Concierge Government

If we want functioning neighbourhoods, we should build movements instead of groups. It means that we in government learn to hustle. Below some London-inspired ideas on how to develop government’s community engagement.


The framework you use defines the resources you see. At its worst, government focuses purely on running its own services and sees the civil societyy either as a nice to have addition or as a band aid for the occurring leaks. By doing this, it undermines the volunteer actions millions of people take every single day in our cities. Seeing civil society as an add-on strengthens the image of an arrogant, machine-like monster reorganising its subjects. It undermines the importance of agency and freedom.

The population in most European cities is more educated than ever. Rightly so, people object that they are treated as uniform units. We are not like the next guy and we wish that to be recognised. Simultaneously, as our cities become ever more diverse, our problems are ever more wicked. By responding in a wrong way we shift or even escalate our problems. The nature of wicked problems like wellbeing is that they change their form suddenly and without warning, 

Questions of poverty and inequality have not disappeared as we have become more affluent as a whole. Today’s poverty does not look the same as in the 19th century. It is not found in factories but amongst the modern outcasts – temp workers, immigrants, young people outside education, the homeless.

My thinking on the role of government has been highly influenced by philosopher Martha Nussbaum and her capabilities approach. The way I interpret her thinking, society can better deal with diversity by focusing more on the real capabilities people need in order to run their own lives. By strengthening people’s capabilities they are also able and willing to make a valuable contribution in the lives of others. According to the capability approach, diversity makes it close to impossible for us to dictate the functionings (how people actually end up using their capabilities). It looks at inequality from the perspective of the oppressed still holding onto the idea of freedom. The capability approach stresses the idea of positive freedom, the freedom to act. It recognises that we do not have the same or need the same. Nussbaum and her fellow thinker Amartya Sen understand freedom both as means and end for the society.


To take our focus away from services and focus more on the capabilities provided by the entire ecosystem, government becomes more a facilitator of meaningful encounters. A bit like a concierge in a good hotel’s lobby who knows what’s happening and how to answer people’s needs. The facilitator approach does not take away government’s responsibilty towards people. Continuing with the hotel metaphor, the hotel does provide shelter and nutrition. But we miss out on life if we never leave the hotel.

Planning Services for Young People

Taken to a very concrete level, I see that we as local government need to develop and foster a capability-driven ecosystem. In my job it means making sure that Helsinki as a whole build up young people’ capabilities.

In Helsinki we have moved towards this with our new young people’s wellbeing report. Our new tool combines 66 indicators on wellbeing and quality research with knowledge gained in workshops with professionals and young people. The knowledge gained is then “given a face” by journalists who interview individual young people on their capabilities.

Dia13But all this would be just another nice website if we did not ensure high-level civil servants’ buy-in. This requires continuous practice of dialogue. Just last Friday we gathered with Helsinki’s leading civil servants to decide what joint action we should take based on the information gained. The discussion showed us that we draw very different conclusions from the same material. But the session demonstrated that we are able to find joint goals – but only after we have truly become aware of each others’ perspectives. These kind of recognitions of alternative perspectives do not emerge in our normal, tightly packed meetings. A capability-driven public sector means that we consciously develop our ability for dialogue.

We have been directing Helsinki’s services for young people in a network-based model now for two years. I think it is safe to say that the investment in dialogue is carrying fruit: we are opening a joint service point for young people.

Five Great Examples

There’s a lot to do still in this respect. My meetings this week in London gave me confidence and examples that how this gardener/hustler/concierge role could be done.

First, these five things I would love to see happening in Finland

  • The U: strengthening low-level connections and trust in communities by organising fun and interactive lessons on skills everyone finds relevant.
  • Year Here: a one-year post-graduate programme on driving social change. According to CEO jack Graham, the programme has three skill goals: empathy, hustle and acumen. For the first months the students (or as they call them, fellows) spend in NGOs in the frontline helping people in need. After that Year Here strives for creating social enterprises that make the world a better place. The programme is free. Last year they had 1200 applicants.
  • Roundhouse: Leading music venue, which simultaneously allows thousands of young people to experience and create music, performing arts and broadcasting. All the profits from corporate events and big rock concerts go to supporting young people’s creativity.image
  • National Citizen Service: a three-week programme for teenagers. The first week is camping and adventures and the following week they take part in a charitable organisation. The outspoken goal is to mix young people from different backgrounds. The programme costs 50 pounds to participate. Hundreds of thousands of young people take part.
  • Skip Garden: a movable garden creating programmes for businesses and young people in King’s Cross.image

8 Principles for Community Building

  1. Government needs to articulate a theory of change.The people I met at the Young Foundation reminded me that there is a time and place for management and a time and place for leadership. In the UK public financing for civil society fell dramatically some years back. As money is tighter the British experiences highlight the importance of strategy. No one really cares about excellent processes if they generate the wrong things. It means that more than ever, government needs to facilitate a co-design process of a theory of change.From starting as the Director of Youth Affairs two years, I think 30–40 percent of my time goes into communication or stakeholder engagement. I feel that is correct. We are not able to take the society forward if we sit in our offices monitoring programmes.

