Learning to live with uncertainty

A key principle behind Mayday Trust’s PTS Response (a person-led and strengths-based coaching alternative to traditional support work) is that the work between individuals is a learning process. It’s a learning process for the worker and the person they work with: the PTS Response is a ‘relationship-first’ approach, based on the idea that for any intervention to have a positive impact, it must first establish a positive, trusting and more equal relationship between the person seeking and the person offering help. That relationship enables the coach to learn what matters to the individual, what motivates and demotivates them, what they need assistance with, and where they want to build their skills, confidence, and what they might want to challenge and change in the often sub-par (and sometimes downright oppressive) systems they are living within.

That learning then feeds into the development of the approach and of us as an organisation, as we look for themes and patterns, and try to coproduce a constantly-evolving response to the people we walk alongside. We draw on the Human Learning Systems idea of Learning Loops, which posits that learning (rather than the often illusory achievement of outcomes) is the key indicator of organisational effectiveness, and that organisations should aim to learn, innovate and change above all else.

This approach feels right. It builds coproduction into every level of the organisation. While we do lots to measure impact and outcomes, our primary purpose in doing that is what Gateshead council’s Changing Futures team describes as using evidence for learning, not control. In place of traditional control (tightly defined roles, tasks and targets) we aim to recruit people who can take on and be accountable for autonomous roles, and who can contribute to us learning what works, innovating and improving.

The learning approach is exciting and creative. It offers everyone in an organisation the opportunity to contribute to change and to innovate. But it is also inherently uncertain, because nothing is ever set in stone. This can create anxiety and even a sense of chaos: there are times when we all hope to find certainty, or the right answer. That can be exacerbated by the uncertain nature of the external world, the ongoing sense of crisis in wider public services, and the familiar voluntary sector uncertainties of short term funding. So how do we manage that uncertainty? That’s another question to which the answer(s) are emerging and will change, but here are three things we are learning can contribute to a sense of stability and security in an organisation dedicated to constant development and change:

  1. Strong shared values. Our values do not – and should not – change as often as our practice. They evolve as, for instance, more diverse representation in the team brings new perspectives and a deeper understanding of issues around oppression and racism. But a fit with our values is the test we most often apply when we debate trying out something new.
  2. Values-based behaviours. Organisational values on their own can be broad and hard to use in practice. Who doesn’t claim to have integrity, or other commonly expressed values? And how easy is it to suggest that a colleague lacks integrity without conflict? It is the behaviours that we commit to that are more useful in reflecting on our practice and giving useable feedback. In our Strengths-based Area paper with SCIE And Think Local Act Personal, we suggest behaviours as the key way of seeing whether an area is changing its practice and culture in reality.
  3. A coproduced strategy. Having a clear, shared sense of where we are and where we are going is reassuring. We have been wrestling with how to produce a three year strategy in which we can all see our work and our contribution, without drowning in detail. We have also been sharing as clear as possible a picture of where we are, including the realities of funding and funding challenges. That in itself can be anxiety-provoking in most charities, but less so than surprises: we can’t share accountability and genuinely influence organisational direction and practice unless we share similar levels of information about the pressures, as well as the opportunities, which face us all.

I’d be interested in hearing from other organisations about the journey to becoming a learning organisation.

A no-crisis public service system

As I’ve started working with a ‘severe and multiple disadvantage’ board in our beacon area, I’ve been thinking about what would change if, instead of talking about people as having multiple problems, or being the ‘frequent flyers’ of our services, we instead recognised that some people are severely let down by multiple services. We might ask which service interventions are frequent crisis creators, and what could we do to avoid them, or at least plan to mitigate their impacts. This Disruption Diary for the New System Alliance explores this idea. It draws on Gateshead Council’s work in response to people who had unpaid council tax. The standard response is enforcement: court orders and debt collection. But Gateshead Council recognised that that method doesn’t work because debt collection becomes just becomes one more problem to add to what is invariably an already-long list. So instead they set themselves two rules: do no harm and don’t break the law. They gave a small team £10k, and adopted strengths-based principles including no assessments, no referrals and don’t close cases. Read what happened next.https://newsystemalliance.org/2022/12/06/no-unplanned-crises/

Housing First, relationship second.

