But fast forward 30 minutes and the whole room is on fire with lively discussion and an almost tangible energy. No one has disengaged. What on earth is going on? What are they talking about?
We have been listening rapt with attention to Pete White of Postive Prisons?Positive Futures and Kuladharini of the Scottish Recovery Consortium. They talked about their very personal experience of taking an asset-based approach to working with people and communities to help them improve their lives. About how working with people around what they can do, not what they can’t do, fosters real change for the better in some of Scotland’s most deprived communities. Things happen. People participate. They organise things –run a Christmas party or a bingo night. More people join in. People who might not have joined in before. They discover they can do things too. They talk to others. They feel better about themselves. They get a haircut for the first time in 20 years, eat more bananas (yes really!), take fewer drugs, drink less, feel happier. Some of them make fewer visits to their GPs as a result. Some of them volunteer locally. Some get qualifications. Some get jobs. Crime falls markedly. In one area, offences fall by 48% in less than a year and assaults by 50%.
This is powerful stuff.
Pete and Kuladharini - as well as the other speakers - Fiona Wilson of Police Scotland and Andrew Magowan of Inspiring Scotland are passionate and challenging. They have personal experience of being defined by what others saw as being “wrong” with them or of working with communities defined solely by their problems. What they are saying makes perfect sense about working in an asset-based way. They are telling us things that we’re not used to hearing as civil servants. They’re not necessarily asking us for more money or for a pilot that we can then upscale or for our help to deal with large scale, intractable problems in one fell swoop. Instead, they want us to “bring the best of ourselves to work” and to” “proceed until apprehended”. They want us to understand that we are all human and to stop defining people by what we think their needs are and then working hard to deliver great services that we think will meet those needs.
And the buzz in the room was people talking really enthusiastically -but also practically - about what working in an asset-based way means for policy makers. About how we should behave and interact with others and about how we can help. We talked about how it’s personal and about relationships. About how to really listen. About disregarding policy boundaries. About how we should just do it. And about how we should experiment (and by implication fail sometimes) and not pilot things at all. But we talked too about how it can be fragile, risky and hard to define, as well as challenging to measure and evaluate. At the risk of sounding cheesy, it is after all about a whole new way not just of working but of living.