This is of utmost importance when things go wrong or you need to deal with a delicate matter. You have to have some social capital to withdraw from. You cannot start making demands without first building trust and showing respect.
  2. Use skill development for strengthening low-level connections.In Young Foundation’s programme The U, they wanted to increase trust in the community. What they found out in their research is that people are willing to intervene and help if they feel a connection to the person in need or to their community. What Young Foundation did was starting courses on skills that resonate in the entire community. The most popular by now has been first aid. The deliverers of these trainings come from the community. The sessions are highly interactive and they consciously put a lot of focus on talking about the barriers for intervening. As people have gained confidence in tangible skills, they feel more confident in helping others.
  3. Foster talent but allow entry.
    When working with young people or volunteers, talent is often a tricky issue. If you put too much emphasis on scouting talent, you end up eliminating tons of people – as we often see in sports clubs. But on the other hand, if you do not foster and recognize talent, people feel unseen – they feel like their uniqueness is ignored. London’s event venue Roundhouse has done this successfully. They open doors to young people to the professional music world. They have agencies that sign gigs for the potentials. But at the same time they make sure that entry does not require talent. A large part of young people come from organisations working with vulnerable groups. They allow multiple ways to get and be involved. At the Roundhouse they understand that everyone does not want to be on stage but they still want to work with music or theatre. That is why they run programmes on radio production, sound recording snd event production.Reflecting back, the scouts were such environment for me. Yes, there were skill competitions. But simultaneously a hopeless crafstman like me could take part in other ways. I made food or wrote articles for our small magazine – and was a contributing member of our community. In the scouts we respected each other’s competencies. 

The general discussion around citizen involvement often does not recognise differences in talent. We end up talking about “residents” or “citizens” with the idea that they are just random blobs without a life story, an education, race, gender or age. No wonder people do not get involved.
  4. Together, not the same.imageLondon’s Roundhouse finances a major part of its work through a membership programme. Even when the Roundhouse’s core purpose is to support young people’s creativity, most members do not sign up for that purpose. They sign up because they get a gusranteed access for sold-out concerts. 

And this is perfectly OK. It is OK that we assemble around the same campfire for various reasons. The main thing is that we actually assemble. This is an underutilised principle in movement building. We do not need to agree on all. But we need to come together and create something meaningful. In the case of the Roudhouse, tens of thousands of music lovers enable thousands of young people to get access and experience with culture snd creativity. And that is freaking amazing.Successful projects manage to combine the sense of Me with the sense of We. Finland-born Restaurant Day highlights this very well. The shared format is running a restaurant on the same day and posting it on a Google map. But outside that, you get to use your skills to the best of your abilities.
  5. Serve food.image
    The people at the Young Foundation were very excited about Detroit Soup. The idea is that people come together to pitch ideas for the community– and have some soup. 

The importance of food or a cup of coffee should not be undermined. Just think of yourself at a party: that drink in your hand helps. This is an issue we constantly notice at youth work. It is of utmost importance to have some food to gather around. Food allows us to focus on something while we are thinking, it gives us an excuse for using a moment to take the new environment in.
  6. Have a facelift.One of the most successful public health interventions of the Western world is the North Karelia project, which run in Finland’s Eastern parts from the 70s til the 90s. One of its key components was recognising the crucial role community leaders. Healthier diets were introduced by identifiying people who are respected amongst their fellows. This thinking is also used in Demos Helsinki’s Peloton project.The same approach is used in Young Foundation’s The U. It is of utmost importance that the confidence-boosting lessons are provided by people who are part of the community. Parachuting intervention – dropping in to make change – seldom work if there is no clear idea of follow-up.When we are government think of a neighbourhood intervention, let’s start by putting our coats on, knock on doors and talking to people. It does not take us long to get to the pulse of the community and identify some key people. And they are often not the ones highest in official rank.
  7. Build community engagement in procurement criteria.Community engagement and investment should not be a voluntary issue when local governments buy services. Many cities in the UK have built requirements for internships and job placements in to the procurement criteria.
  8. Don’t be dependent on one funder.
    In the UK public support for youth and culture has been cut in dramatically. This created quite a shock in the civil society. The organisations that survived the shakeup were those, which were able to get financial support from many directions.

The discussion has not been easy. As Young Foundation’s report puts it, many organisations thought they were ready for new funders but actually were not able to articulate their theory of change or were not able to demonstrate their impact. When it comes to social financing, many organisations did not have any plans on how to pay the loans back.

Let’s face it, we will be facing this discussion more and more in Nordic countries. For me this means various things. First of all, we in local government should see it as our role to build up this capacity of the voluntary sector. This means training and development investment. For the voluntary organisations it means that they need a better strategic outlook. The better their theory of change is, the better they are able to attract European funding, members, donations or even corporate sponsors.