The vision of co-production and genuine partnership working rests on the ability to bridge between divergent perceptions, priorities and perspectives. An ‘honest broker’ can play a critical part in achieving this. There is nothing new in the idea of seeking an outside mediator to facilitate compromise and common understanding. It is standard practice in situations ranging from international disputes to the mediation of personal conflict. However, while the vital importance of bridging is accepted, honest brokers are seldom used in the community sector, in the space between state and community.
At no time has the interface between state and community been more important. Independent police commissioners, local authorities and now GP commissioners are all to be “accountable to the community.” Local authorities are going to be commissioning work with and for the community. But how is this interface going to be created and maintained without becoming a place where the “usual suspects” of the community get to influence policy whilst the majority do not participate?
Kaizen has fulfilled the role of honest broker on many projects we have delivered in the community sector over a 10-year period. This experience has taught us how valuable the input of the honest broker can be. The importance of this role was highlighted in a recent RSA report and the 2 key aspects of the honest broker are identified, though they term it network weaving:
“There are two parts to network weaving. One is relationship building, particularly across traditional divides…The second is learning how to facilitate collaborations for mutual benefit” RSA Connected Communities Report
We see there are 3 key areas that an honest broker can add value:
The honest broker achieves the trust of both sides because they don’t have a personal agenda beyond wanting the process to work and achieve its outcomes. They can support all parties to get beyond ego driven positions to look for commonality and create a shared vision. The relationship between the state and citizen is often littered with negative past experiences and unhelpful beliefs that get in the way of meaningful collaboration. Coming in from the outside, the honest broker is able to operate as a neutral player untainted by the inevitable past experiences and prejudices that all parties have about each other. The honest broker is also able to say things to all sides that they cannot say to each other. This enables things to be talked about which otherwise remain hidden (the “elephant in the room”).
All too often partnerships lose direction or fail to deliver as a result of divergent ideas or unresolved conflicts – becoming partnerships in name only. Yet while conflict is an inevitable part of building consensus and cohesion, the skills to manage conflict are not widespread. Through facilitated open dialogue, groups and individuals can examine their (conscious and unconscious) judgements and preconceptions and explore how to move beyond limiting ideas or beliefs. Professionals and community members both need support to be more open to others’ views, and in the development of the skills to negotiate rather than avoid conflict.
3.Mediating power dynamics and maintaining boundaries.
Asked where power lies in interactions between community and state, most people would say with the state. The state holds the purse strings, has the authority to make laws, determine policies and enforce changes. But this view of it as a powerful vs powerless dynamic is not helpful in fostering collaboration; and it ignores the fact that the state is made up of members of the community who are given power to use on behalf of the community. Community members and public officers can both in different ways seek to dominate and play power games. An honest broker can stop conversations from becoming power contests. A way that power games can also impact is through a lack of clearly enforced boundaries. For example, we have heard many professionals say that they have had the experience of being spoken to by residents in a way that they would never have to tolerate from colleagues. On the other side, residents regularly talk about being spoken down to or dismissed by professionals. A good honest broker can tackle this vicious cycle and maintain boundaries for communication that can foster effective co-operation and co-production.