People want to make a difference but often don’t see wh at they can do that will amount to anything significant. Brian Smith explores the work of The Harwood Institute for Public Innovation that is now being adopted in Australia.

outwardsIt’s no secret that people are frustrat­ed with politics and public life. This is as true in the USA as it is in Aus­tralia. We are all tired of acrimony and divisiveness and nothing getting done about the problems that affect every­day people.

There is also a growing sense in our society that too many organisations, institutions and leaders are more focused on their own good than the common good. While there are no easy answers to these challenges, there are ways to get our communities on a different path.

Based in Bethesda, just outside Washington DC, The Harwood Insti­tute for Public Innovation was founded by Richard Harwood in 1988. After working on more than 20 political campaigns, earning a Master’s in Public Affairs from Princeton, and working for two highly respected non-profits, Rich, then 27, set out to create some­thing entirely different.

He was disappointed and impatient with non-profits with laudable missions but little real affection for the community or taking on the toughest challenges, and political campaigns that no longer sought to repair breaches but instead sought to win at any cost. In response to these discouraging trends, he set out to develop a highly-entrepreneurial approach to tackling tough issues and making society work better, while still operating with the highest integrity and ethics.

The Harwood Institute is a nonpar­tisan, independent non-profit that teaches, coaches and inspires people and organisations to solve pressing problems and change how communi­ties work together. The Institute has worked across the USA and increas­ingly around the world and has partnered with some of the world’s largest non-profits, including United Way Worldwide, AARP, the American Library Association, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and others.

The people the Institute teaches and coaches are called public innova­tors. They are leaders who can move their communities toward positive change. Public innovators may come from non-profits, businesses, govern­ment, the media, and educational and religious organisations. The Harwood Institute regards them as an essential ingredient to solving our most vexing challenges.

The Harwood approach

To be truly effective in their change efforts, individuals and organisa­tions must be “Turned Outward.” This means using the community, not the conference room, as the main refer­ence point for all decisions. People and organisations which Turn Outward and make more intentional judgments and choices in creating change, will produce greater impact and relevance in the communities they serve.

Turning outward impacts

Engagement – Shifting who you see and include in your work and how you engage with them to create change. Partners – Helping you gain clarity about the partners you need to move forward – and those that are holding you back.

Priorities – By understanding what space you occupy within the commu­nity, you no longer struggle to be all things to all people. Instead, you focus on what you can and should impact. Strategies — How you develop and implement strategies that reflect the context of your community and people’s shared aspirations – and not to get so entangled in programs and activities.

Communications – Reframing how you talk about your work and impact, so that it is relevant to people and their concerns – and how you can contrib­ute to a more productive community narrative.

Organisational Culture – By Turning Outward you can align and drive inter­nal efforts around shared aspirations and shared language, which makes it easier to work across departments and get things done.

The Harwood Institute creates this shift in people’s approach using a series of frameworks developed over the past 27 years. Through coaching over time, they learn to apply them to their organisation, their community work, and their own lives.

The Local Community Services Association and The Harwood Institute

The Local Community Services Asso­ciation (LCSA) first came across The Harwood Institute three years ago when it was looking for resources on commu­nity engagement. It posted a series of short videos of Rich Harwood speaking on this topic to its website and played some of these at Authentic Engagement, its 2012 annual conference.

A year later, following the Depart­ment of Family and Community Services indication of its future directions, the LCSA Management Committee sent its then Executive Officer, Brian Smith, to a Harwood Public Innovators Lab to learn more of the Institute’s approach and assess its relevance for LCSA member organisa­tions. The Lab is the Institute’s premier training opportunity and provides a comprehensive overview in the Turn­ing Outward approach.

Brian returned with an enthusias­tically positive report. The approach and values of The Harwood Institute mirrored that of LCSA’s 2003 Neighbour­hood Centre Policy which continues to be LCSA’s defining document of principles and values. The specific components of the approach were applicable to the Australian context. Initial implemen­tation can be very straightforward and grows by progressive stages. Public Inno­vation engages with collective impact in a way which brings the aspirations of the community concerned into collec­tive impact strategies and planning as a fundamental touchstone and building block. Brian also felt that this approach would carry greater weight with govern­ment than other frameworks which the LCSA team had also researched.

Following further interaction with The Harwood Institute and consid­erable deliberation, in June 2014 the LCSA Management Committee took the courageous and innovative step of committing a considerable portion of the organisation’s reserves to bring the Institute to Sydney to run the first Public Innovators Lab held outside North America. This took place at the end of October 2014 and was attended by 100 participants, including 65 LCSA members and 25 from NSW govern­ment departments. The Lab was run by four Certified Harwood Coaches who continue to support the participants through an ongoing series of coaching calls, webinars and personal contact.

Since the Lab, New South Wales public innovators have begun explor­ing ways their organisations can turn outward to their communities. Early initiatives have included “Ask” exer­cises, where community members are engaged with four simple questions:

  • What kind of community do you want to live in?
  • Why is that important to you?
  • How is that different from how you see things now?
  • What are some of the things that can happen to create that kind of community?

In the Illawarra and Shoalhaven, public innovators from neighbourhood centres and government departments teamed up to run a large scale “Ask” exercise across the region. They deter­mined to hold these conversations with as many people as possible in as many locations as possible on the 12th February. They trained colleagues and volunteers prior to the day with the result that some 100 volunteers held “Ask” conversations with 1,700 people.

The benefits of initiating such a large undertaking were the support and encouragement the participants received from each other as they launched into a process which was new to all of them. The ambitious scale of the event also generated media interest which helped initiate many conversa­tions, with people who had heard about it taking the opportunity to share their aspirations for their community.

The public innovator team in the Illawarra will be following this up with a series of in depth community conversations, continuing this inno­vative collaboration between govern­ment departmental staff and their neighbourhood centre colleagues.

The first steps along the route of the Harwood practice have been very encouraging.

Brian Smith has been the Executive officer of the Local Community Services Association (LCSA) since 2006 and is now LCSA’s Senior Project officer, Institute for Community Innovation and Engagement.


The following videos are about LCSA and The Harwood Institute:

Rich Harwood talk with Brian Smith
Public Innovators Lab Intro Sydney 2014
The Lab Experience Sydney 2014