger partnerships between City Hall and London’s civil society, and an increased understanding of civil society support and development.

The Approach

Working closely with our partners including the GLA, reflecting on the brief and a limited pilot budget, the partnership decided that rather than approach the project as a traditional leadership programme, we would approach it in a more open and collaborative way, bringing together a group of peers from across the city for a collective inquiry on the role of civil society in London’s future.

In order to build this out, we agreed the following design principles early in the project. That the programme should be responsive to the leadership development priorities of participants, requiring an approach over the course of the year which was iterative, emergent and flexible in terms of content and delivery. That the programme needed to be fundamentally about connection and connecting. This meant designing the programme in such a way that at every stage it enabled participants to connect to each other, to the GLA, and wider civil society across London, and to do so in a way that built lasting and effective relationships. That the programme would only be successful if it created a legacy, and enables the relationships and skills which are developed through it to continue to bring value long after the programme has ended. That the programme needed to be as accessible as possible, benefitting different kinds of leaders and learners, from different cultures, levels of education, with different levels of availability, and to people from across the city. And finally that the project would need to be highly contextual, with a focus on helping develop leadership capacity which can make a tangible difference to the leaders’ ability to deliver in their work, rather than developing leadership in the abstract.

Framing of the Project

As a result of the above, we approached the communication and external framing of the project in an intentionally open way. Making it clear that this was not a pre-packaged programme of learning which people would be joining, but rather a collective process of inquiry. That language was as follows:

“Transformative social change has always started in and with civil society.

In a world which often risks being captured by the past, we need a civic society which can be both fiercely independent in organising itself, and also truly interdependent with all those seeking to build a shared future. In London, this civic society is already around us. It is represented by the people working tirelessly to serve their communities, by the city’s highly effective activists and organisers, its radical artists and curators, as well as by the individuals and networks exploring new ways of caring for each other and the world around them. Deeply embedded in communities across the city, this civic society has a unique role to play in bridging us to new and unknown tomorrows.

To support that urgent work, Civic Futures starts by asking how we can build shared wisdom in making the transition to a better future? How do we best bring together some of the amazing people active across London to learn from and support each other in building that future?”

The First Cohort

As a result of that framing, and following a community-led campaign where we initially asked for nominations instead of direct applications, we were overwhelmed by the number and range of people who expressed an interest, humbled by their talent and work across the city. Following an in-depth selection process which included all the project partners, we identified 25 people who made a defining contribution to the project in this first year. This first group of fellows is a vibrant mixture of activists, artists, funders, curators, educators, organisers, connectors, technologists, carers, archivists, and people playing combined and hybrid roles right across those categories and London’s civil society.

  • Bushra Ahmed, West Croydon Voice
  • Christina Sealy, TalentRich
  • Edward Saperia, Newspeak House
  • Eli Manderson-Evans, Ten Years’ Time
  • Ellie Hale, Centre for Acceleration of Social Technology (CAST)
  • Farah Mohammoud, YouPress
  • Jim Minton, Toynbee Hall
  • Joyce Fraser, Black Heroes Foundation
  • Karen Chillman, Croydon CVS
  • Krissie Nicolson, East End Trades Guild
  • Laura Kerry & Morag McGuire, Artillery
  • Leroy Simpson, Community Liaison
  • Mama D Ujuaje, Community Centered Knowledge
  • Marcela Benedetti, Latin-American Women Rights Service (LAWRS)
  • Mei Lim, Reach Children’s Hub
  • Melanie Hudson, Howbury Friends
  • Nahimul Islam, Wapping Youth FC
  • Natasha Friend, Camden Giving
  • Ned Glasier, Company Three
  • Nicholas Okwulu, Pempeople
  • Nile Bridgeman, AfterParti
  • Poulomi Desai, Usurp Arts
  • Tobi Kyeremateng, Black Ticket Project
Group photo of cohort 1 Civic Futures Participants at City Hall
Cohort 1

Working Together

From September 2019, we worked closely with this group to facilitate a collective learning experience focused on peer relationships and learning, inquiry and exploration, systems thinking, and collaboration across London’s civil society as well as with the GLA. Each participant worked with a coach, during which time they focused on personal development in the context of this project and beyond. We also created day-long sessions dedicated to collective inquiry, peer learning, and support, and everyone was invited to take part in action learning sets, working through current challenges with peers on the programme. Finally, we worked with GLA teams to bring together potential collaboration opportunities. Combining those elements, we developed a shared space for experimentation between a previously disparate group of civic actors.

Most importantly, we worked closely with the group to guide the direction of the project from the outset, making no assumptions about what that direction might be, leaning in to the discomfort of not having a pre-agreed road map, and instead committing to following where the project leads us. As well as a period of relationship-building, we started the project with a focus on personal inquiry, working to develop an understanding of the priorities of this group of leaders.

Inquiry Questions included:

  • How a local project might speak to broader impact without sacrificing its rootedness?
  • How to use rage effectively, and when to look for solutions/compromise?
  • What kind of civic service can be created which performs the role of scrutiny between civil society and the state?
  • How can one get into the black box, where decisions are made and power is exercised?
  • How can someone like me be in the room where decisions are made?
  • What kind of space can be created between business and civil society for social innovation?
  • What will a good balance between work and activism look like for me personally, looking from a position at a crossroads?
  • How can one find a space between polarising forces in a community context?
  • Is it possible to put relationships and conversation back at the heart of public work?
  • What are different kinds/forms of leadership, and what impact might they have?

