Monday, September 27, 2010

Cultural exchange about cultural change

Continuing the In Control International theme of my previous posting, the two-day international meeting covered topics that are relevant across a range of cultures. Amongst other things, the meeting covered:

  • cultural change (in terms of service planners, agency staff and the broader community)
  • planning and renewal
  • safeguards
  • the connection between rights and responsibilities in people's lives
  • the changing role of service agencies
  • the challenges of collaboration.
I can easily imagine that these topics will be of intense interest to people living with disability, families, service agency staff, and government staff. If you would like more information, or want to hear more about any of these topics on this blog, then do get in touch, either via the comments section of this blog or via the email address on our website.

For this post I'm focusing on the first one - culture change. The word 'culture' is used in a number of ways. It can be something you grow in a petri dish especially if you haven't cleaned under the kitchen sink in a while. It can be used to describe ethnicity, for example when you visit a different country or community and encounter people who have a different shared experience to you. Or it can be used to describe the arts, where apparently you are getting culture when you watch ballet.

It can also be used to describe the main features of people's attitudes and behaviours in an organisation or system. This version of 'culture' covers the shared ideas about how work gets done It's about "the way we do things around here". From the international conversation it was clear to me that culture change is an important consideration for every country represented at the meeting, and why wouldn't it be?  People live in every country, and people are complicated, especially when they organise themselves into groups.  This is because rules and guidelines have to be figured out so that everyone knows what to do.  Usually those rules and guidelines are designed to reflect the values and attitudes and goals that brought about the group enterprise in the first place. 

Unfortunately, unless people are particularly vigilant, this connection between values, attitudes and goals and the associated rules and guidelines can, over time, become less clear.  People follow the rules and guidelines without checking back why they were installed in the first place, and changes happen to the rules and guidelines without checking back to see if such changes make sense in terms of the original goals and values.  this often happens with the best of intentions, for example when new opportunities come along.

Eventually, the prevailing rules and guidelines that are driving people's behaviour have very little connection with the original values, attitudes and goals, and become simply "the way we do things around here".  Just like the proverbial dog that gets wagged by its tail, the rules and guidelines install a new set of values, that people may not have chosen in the first place had they known it would come to this.

Across all kinds of human endeavour, many organisations and systems have this problem.  This includes organisations and systems that support vulnerable people.  For example, I have encountered a number of organisations that began from a value base of wanting to see vulnerable people have a fairer go at what life has to offer.  Move forward a number of years and we find those same organisations providing services that in fact have largely achieved the opposite, by separating people from the wider community, rendering them invisible and much more vulnerable to neglect and abuse.  This is happening today, as we speak, probably at an organisation near where you live.

Yet, despite the increasing signals that we are failing vulnerable people in our communities, we seem to struggle to achieve widespread positive change.  Why?  Culture.   Within our support systems for vulnerable people, the majority of behaviours uphold the status quo, such is the strength of 'the way we do things around here'.  

If we are to achieve genuine helpful changes in the lives of vulnerable people, then paradigms like Individualised funding, National Disability Insurance, Person-Centred Planning, Active Support, and a multitude of others, will not have the impact we might hope for, because by themselves they won't necessarily change culture. 

Culture is changed when enough people make it known that 'the way we do things around here' is not good enough.  Culture also changes when those people in positions of power, responsibility and leadership, have the courage to recognise that the systems they administer are failing people.

These people include the leaders within service agencies, and the leaders within governments, and the leaders within communities.  Such people can play a pivotal role in changing culture.

This is the essence of leadership.  If we are agreed that vulnerable people have the right to choice and control in their lives, to be active contributors to their communities, to grow into rich, valued lives, then every leader in every support system needs to guide their resources towards this, to 'change the way we do things around here'.  They need to do this today and tomorrow and the next day, and so on until it's done.


  1. HI Robbi

    your blog reminded me of David Schwartz's book 'Crossing the River'. Written many years ago but always relevant.

    He reinforces your view that true cultural change is only brought about by leadership.

    He says, "A small proportion of all grants really result in an outstanding success; a positive change in the lives of people with disabilities. Projects which truly bring about social change share one thing in common: they have an unusually talented project leader. The importance of other factors is minor in comparison."

    Thanks for reminding me of this great work. Having 'discovered' it again i shall reread.



  2. You must be describing my local service provider when you discuss organizations that set out to give people a fairer go and end up committing abuse through neglect. Hailed as a pioneer in the devolution stakes and the market leader in social inclusion, this NGO leaves people with a cognitive capacity of six or seven years with one hour per day of drop in support. They are stranded "in the community" without vehicle, without company, without the means of communication in many cases and without anything meaningful to do. The lucky ones have families to pick up the slack and do alll the work while the NGO collects the funding. The ones with no families have no quality of life and no hope of any. It's time that we recognized that this model of living is not appropriate for everyone. "Community inclusion" is has become a euphemism for neglect and "care" has become an old-fashioned concept.