Bottom-Up Cat Herding

Professionals, such as those involved with local government, community development, social services and welfare, love to talk about ‘top-down and bottom-up approaches’. This is claimed to be done with the intention of encouraging others, including their own staff, to refrain from desk based planning. This usually means that some impact reports are read and, sometimes, expensive consultations are undertaken. This bottom-up material is then used to inform the guiding, top-down, policy and planning documentation.

This means that all such approaches have a fatal flaw, namely they are designed to suit the professional, managerial agenda. Put simply, bottom-up policy-making is a myth. At best current consultative practice can be characterised as ‘not doing what I want straightaway’. At worst it is a conceit and for those consulted, a deceitful conceit for they were never going to have an impact on what happens.

Why is it like this? Well, one reason is that work in these areas usually takes the form of projects and is carried out through a project plan. As such a purposely closed and limited structure is imposed from the start. There is deliberately no place for those affected. There is deliberately no intention to involve anyone outside the group of professionals planning the project. Furthermore, there is every intention to withdraw all resources, 100%, at the end of the project. The project plan is followed, the project is completed and the project is closed down. There is no intention to provide anything lasting, simply to move from one project to the next, should the resources allow.

Another phrase used by professionals working with community members, service users, clients and so on, is that dealing with them is like trying to ‘herd cats’. Taken on its own terms this is a plain insult. Taken in the context of a project planning framework it is only to be expected. What the professionals really mean is that people are reluctant to give up their free time to examine and agree project documentation that is intended to deliver the project. Whether the project has a positive, neutral or negative impact on the people affected is not the point. Whether the project is delivered as specified, on budget and on time is.

This means that the professionals have no intention of explaining what they are actually doing. Staff may be co-opted into presenting a message that they believe people will understand and accept. Yet woe-betide any member of the public who takes their own time and trouble to try and understand the documents and ask questions about their concerns. These people are labelled ‘troublemakers’.

So cat-herding suits the professionals just fine. That way they can dismiss the community and get on with delivering their project in the way that they want, top-down and free of any interference.

Note: If you are aware of any ongoing activities that involve genuine collaboration then please do comment. I’d love to hear from you.

One thought on “Bottom-Up Cat Herding

  1. Quite agree. As one of these local authority so called professionals, I was shoe horned into this restrictive and top down development and delivery structures. As someone who genuinely does believe in true community involvement I saw first hand the marginalisation of community members who did take the time to look, often as a critical friend, at the pages and pages of documents projects spewed out. I can also attest to the fact that those officers who did truely believe in community led work were equally marginalised by their colleagues and often hamstrung by the systems you have outlined.

    So a plea, some of us, all be it minions in the grand scale of things, have suffered inside the system while trying, mostly unsuccessfully, to bring about positive, sustainable change. We might have been very few in number in my LA, but there were some who clearly recognise that to deliver sound projects, the community must play a leading role.

    I for one spent a great deal of time looking at ways to eliminate the barriers you’ve outlined such as ridiculous amounts of paper, tecnical speak, even sit down formal meetings etc., However being tied to such rigid planning systems like the one you’ve outlined leaves little room for manouvre, individuality or basic human sentiments. Sadly hurtful comments like herding cats was quite mild from some colleagues, outright dirty tricks became the order of the day for those really ‘pesky members of the public’ as well as complete marginalisation for those officers not towing the party line. I no longer work for the LA.

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