Collectively we synthesised that personal exploration into two primary themes, which the project has subsequently focused on. The first of those was power, and specifically where power sits in social change work, particularly when thinking about how the state and civil society interact, but also thinking about the different way power affects the work within civil society groups in London. The question asked in different ways around the group was how power could be better distributed through institutions to a community level. Related to power, there was a consistent theme around collaboration, and the opportunity to work together and with the GLA to do something special with this opportunity — considering the conditions for effective collaboration and what role Civic Futures could play in supporting that collaboration more broadly in London’s civil society.

Those two themes led to two key reflections on the potential of the project, and how it should develop. The first was that the project provided an unusual opportunity to model the kinds of collaboration and distributed power the group was interested in seeing, and creating the opportunities to experiment with the GLA to find new ways of working. The second was the intention to think about their experience of Civic Futures on a longer term timescale, taking place between now and 2024, so potentially spanning 100 civic leaders and two mayoral elections, giving the group more space to think about how their work might lay the foundations for other groups, and also about how/why the current cohort might stay part of this community over that time.

Moving Towards Collaboration

Partnership and collaboration between civil society and City Hall is inconsistent, with the result that both sides are missing the opportunity to leverage each other’s’ power, insight, and experience in helping Londoners build a better future.

Building on the above situation statement, we worked with both the group and officers from GLA teams to interrogate the nature of collaboration and power in municipal social change work, exploring not only the context but also systemic opportunities for experimentation. In practice this collective inquiry has involved two main programmes activity: a shadowing exchange which matched civic leaders and leaders at City Hall to explore each others’ work and the contexts in each which each were working, and secondly to bring together a series of collaborative experiments which combine priorities from City Hall projects and the people in the group.

The shadowing exchange was a way to start building relationships between participants in Civic Futures and teams at the GLA, as part of an ongoing conversation about how to create more equal and effective collaboration between civil society and City Hall. Although a light touch approach without centrally set objectives, the exchange has ultimately proved to be a high impact way of connecting people who are often otherwise on opposite sides of the table, and has been a rich opportunity for exchanges of ideas and perspectives that are already filtering through into real work. For example a former head teacher who is currently leading an early years project in West London came together with a team looking at child obesity, while two social entrepreneurs running arts and culture projects in Waltham Forest were able to bring their experience of being part of the first Borough of Culture into the planning for that project’s future years. The shadowing will continue, and the reflections of both sides of the equation will continue to feed in their reflections, shaping the work that the group does together.

The second, more strategic stream of activity was to bring together practical collaborative experiments which provided a significant opportunity for reflection on culture and practice at City Hall and in London’s wider civil society. Bringing this together required a parallel period of engagement at the GLA through which we spoke to interested officers to develop areas of work which might lend themselves well to exploration with the leaders participating in Civic Futures. In doing that, the collaborative opportunity was defined as: “The intent is to bring together GLA officers & the first cohort of Civic Futures in a collaborative setting to explore topics of mutual interest that could advance shared missions about a future London. This implies a degree of open-endedness and a willingness on both sides to make time available to discover & interrogate possible issues & solutions beyond what people are already doing — to think about a next horizon of work that the GLA and Civic Leaders might undertake in the (near) future.”

After bringing together both sides for a period of introduction and discussion, we collectively identified projects for further exploration involving:

  • the GLA’s Culture team (How might cultural programming and policy change if it sought to amplify, enable and build on things that were already happening?),
  • the Violence Reduction Unit (What are the opportunities for working close to communities immediately following incidents of violence and trauma?),
  • the communities team at Royal Docks Regeneration Area (Given the complex web of stakeholders involved in any large scale regeneration project, what does meaningful community engagement look like?),
  • and one broader collaboration workstream (How might the understanding that we are differently positioned to take advantages of collaboration change how, when, and why we create collaboration opportunities between civil society and the state?)

As Covid-19 began to fundamentally change life for us, the group, and the communities they are all serving, we were engaged in developing that work further with a group of peers from the group and City Hall.

Both of the above were simple but strategic interventions which have invited teams across City Hall into a different type of engagement with civil society, one where they hold less of the power but are instead working alongside colleagues from different contexts. Interestingly, our colleagues at City Hall have reflected that this offer and opportunity has brought together an unusual level of interest from teams at City Hall, and as a result has become a connection space within the GLA for people working on different issues, which are typically quite silo’d.

Covid-19 & Beyond The Pilot

In the context of Covid-19, and bearing in mind the impact it was having on the demands facing many of the group, we weren’t able to build on the base we’d all created together to do some of the in-depth experimentation we were all looking forward to. Having said that, and in spite of the pandemic, there were some wonderful examples of the kind of relationships, collaborations and projects which we were hoping would come out of that latter phase of the project. The most fully realised of those was between Eli and Nile from the cohort, and Ruth and Pete from the Environment team at the GLA, a rich collaboration which we spoke to them about in more detail in this post’s companion piece. We’re looking forward to seeing that work continue, and to a year where we can go through the whole cycle with Fellows from the first cohort and the new one.

Although curtailed by the pandemic, the first iteration of Civic Futures was a lean and focused attempt to start a new conversation around power and collaboration with and within one of London’s most powerful institutions. By celebrating the power of London’s civil society, and trusting fully in the talent and expertise of some of London’s most committed civic leaders and public servants, the project has created a strategic intervention with huge potential. Our reflection that this power has been developed by bringing together a rich, balanced, varied group of peer leaders, by building real good will and connection between those leaders and the programme team, by allowing the project to be fully emergent in response to the group and their context, and by connecting the project into City Hall teams in an intentional but authentic way.

Civic Futures is open for nominations and applications via the website here, or direct through City Hall here, until late February 2021.

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