I nod my head and smile. We don't say anything for a while. Sometimes, regardless of what country one is in, there just is no need to say anything at all.
Faith. Complexity. Development: human flourishing on a transforming, finite planet. We're turning, alright - but towards what? Seeking: dynamic living alignment.
There is an unfortunate assumption in much of the discourse that it is the system that perpetuates good or poor governance. In this perspective, the system exists without people in it. The CEC proposes an alternative solution: focus on the people in the system to create transformational change. Integrate personal and organizational development for overarching societal development. The last day and a half of the unConference was an opportunity to explore this notion as a means of creating transformational change to ensure better service delivery.
Morning plenary speakers emphasized the importance and the urgency of changing the public sector and the importance of empowering employees to do so. The question became: would the conference participants internalize these messages and make the connections necessary to themselves further become agents of change? The World-Café-style round tables around the topic of ‘challenges’ facing the public sector gave participants a chance to brainstorm, play with and engage in interactive exercises. It was a clever design that enabled people to consider these challenges for themselves and with one another. ‘Trust’ – within departments, between departments, and with the larger community was a clear challenge. It was easy for participants to come up with images of the ‘stereotypical bureaucrat’ who was only there for the stable salary.
During the session on challenges, I wondered if the participants really ‘got it’. It was hard to tell. Participants laughed at the farmers when they got upset at the officials (in what was actually a slightly elaborated role play) for not paying attention to their needs and for blaming them for their problems instead of helping them. Their laughter did not sit easily with me. The ‘old values’ of the bureaucracy sat heavily in the room. I wondered if they believed that change was actually possible – even though they said it was.
Talking is easier than taking responsibility. Sometimes participants talked as if they were talking about someone else, with a slight smile and a cynical nod of their head, as if they themselves had neither responsibility nor agency. It took a student in the audience to point out the Elephant of Corruption that was lurking somewhere in the middle of the room – and a few of the stronger leaders to acknowledge it and her.
Later, there was a play acted out by individuals who had participated in the CEC’s notable Change Management workshops. The play demonstrated how one civil servant took the CM workshop and subsequently grew closer to the farmers and his family. It was powerful and demonstrated a strong shift in the values of the main character. Those playing in it had, indeed, had this particular experience. They were exposing themselves to the larger audience of their peers and supervisors.
This was followed by discussing the outcomes of the Change Management program. This included the evaluation from the Values Survey that we had done. We found that values that we associated with technocratic bureaucracy decreased. The various value-themes associated with humanizing the bureaucracy increased. Firming foundational values and the re-alignment of individual and organizational values towards the social good followed. We had the fortune of two people who had taken the surveys at our table, to share about how their values had shifted as a result of the workshop. Our evaluation was nicely complimented by a community-evaluation that affirmed that the relationships with the community had actually increased.
Later, there was a chance for the participants to actively explore the process by which this occurred. Here, the space of truth that lies at the heart of the CEC process, the Muttram space, was revealed. The Muttram is an alternative space where people could be themselves. In it, they break down the hierarchy and with it the rules and regulations that shape so much of the habitual and well-engrained behavior that prevents the needed innovation. This was a level of deep ‘employee’ engagement hinted at by the members of the private sector during the plenary discussions. Here, however, this is not done for the sake of improving the profit of the business: it is about improving delivery of water for the poorest. That teleos brought to the Muttram space an urgency and the capacity for change. In the Muttram space a new trust was created. Trust in themselves, in one another and in their surroundings.
Here, then, was a solution at work: changing the people at work through creating a new ‘Muttram Space’ based on the traditional courtyard spaces of joint-family living arrangements where trust and truth can gain dominance over dishonesty, disease and following-the-rules. This led to a shift in their identities – their values, worldviews and how they related to one another. Shifting their worldviews shifted the questions they asked. Shifting the questions shifted the solutions. There was a strong focus on changing themselves – a focus on creating agency. Done within the mandate of better service delivery, and within the context of their fellow officers it was not ‘another self-help workshop’ but instead a process to enable better service delivery.
CEC is primarily a voluntary organisation. In a system ubiquitous for its corruption, voluntary work by civil servants for the community is rare. At the moment, the CEC has over a thousand active members throughout the state. They support one another in building strong relationships with the farmers, leading to better innovation and appropriate action. This resonated with the plenary speakers in the private sector who emphasized the importance of ground-level innovation.
Celebration and awards are critical aspects of any social change endeavor. The CEC offers no financial compensation to its members. It does, however, recognize strong leadership through pins of excellence. At the end of the conference, several change-agents were awarded these pins before those gathered. Each of them held the self-confidence and dignity that comes not from external recognition but from having undergone an internal process of change and accomplished real results that mattered to those whom they served. To my mind, knowing that these pins are only given out to those who had shown real leadership at the community level, these were the real heros of the conference.
Their work is only possible because they trust one another. They have engaged in a form of values shift. Through building this social capital they are able to better respond to complex change. To be successful, this needs the support of senior officials, further experimentation and further consolidation.
One model of transformation offered during the conference was ‘de-freeze, un-freeze, freeze and re-freeze’. It sounded like a rather cold and frigid model to me. What came out of the conversations and experiential processes of the UnConference was not a rigid model but a warm – even hot and uncomfortable - dynamic, living one. There was nothing easy about what they were doing. But it was easy to tell those who had gone through the CM process from those who had not. It was the look in their eyes. A look of life.
