Photo credit Simon Howe
Jane (not real name), a supporter and volunteer for our non-league football club for countless years, stands in the doorway of the club shop.
“What I want to know is,” she demands, “how come people who don’t even support the club get to choose the colour of the away kit, when it’s only the true supporters who actually buy and wear the shirts?”
I nod deliberately, lean back in my chair, and look up and to the side thoughtfully (the reflexive pose of the consultant, or, some might say, the bullshitter).
I start to formulate an answer in my head: about how our football club, mere weeks into majority community ownership, must start to take steps to build a culture of democracy and participation among its supporter base. About how democracy is a habit, a muscle to flex, and not something that should be reserved for AGMs, committee meetings and dry matters of governance.
How what the New Citizenship Project calls #EverydayParticipation can help to build what Neil Fredrik Jensen calls the “stakeholder concept”: the vitally important idea that football fans can become realistic, responsible owners of their clubs, replacing the broken model of the beneficial "sugar daddy" owner.
And how, therefore, running a social media poll to decide the colour of next season’s away kit - a ‘simple’ idea that nevertheless took hours of email hassle to sort out – is a positive step towards the club’s future sustainability.
But before I can reply, she cuts me off.
“Don’t try to give me an answer for that,” warns Jane. “Because there’s no good answer!”
I smile wanly, knowing I’m beat, and Jane marches off triumphantly.
In the event, over 800 people took part in the poll and, while the records are not 100% reliable, it seems that the away shirts sold just fine compared to previous seasons. If I were being “evidence-based”, I think we could claim it as a small success. But the grumbles continued on the terraces, and no-one thought to repeat the poll this year.
Fine, no big deal. But what sticks with me later is her choice of words, and the twinkle in her eye as she delivered them:
“Don’t even try to give me an answer, because there’s no good answer!”
What was she getting at?
Jane was the one who quite literally tapped me on the shoulder at the 2014 Society AGM and encouraged me, clearly the youngest person in the room at the tender age of 34, to volunteer as Society Secretary – a position that led me to being thrown smack in the middle of our club’s two community ownership bids (the first came up short, the second raised £365K, allowing us to buy a 55% stake).
Part of my role was writing much of the community share offer prospectus, liaising with Supporters Direct and drafting the policies on democracy and governance for the new setup.
Photo credit Simon Howe
During those three years with the campaign, I became accustomed to giving people “good answers”. On the terraces, in the pub afterwards, in public meetings, or on the fans online forum, I was one of the handful of people to whom it fell to respond to the endless questions about the community share offer and community share offer in general. Benign questions, bad-faith questions, confused questions, tricky questions, supportive questions – in the heat of the campaign, all of us did our best to give "good answers".
And I was happy to do this. Hey, it’s nice to feel like an expert, right?
But of course, there is a risk of slipping into the role of "expert". It's a short leap from giving the good answers, to thinking you know best.
This is so obvious a lesson that I'm almost embarrassed to write it. But it's a lesson that I'd clearly failed to follow. When I pushed for the away kit vote idea, did I fully think through the possible objections from long-time supporters? How they might feel about it? The supporters club vs supporters trust politics? The possible unintended consequences?
To be honest, I probably didn't. Instead, I got lazy and took a shortcut. In my head, my idea clearly made sense - other clubs had done it - so I simply assumed that, if challenged, I'd be able to press my hands together, squint for a minute and then come up with a "good answer" to placate any critics.
I think that explains the twinkle in Jane's eye as she cut me off. She'd seen right through me, and wasn't about to be fobbed off with another one of my "good answers".
So what would I do differently next time - especially if the stakes were much higher than the colour of the away kit?
In the fever pitch of a community ownership campaign, you get used to having to make decisions quickly and to "sell" your ideas to people. At a certain point, there is just no time to listen. It stops being two-way. This is largely unavoidable.
So when the campaign is successful, maybe it's time to readjust your approach and slow down. Some things remain urgent, of course - I mean, you own the bloody thing now! But maybe take a moment, once the celebration-champagne hangover subsides, to consciously switch yourself out of the "campaign" mindset and start listening again.
Throughout the campaign, the main source of my "good answers" was stuff I'd pulled down from the national community ownership and supporters trust movement. It was the knowledge of best practice, practitioner networks and PDF toolkits.
That stuff is great! But when it came to implementing this particular idea (which, remember, was intended to enhance a culture of democracy!), I'd failed to localise it, to translate it. There were plenty of others with the local knowledge to point out the flaws in the idea, and perhaps suggest more suitable ways to bring more democracy into the day-to-day supporter experience. My mistake was starting with an answer, rather than a question.
I mean, I'm not saying they hate you - but think about it. Do you tend to like people who “have an answer for everything”? People who have “all the answers”? People who “know it all”? In your life, do you admire and value people who are consistently able to patiently and logically explain to you, with a smile, why your own concerns are not going to carry the day?
Your expertise is invaluable to your project, but it comes at a cost. Be aware of this vulnerability and find a way to manage it.
Oliver Holtaway is a communications strategist who specialises in the social economy, a current board member of Supporters Direct and former Secretary of Bath City Supporters Society, the majority shareholder of Bath City FC.