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Updated: May 26, 2020

It seems to me that there’s a deficit of trust in all sorts of institutions right across society at the moment.

When trust declines, in the long term, it affects legitimacy.

If people don’t trust one person in an organisation, they often go on to say that they don’t trust anyone in the organisation. This affects all major institutions, including charities.

And… if these institutions aren’t seen as legitimate, they can’t ask for knowledge because they won’t get an answer; public intelligence can’t be tapped into because of the collapse in legitimacy.

So how can institutions learn and benefit from their citizens, their beneficiaries, their clients, their customers, the public?

The problem, in my view, is trust.

My favoured solution is Voice as Value - People trusting each other and people listening to each other to enable and value voice. Democracy is based on the offer of voice, but so often at the same time voice is taken away. Attempts are made to consult but people see through it quickly. They learn that when they speak it doesn’t mean anything.

So, can institutions reshape to make themselves ready to listen?

Starting with individual voice may be unusual. Why do it? What is it that is that is so special about an individual?

When a single person moves us through their story, what is at stake, what’s its value.

In the first instance the value is to the individual. When someone speaks, you may empathise with what they say, and they can tell they have been listened to because you change what you do because of what they have said, then they feel valued.

This may be for the very first time.

It feels good. I hope you all know how it feels to have your voice valued.

They may have wanted this for a very long time. When they feel valued, they begin to feel that they have a stake in society, they can value someone else when they speak.

They can see that with this sits a bigger idea. Could society be organised this way? They start to think about solutions. They want to have a chance to take part collaboratively, to transform things for others. And they may begin to start to trust in institutions that they hadn’t trusted until now.

It seems that individual voice creates an opportunity. But can society build on individual transformations?

You may think this isn’t feasible. But I have seen the potential through the Fixers movement which began in 2008.

I had the opportunity to build a collaborative ‘organisation’ working with thousands of young people which put ‘voice as value’ at its heart. It was called Fixers. Organisational boundaries were very few and not visible. The resulting culture was fascinating and the young people talked about Fixers as a family; they described the organisation as having their backs and getting behind them.

The premise of Fixers was that anyone 16 to 25 could do anything they wanted to providing they made a difference to one person. For the majority of young people who joined in, something had happened to them that they didn’t want to happen to someone else.

We worked with them so they could tell their story and supported them to meet the people they believed could take steps, with them, to create the change they wanted. They had the opportunity to experience their voice being valued through the responses and actions of those they met. And many went on to work with other organisations and on national social action campaigns driven by the individual voices and themes identified by the Fixers themselves.

They told their story through films and other media, shared their experience on ITV regional news every month. The media coverage is beyond quantifiable, many stories finding their way worldwide as well as regular coverage in the tabloids in the UK. The unique access these young people had to institutions is also very significant.

We saw young people:

“Moving from being isolated to being connected meaning finding others who relate to or understood their experience, developing awareness of themselves and others

Moving from dependency to independence meaning they had authority and agency as an adult

Moving from inaction to action meaning becoming confident, experiencing change in themselves and acting upon it

Moving from the edge to the centre meaning they are the focus of positive attention, a source of guidance and expertise

Moving from uncertainty to certainty meaning understanding their place in society; seeing others’ opinions and judgements; finding their identity and the value of their experience to society

Moving from being controlled to taking control – seeing their self-identity as different from the circumstances they found themselves in, exerting agency and choice, discovering and creating options for change” [i see ref]

But can you scale from individual voice to issue based voice? Yes, I do believe you can. I have many and varied examples of this in practice.

On a similar note, in the past few weeks we have started to see more and more stories in the media about the experience of people with Covid 19. This quote from the BBC website was quite telling:

"I've felt that a missing voice in all of that was someone who'd been through it, was still going through it in a sense.

"As a 45-year-old fairly healthy person with no real health issues, the virus nearly killed me.

"As a result, not only have I been a victim, my family have been through an awful lot of trauma as well, we are also concerned about what that means for us going forward, so I felt an extra voice adding to that debate would be useful for people to think about what they were doing."

It seems to me that voice as value might sit at the heart of transforming lives and that by enabling individuals to have their voices valued, they can contribute to a transformation of society … A new framework of meaning where voice as value sits at the heart of social action.

[i] Research - Giving Social Action a Voice: Reframing Communication as Social Action, Dr Gemma McKenna, Policy and Research Lead, Fixers) and Dr Lee Edwards, School of Media and Communication, University of Leeds, January 2016 This blog was first published on A BETTERWAY NETWORK on 19th May 2020

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