Before me: two geckos on a white wall, coconut trees in various shades of yellow and green and the sounds of ‘Hotel California’ mingle with cawing crows. At the end of the Irrigation Workshop hosted by the Centre of Excellence for Change Management, the campus where it was hosted is now largely still. I sit in the midst of an old library with so much dust on the floor that my footprints are easy to spot. The once buzzing centre is in a mild state of disrepair. Familiar books of development – ‘the global possible’, the ‘debt crisis’, ‘rural development’, ‘participatory action research’, ‘the study of an Indian village’ are strewn about me in various degrees of organization. An old black board has sketches of faces – all with big mouths and noses. Ceiling fans spread the smell of woodsmoke from local fires between the book cases. I think of the British Library of Development Studies at IDS where I have spent many hours. I wonder if, someday, it will ever resemble this largely forgotten storehouse of decades of knowledge.
What I most clearly recall from BLDS are the people who run it, generously giving me their time and attention and passing along skills of such things as finding ‘critical’ knowledge resources. Here there is no librarian. The books, without human hands to care for them, sit, waiting, growing slightly yellow around the edges.
These books may be rarely read, the campus overgrown and the paint chipping around the corners, but the knowledge being cultivated in the past few days might well delight the long-gone founders from another era. The Centre of Excellence for Change (CEC) is using this campus for the workshops that help cultivate and spread the knowledge of how to create a transformation of human lives that can enable true socio-economic development. Books are not the most important knowledge resource here. Instead, it is the people who come and go in cars, buses and their own two feet, with purses and marking-pens and flip-charts, who are creating a kind of living knowledge. A knowledge that can live in community.
The CEC conducts a series of educational programmes around what they currently call ‘change management’, which is much of what has been occupying my intellectual and emotional energy since arriving in India. ‘Change management’ might not be the best word to describe their process. It is more of a kind of ‘change technology’, using ‘technology’ broadly, that reliably delivers significantly improved results in water service delivery for the poor. Their technology entails a process that dives into the essence of the human being as an agent of change in her work and in her community.
Some of their workshops integrate the entirety of the 8 departments within the Integrated Water Resource Programme. Other workshops work with only some departments or single departments. This workshop was composed of recently recruited irrigation engineers. Many had only been a part of their department for a few months. They came together for 3 days of education that was, for them, an entirely new and unique experience outside of any of their previous ‘education’.
This education was about them.
It is perhaps the great irony of the institutionalization of social systems that we so frequently leave out people. Or that when we focus on people, we leave out institutions and the technologies that shape both the organization and the person. Much less the Spirit – the Spirit Corpus, Politus and Nobus that shapes and is in turn shaped by each of us.
Before coming, people told me that these workshops had changed their life. I asked what they did. We played games, they said. I was not sure what they meant. At the workshop, I discovered the accuracy of their statement: They played games. Simple games, puzzle games, full-body games, role-playing games, circle-games, energizer-games. Many of these games might be familiar to a Westerner who has participated in ‘participatory’ workshops within Western contexts. I’ve played many variations of these games before. But this time the games were different.
After each game, there was a substantial discussion about what the games meant. Lessons were drawn about leadership, team-work, hierarchy, trust, communication, different perspectives, high-level performance and equality. The games got under the participants’ defenses, poked holes in their armor (not too difficult for this group which was pretty young) and gave them some wiggle room to discover new things for themselves through experience. Security needs were met again and again even as new rules were introduced and reinforced, such as being on time. They were thrown off balance and brought to a new balance with a subtle deftness that most of them were largely unaware of. It didn’t take long before the group was laughing more often than not. Laughter became the access to humanization.
And then all of it was tied to their mandate as civil servants: to serve the poor and the citizenry of India. Their focus was returned, again and again, to their interactions with villagers and with their co-workers and one another. A villager was brought in to talk to them about how often engineers do not listen to the perspectives and needs of the villagers. These young engineers were given a chance to have an open dialogue with him. He was accompanied by an older engineer who had already been through the Change Technology program and had grasped much of the essence. I had met him before: he sat besides the villager with a humility and respect for the other’s humanity that spoke more about their relationship than any of the words I did not fully understand. The villager, meanwhile, said that what he wanted was to be treated with dignity, and respect to be given to the traditional ways of irrigation. I sighed: the value, ‘dignity’ flowed out of him, infusing every part of his being. How anyone could not treat him with dignity that was so clearly part of his essence escaped me.
At the end of the workshop, they took concrete actions. Each chose to experiment with two villages who had some of these new ‘values’. This enabled them to discover what was going on and engage with the farmers in creating real, co-created solutions. They would gather together in 45 days and in 90 days to report on their progress and learn from one another. Some of them already had the support of their bosses, though they might not realize this. The participants left in a serious tone. There was no ra-ra so often found at the end of workshops. There was an awareness of how much work there was to be done.
I had, as one does, become friends with a few of them – mostly women with good English. They found their jobs, which they had been so thrilled to obtain to often be difficult, lonely occupations. Gone was the commodery and mutual understanding of their peers. Instead, they were distant from their co-workers and supervisors and having to learn to submit their sense of self to their professional commitments. Some of this is normal for any person entering any organization, especially one as established as the civil service.
None of them particularly wanted to go back to their offices. They craved the sense of mutual support and belonging that they found in this newly created space. While taking on the new assignment of engaging in a different way with villagers was rather daunting (despite having clear and measurable results in a specific time scale) it gave them a way to engage with valuable work in a community with which they wanted to be associated and in which they wanted to be held in high esteem. Here, words, action and knowledge can integrate into a new way of living. Done in the context of the Indian Bureaucracy, a new social order becomes possible, orientated towards serving the poor.
Maybe someday books will be written about this. Maybe they won’t. But for these young people, a dream is being cultivated. That dream may well gain a life of its own. It is certainly not a new dream. But the dreams of a Beloved Community have brought men and women out of their bondages and closer towards the present moment before. There is no reason why it can not happen again.