Don’t kill all the bees – what crises teach us about the dangers of a centralised response

December 8, 2022   By Dr Simon Duffy

Dr Simon Duffy takes a look at the benefits of trusting citizens to support each other as shown by the COVID pandemic.

If you’re after getting the honey, hey
Then you don’t go killing all the bees

from Johnny Appleseed by Joe Strummer

I was very pleased to accept an invitation from New Local to speak about how citizens respond to emergencies and the emergence of the Neighbourhood Democracy Movement (NDM).

At the very beginning of the COVID pandemic many of us were brought together by Cormac Russell to consider what the community response to this unrolling disaster might be. On global video calls we heard from community organisers around the world, including from Italy, where the crisis was then hitting hardest.

Out of these meetings we drew together an initial sense of a strategy. Our key proposition was that the real frontline of the pandemic was not, as it is often portrayed, the hospital. Instead, it was the neighbourhood.

Following this logic, the number of people ending up in hospitals, care homes or receiving formal support services would be a function of our failure to support people to stay safe and connected at home. protecting wellbeing and reducing the risk of infection.

At the heart of this problem is a failure to recognise that, at our best, we are all citizens.

The strategy was published in the article The Upstream Response to COVID19 and is reflected in the infographic below. At its heart is a simple premise – have faith in citizens to do the right thing and to support each other to enable, create and grow citizen-led responses. To put this in terms of the principles of good management: “Delegate, delegate, delegate!”

It is always a bad idea to try and control and manage citizens. Centralisation is almost always incompetent  but in an emergency, centralisation can be deadly. The centre has neither the information nor the skill to respond effectively to problems and opportunities as they emerge. When we lack the ability to adapt quickly, we are left with simplistic responses that lead to inadequate solutions.

A very clear example of the dangers of centralisation was the approach taken in social care, which was directly driven by Whitehall. The NHS was instructed to move older people out of hospitals and into care homes when there was no ability to test whether people had COVID. This policy almost certainly led to far more deaths than was necessary.

many of the good things in life are created by processes which can’t be controlled by central authority

But good practice in social care also reveals the benefits of trusting citizens. Many people and families who used personal budgets to organise their support were suddenly allowed the flexibilities and freedoms that had previously been deemed off-limits. When given these new freedoms, did people run off and spend their money recklessly? No. People made smart decisions, kept each other safe and used their budgets flexibly. Sadly I hear that, despite all this, old restrictions are now being reimposed.

More broadly we see a similar pattern. Where communities were trusted and supported they delivered. Where structures of hyper local decision-making were in place people used them to come up with effective plans. Where people had flexible resources, budgets, local teams and groups these were adapted to the need of the times. Where people were encouraged, respected and generally treated like adults, they  behaved as people do at their best.

Image by Julian Burton

But too often the systems we’ve developed are not remotely close to operating in this way. Centralised, bureaucratic and patronising responses are also common – hallmarks of a state-led approach as recognized in New Local’s Community Paradigm report. Common sense and mutual assistance is blunted for the lack of enabling structures, flexible resources and encouragement,

At the heart of this problem is a failure to recognise that, at our best, we are all citizens. However, through the lens of authority, the citizen is often reduced to a customer, service user, resident or something even worse. What makes this failure particularly poignant is that even the public official, who fails to back local people, is also a citizen as soon as they leave the office.

Joe Strummer’s song lyric reminds us that many of the good things in life are created by processes which can’t be controlled by central authority. The bee is an ancient symbol of the citizen, and bees, like citizens, can’t be controlled, managed or ordered around. Bees need flowers, wildness, free spaces and structures for fertility and security. If you are a gardener you protect bees and biodiversity by leaving spaces free, planting nectar rich flowers, avoiding the use of pesticides and weed killers.

The Neighbourhood Democracy Movement was formed during the COVID pandemic because many of us want to maintain this spirit of citizenship and community. We want to see the emergence of structures and approaches that enable citizens to grow power at the hyper-local level: the block, the street and the neighbourhood.

Ultimately, to sustain such a change, we will need changes both at the local and the constitutional level to break the hold that centralisation has in the UK. But as citizens today, we can be each other’s cheerleaders, spot success and encourage each other to build to world we need.

Dr Simon Duffy is Director of the Citizen Network Research and President of Citizen Network Coop. He is a co-founder of UBI Lab Network, the Neighbourhood Democracy Movement and the Self-Directed Support Network. In 2008 he was awarded the RSA’s Prince Albert Medal for his development of self-directed support in social care. His work focuses on the practical and theoretical meaning of citizenship and on the need for deep constitutional reform.

Photo by Laura Lauch on Unsplash.

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