Arriving as the new commander of western Sydney’s Blacktown Police in early 2008, Mark Wright was faced with a burgeoning youth crime situation and a central business district that felt unsafe for local residents. Plus, all the money being poured into trying to control groups of young people in the CBD could have been much better spent on more serious crimes elsewhere. But the command and control options tried by his predecessors had failed, and Wright felt sure there was a better way to address the problem. He realised that he needed a partnership, because this was a complex social problem that police couldn’t deal with on their own.
Collaborative innovation for wicked problems
What Wright put in motion is an excellent example of the ‘collaborative innovation’ described by Barbara Crosby and colleagues in their recent article as a method to make rapid — not just incremental — progress in addressing society’s most pressing needs. They write: “somehow, public servants must often be a part of dealing with global effects of messy, ‘wicked’ public problems while working in a particular local, regional and national context, and often under intense pressure to innovate before matters get much worse”. This is the situation Wright was faced with, confronting the intersection of youth unemployment, social disadvantage, the relocation of asylum seekers, inter-racial tensions, drug and alcohol use and sexual violence — all within the 1km radius of Blacktown CBD.
To reduce one manifestation of all these issues (youth crime in his local area), Wright needed to reframe the problem he was facing to one of youth disadvantage and social cohesion. He thought that was a good way get to the root of this offending behaviour, and ‘shift the dial’ to more positive outcomes. But reframing the problem away from crime and toward social disadvantage meant that it suddenly became far broader than just a police matter.
Leading from between
Collaborative innovation is about shifting away from thinking of innovation as something done by individuals (strategic entrepreneurship) and thinking more about how to orchestrate collaborative work that can rapidly make a difference to social problems. While leadership is necessary to spur participation in this kind of co-creative exercise, it has to be a less charismatic type of leadership than we’re used to. It needs to catalyse and integrate the power of others, relying on distributive power and “forsaking the simplicity of control for the complexity of influence”.
Knowing fully the power of ‘leading from between’, Wright decided to convene group of key local decision-makers from various government, private sector and third sector organisations. They called themselves COM4unity: connecting our minds 4 unity. Crosby and colleagues emphasise that anyone wanting to put together a partnership of this nature should develop a pragmatic understanding of who should be involved — while the partnership should include the participation of people who have a stake in the problem, who understand different aspects of the problem, and who control different levers in the local environment, the purpose is not to involve every last citizen. Wright was strategic about this: “I was very conscious of saying ‘I don’t want 40 people at the table, because we won’t actually achieve anything’. So I hand-picked the group of eight or nine”. This meant some people were disgruntled at not being in the core group, but Wright was able to include them in other ways, where and how they could be most useful.
The partnership included several youth-focused NGOs, churches, the Blacktown City Council, the NSW Department of Juvenile Justice, and was chaired by Wright himself from Blacktown Police. A final key member was the operations manager of the local Westpoint Shopping Centre, where much of the crime occurred. Many of these representatives were initially suspicious of each other, because they were not used to working together and in fact were often forced to compete with one another for scarce funding. But one member recalled how Mark’s opening statement captured them all:
“Mark spoke about what he was trying to achieve, and that was about us all coming together to fill the gaps, and to really impact the youth and make them part of the community, and feel like they had that ownership. We were on it, we were going to be part of this. And that’s where the journey started.”
Each partner played to their strengths — as Wright recalled, “there was no challenge we couldn’t address as a group”. JoJo Tau and her husband Joe were experienced youth organisers, but they needed much more to make their programs happen. She explained:
“So Joe and I came up with this program, and then we were like ‘we need a venue’, Westpoint goes ‘I can get the venue for you guys’. And then ‘we need some food for the kids’, Hillsong was like ‘I’ll bring that’. We needed some help, Marist said ‘I’ll bring some youth workers for you’, and that’s exactly how it worked for a long time. It wasn’t about trying to look for someone to fund or donate, it was about bringing what we had and making it work.”
These members fulfilled several different roles that according to Crosby and colleagues are important for making collaborative innovation work:
- Though not a member of COM4unity, Blacktown Mayor Alan Pendleton was an important sponsor in the local authorising environment, giving his political and financial support behind the scenes and attending COM4unity’s public events to show he believed in what they were doing.
- Mark Wright was both a champion — someone who relies on mainly informal authority to convene and mobilise a diversity of committed and resourceful actors — and a catalyst — someone who creates an appropriate disturbance in order to get participants to think outside the box, e.g. by creating motivational narratives. Another champion was Marist Youth Care CEO Cate Sydes, who took over the chair role when Mark left in 2014.
- Husband and wife team JoJo and Joe Tau, local community leaders, were implementers — they got things done, and could envision how new and bold ideas (such as having local youth dance together on the Westpoint stage, or training them in retail so they could work in the shopping centre) might work in practice.
Dancing, singing, soccer and skills
The group decided to run a diversion program for local youth that would help them build skills and relationships, and feel ownership of the area. But they didn’t want to do it in a top-down way; as Mark put it, “what we had to do was organise something that attracted them, that they were actually interested in doing”. They realised that nobody had ever really asked these kids what services they wanted. A large-scale survey operation in Blacktown CBD — with social workers as researchers and police as security guards — revealed that these young people wanted music and dance, they wanted to work and to learn new skills, and they had hopes and aspirations for the future.
Looking at the survey results, the team realised that not only did these young people know what they wanted, they should be doing it for themselves. Ultimately, COM4unity provided more of a scaffolding and strategic role, while letting the young people run the events. This increased the sense of ownership they felt, and gave them skills and confidence.
A yearly soccer tournament between local schools, COM4unity and Blacktown police (where there was an informal arrangement to let the kids win) increased the positive feelings between the groups. But COM4unity’s crowning glory was Switch — a regular dance showcase held on the stage at Westpoint Blacktown, organised, run and DJed by the young people. According to Cate Sydes, Switch broke down the barriers between warring groups of young people:
“This is a perfect example of social cohesion. The gangs of kids that were hanging around hated each other, but they didn’t know each other. Once they started organising this stuff, the Africans saw that the Filipinos were actually nice people … We would have the United Nations on the stage, it was just a magnificent thing.”
Shifting the dial
COM4unity’s success was reflected by the changing police, security and retail statistics — assaults, train station robberies and ‘code black’ incidents (brawls at Westpoint) went down. Car thefts from Westpoint carpark went from one per day to zero. The previously struggling shopping centre became fully tenanted, and foot traffic increased as people felt safe to use the area again.
But the COM4unity members were most enthusiastic about being a part of something that truly changed the lives of its participants. Sydes reflected that the thing that makes her feel best is attending Switch events, where “you see the joy of these kids, and you see that maybe this is the first time they’ve ever done anything successfully. I know some of these kids that have got jobs and it’s turned their lives around”. Wright’s use of collaborative innovation, forging a strong partnership to deal with this wicked problem at a local level, had managed to effect real change in just a few short years.
As for Wright himself, he remained Chair of COM4unity until his transfer in early 2014, and received press accolades and awards for his work with the young people of Blacktown. However, he credited the success of the partnership to the passion and commitment of its members:
“I was very fortunate that I had such a good group of people, and that Blacktown was full of goodwill. It just needed someone to pull it together.”
Read more about COM4unity in the three-part ANZSOG teaching case.
Image: Blacktown Mayor Alan Pendleton (back left), Jojo Tau, Joe Tau, Mark Wright (second row) and the Switch crew.