Transforming society through engaging place based leaders
By Allan Leonard for Northern Ireland Foundation
1 November 2012
A conference organised by the University of Ulster addressed the dynamic and innovative approaches to place based leadership, and how they could be applied in Northern Ireland and abroad.
UU Pro Vice Chancellor, Professor Alastair Adair, spoke about how these approaches were reflected in the university’s course offering, Civic Leadership and Community Development.
Prof. Adair said how important it was to work in partnership, especially between the private, public, and voluntary and community sectors.
“The University of Ulster is taking a leading role as a catalyst for development of civic leadership across all sectors [in Northern Ireland],” Prof. Adair said.
For him, the university is exploring how to expand this on an international basis, with delivery abroad as well as bringing international expertise to Northern Ireland.
The opening address was by Alex Attwood, Northern Ireland Minister of the Environment. Contrasting the university’s aim of developing new leadership, he made reference to the day’s killing of a prison officer, “by those in old leadership trying to take us back.”
Minister Attwood made reference to an existing example of good practice — the Suffolk Lenadoon Interface Group — under pioneering leadership of Renee Crawford (in the audience) and Jean Brown.
He also explained how society here has been transforming, where we’ve now reached a phase of the restoration of devolved government, the stability of several election cycles, and the united stand against terrorism. Yet the struggle, he argued, remains in regards to shaping the next phase of politics.
Specifically, the Minister cited the implementation of the transfer of local government powers, with planning and land development as the biggest issue:
“We’ve got 850 days to get it right,” Minister Attwood said.
As an example, he described the potential of North Belfast looking like something integrated, “not a collection of individual plans”. Minister Attwood emphasised the crucial need to achieve this with the consent of local residents.
In her vote of thanks, Professor Jackie McCoy reflected on her own involvement with the Suffolk Lenadoon Interface Group:
“Haven’t we come so far, but how much more there is to do,” Professor McCoy said.
She also explained how the university’s Ulster Business School got involved in the endeavour of developing civic leadership:
“I was very aware that there was so much in terms of management development that was available for our corporate market, and yet there was very little available for the community and voluntary sector … This is one of the examples of the university looking outward, seeing what was needed, and taking our full curricula, and shaping it, not bringing it to the community, rather saying to the community, ‘Come and co-create a solution with us,” Prof. McCoy said.
As Professor Hambleton explained, there are three realms of leadership:
- Public servants
- Community and voluntary sector representatives
A key feature is the relationship between politicians, managerial professionals, and the business and community sectors. Where there interests overlap, he described as “potential innovation zones”, or as others put it, “potential conflict zones”!
“Good leaders know how to manage interactions in these zones,” Prof. Hambeton said.
He also described “cross-cutting challenges” that occur across many cities, including ethno-religious tensions:
“Here, you in Northern Ireland have expertise to offer others,” he said.
Prof. Hambleton described leadership as “shaping emotions and behaviour to achieve common goals”. Furthermore, he defined civic leadership as the creation of inclusive places, in a culture of innovation. And all this is to be achieved by a “shaping process”, not a “telling process”.
For example, Prof. Hambleton does not believe is “best practices”. Instead, successful solutions are locally made, and there may be “relevant practices” of others that may be useful.
So, replicating a model from an English city to a Northern Ireland city, may be folly for many reasons. The same would apply from, say, a Scottish city to a Spanish city.
Extrapolated further, when dealing with different cities with acute ethno-religious tensions, it would not make sense to export one’s city’s working model to another’s, for the sake that “it works here so it should work there”.
Put another way, exporting the Northern Ireland peace process as a “best practice” model would be doomed to fail.
Rather, it is the multi-sectoral approach of overlapping interactions among elected representatives, government officials, and civil society, and the sharing of international experiences, that will lend any local area to come up with practical solutions that will work best for their community.
This was reflected in the presentation by the next keynote speaker, Professor Deborah Peel, who discussed this set of relationships in the drive to deliver more inclusive and responsive local government services.
Citing academic Richard Rose, she pointed out the need to consider context when considering importing or exporting practices elsewhere.
In introducing the course participants, course director, Dorothy McKee, reflected on the development of the university’s civic leadership course to date:
“It has been a very exciting programme, because of the dynamic of the people that we have involved,” said Ms McKee.
Alderman Billy Ashe (Carrickfergus Borough Council) remarked that he was amazed at how many times he’s been able to put to good use the skills he’s learned from the course.
Fellow course participant, Councillor Birnie Kelly (Belfast City Council) said that she was working to put Belfast “on the world stage”, to a vision that was not Orange/Green but best for all. Councillor Kelly added that she was looking forward to going to Dundee and Edinburgh to examine how those cities manage community based planning.
In the Question & Answer session that followed, political accountability, public budgets, mayoral leadership and risk taking were some of the topics covered.