Brian Smith: Public Innovator Pick

This edition of The Harwood Institute’s newsletter features Brian Smith, Executive Officer of Australia’s Local Community Services Association (LCSA). Under Brian’s guidance, LCSA has entered into a three-year initiative with The Harwood Institute, marking the Institute’s first formal international partnership. LCSA, which operates out of New South Wales, is an advocacy organization that acts on behalf of its network of 270 locally run community and neighborhood centers - community hubs providing a range of services to all members of communities, with a special focus on families, children and the economically disadvantaged.

Brian came to Australia from the UK in 1971 as a civil engineer and spent most of his career as a clergy member in Australia’s Uniting Church. He was drawn to LCSA seven years ago because of the organization’s commitment to social justice and community development. Since that time, he has been heavily involved in measuring outcomes in neighborhood and community centers on the local, state and national levels.

Read the Q&A with Brian

The Harwood Institute: How did you learn about The Harwood Institute and why were you interested in the Institute’s work?

Brian Smith: I found out about Rich Harwood while doing an Internet search sometime in 2011. Let me explain: The Local Community Services Association is the peak [advocacy] body for neighbourhood and community centres in New South Wales. We have some 270 member organisations. Neighbourhood and community centres are based locally in their communities and governed by Boards which are drawn from their community. Many were started 30-40 years ago with a strong community development focus. Each has developed uniquely in response to its own community’s needs and circumstances.

However, as an association we were beginning to recognise that centres that were - providing increasing numbers of services to their communities - were also in danger of losing that community engagement that is at the heart of good community development. So I researched what was happening in community engagement practices across the world and came across The Harwood Institute’s 2007 series of videos on civic engagement. Everything that Rich said there resonated with our experience. We played some of those videos at our 2012 annual conference and our members responded warmly to them.

THI: Why did the Local Community Services Association decide to partner with The Harwood Institute?

BS: Initially because we feel the Institute’s approach to community engagement is very straightforward, teachable and replicable. It was to learn more about this that I came to the Public Innovators Lab in Alexandria, Virginia last December. Once I had experienced the Lab, the relevance of the totality of the Institute’s practice to our member organisations motivated me to find a way to introduce as many individuals as possible to this training. The simplest and best way to do this was to bring The Harwood Institute to Australia. There are fundamental similarities between The Harwood Institute’s approach and ours. Neighbourhood and community centres have always emphasized the value and importance of the local community as the starting point for change initiatives.

At the start of the Lab in Alexandria, Rich said, “The Institute and I deeply believe in collective impact, but one caveat, collective impact without community aspirations is only an exercise in professional alignment.” This resonated with me. There is a lot of talk about collective impact in Australia today and a wide variety of initiatives are emerging but there is a great danger that what the Institute calls “public knowledge” will be ignored.

THI: What are the principal challenges your community is facing today and how do you see this partnership accelerating your work?

BS: One of the greatest challenges facing many communities in Australia today is a growing economic divide. When I came to Australia from the United Kingdom 43 years ago the egalitarian nature of Australian community was tangible, refreshing and a source of optimism. Over the past 30 years that has eroded but the process has been so gradual that almost every part of the community has adjusted to it unconsciously. Decision-makers talk about “breaking the cycle of disadvantage” among segments of the community but fail to see how policy choices and the general economic consensus are major factors in creating this cycle. Corporations launder their reputations through high-profile philanthropy while doing everything in their power to reduce their taxation obligations. The poorest and most disadvantaged communities become excluded from the decisions which mould their futures.

Australia is a small country and it often looks either consciously or unconsciously at the United States of America. Dare I say it, of recent times we appear to have been committed to importing some of the worst aspects of U.S. society in terms of inflated executive salaries and valuing increases in share value over levels of employment and the social exclusion of those who are poorest. In this context, I think Rich and the Institute speak powerfully to the inclusion of each community and all the voices in each community, and have developed powerful but easy to apply tools which enable this to happen.

THI: You first began communicating with the Institute by coming to the Lab eight months ago - from almost 10,000 miles away. What motivated you to move so quickly to enter into such a significant transcontinental partnership?

BS: I see neighbourhood and community centres at their best as boundary-spanning organizations. I believe it is vital for them that they turn outward, deeply understand the phases of community life and embrace public innovation. So there is no good reason to wait!