The dirty streets of Madrid and an army of little old ladies

I had plans to write my first proper blog about big ideas.. But instead I find myself inspired to write about rubbish. Literally.

I’m in Madrid at the moment. While here, I’ve been thinking about the how the outcome focused/ co-production inspired responses to cuts considered in the work I did for WPS 2025 would apply in Spain, where the impacts of the economic downturn are much more marked.

The hot topic of conversation amongst the family here is how dirty Madrid has become.  Following austerity, there have been significant cuts to the street cleaning/ refuse collection services.  Local residents have been posting photos of dirty streets on Facebook.   The thing that really grabbed my attention was the response by Ana Botella – the Alcalda (Mayor) of Madrid.  For accuracy I’ll include her quote in Spanish and my interpretation:

 “Madrid no está sucio, es que los madrileños se han acostumbrado a un nivel muy alto”

 “Madrid is not dirty, it is that the people of Madrid have become accustomed to a high level [of cleanliness]”.

I found it interesting as this kind of message on cuts seems to run against the co-production/ engaged community approaches being discussed back home.  In particular, rather than trying to find new ways to protect the outcomes (a clean environment) that people clearly want, it seems to reflect an approach that starts from a basis of accepting a decline in outcomes. It suggests that the real problem is people’s high expectations.  The kinds of co-production responses I’ve looked at suggest such expectations may in fact form the basis for a potential solution.

That the people of Madrid have high expectations for their city to be tidy and clean is surely a thing to celebrate.  That people care enough to take the time to take and post photographs of litter/ uncleaned streets, shows that there is energy and capacity to act.  By identifying such people as the problem, there seems to be a lost opportunity to get the people of Madrid to get more involved themselves in keeping the city as clean as they expect it to be.

On the one hand, the energy directed towards complaining could be harnessed through organised community clean ups etc.  When I worked on a review of the Communities First scheme several years ago, most of the areas had run a clean up with the help and support of the local council and other agencies.  Commonly they said that while they recognised the local council’s responsibilities to keep the area clean, getting the community involved had encouraged a greater sense of ownership and pride in the area, as well as building the capacity of the community to act collectively.

So could Madrid respond more positively, especially using social media?  Could it actually encourage people to share photos of areas they think need a clean up on social media and respond by (a) providing the community with the equipment it needs to clean up and (b) coming round afterwards to take the rubbish away?  Job done at less cost and with more people engaged in making their area a better place.

The bigger picture is, I think, about changing the social norms.  I suspect Ms Botella probably has a point about public expectation on the public services.  Observing from the outside, I think there is a more relaxed attitude to littering here, partly because of the expectation that the street cleaners will tidy things up.  I’ve witnessed many people of all ages just dropping litter on the floor. I watched a bar owner throw litter from his bar into the gutter in full public view.  They have loads of fantastic public play spaces for children here: but most are full of cigarette butts discarded in the sand by parents. And don’t get me started on public urination (the main reason that the area I’m currently staying in stinks to high heaven).

In Wales, perhaps one of the greatest deterrents I’ve seen is the ‘little old lady’ who goes up behind litterers to point out that they’ve left something behind.  I’ve seen this happen on quite a few occassions.  Spanish ‘little old ladies’ on the whole seem to be much feistier that their British counterparts but I’m yet to see them pick somebody up for littering.  The point is that the ‘little old lady’ reflects the social norm that it is not acceptable to make the mess in the first place.

Changing social norms is a very difficult thing.  Where to start? I’m not entirely sure.  You can change behaviour using Nudge type changes to the environment.  But changing hearts and minds is more complex.  Perhaps the starting place is to reinforce, rather than undermine, the basis for that norm: the expectation that the streets and public spaces of communities should be as clean as possible.

So joining up the dots, the main messages are, I think:

(1)   Cuts present an opportunity to re-think services and engage the public on what matters but the messages need to be clear and engaging

(2)   If people care about protecting an outcome, there is at least an opportunity to try to find ways of using their capacity to help deliver services

(3)   The bigger challenge is probably to try to prevent problems in the first place, firstly through changing behaviour and more fundamentally by changing the social norms so that undesirable behaviour is socially unacceptable.

(4)   An army of little old ladies to enforce social norms always comes in handy!


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