Housing First prioritises getting people who are labelled as having ‘complex needs’ into stable housing, on the basis that it will be more feasible to address any other issues once someone has the stability of a long-term home. It’s a global movement and the evidence is strong that it works better than alternatives, despite it discarding the ‘jump through hoops’ traditional approach. People are more likely to maintain their tenancy, reduce substance misuse, avoid reoffending and have improved mental health. The evidence is so strong that it should be the default response, as it is in other countries, but in England, Crisis found only short-term pilots, able to reach 350 people at any one time. It’s not clear that all of these follow the full Housing First model, which involves an open-ended offer of housing (which Crisis notes a pilot cannot do). It’s also not clear why an approach which is demonstrably more cost-effective, breaking a cycle of crisis and use of expensive crisis services, and in many cases helping people to move away from support services entirely, has not replaced approaches which don’t work as well.

In my Housing Day blog, I ask why Housing First is still little more than a pilot in the UK, when it’s core business elsewhere in the world. I also ask what it would look like if we followed Housing First’s rights-based ethos to its conclusion

“We would aim to offer housing not just to those in the deepest crisis, but to avert those crises. We would ensure that the support and housing which was offered did not slip back into being service-led and infantilising once people had accessed it, but embedded strengths-based thinking at every level. And we would see that a roof may be the first thing we all need to have any hope of living safely and well, but it’s not the only thing. What turns a house into our home is the life we are able to live and the relationships we form from there.” Read the full blog here: https://maydaytrust.org.uk/housing-first-relationships-second/

Strengths-based work in a deficit-based system

For #HousingDay2022 we have captured the experiences of our PTS Coaches & people navigating the broken systems that surround public services. We ask coaches at Mayday and in our partner organisations across the UK, to walk alongside people who are going through tough times. A person’s coach will often be the only person they meet in the system who feels able to acknowledge that the system isn’t working, or is part of the problem. Other workers may recognise this just as clearly, but feel constrained by the expectation to be ‘professional’ and put their organisation’s reputation first. This can make great workers act like gaslighters, and it’s one of the ways in which working in a deficit-based, organisation-led system can be damaging for workers as well as the people they support.

That place of truth though is not an easy place for coaches to be: staying with the person through anger and frustration, and being willing to challenge organisations that are under huge pressure, and with which we need to work productively. Often the battles are very small – invisible to the people with the power to shape a more human system. But by gathering those messages, identifying the themes and what works, and feeding that back into local systems, we are showing that it’s always possible to cocreate services and systems which are a better fit for the people whose lives and work they shape.

Look out for the quotes below on social media and please help us to share these voices and their messages of frustration, and hope:

What next for strengths-based areas?

In 2017, Think Local Act Personal (TLAP) published The asset-based area, which described 10 features of an ‘asset-based area’ necessary for developing strong communities and sustainable public services. Strengths and asset-based approaches in social care focus on what individuals and communities have and how they can work together, rather than on what individuals don’t have or can’t do. This new paper, now using the language of strengths-based approaches, builds on that work. Our new paper is both an update on our thinking about strengths-based areas, and a toolkit – it enables you to ask questions about where the area you work is in relation to strengths-based ways of working.

A strengths-based approach to care, support and inclusion says let’s look first at what people can do with their skills and their resources – and what can the people around them do in their relationships and their communities. People need to be seen as more than just their care needs – they need to be experts and in charge of their own lives.

Alex Fox, Chief Executive, Mayday Trust

The paper helps you to look at where you are now, where to aim for and how to get there, with a focus on being led by people who use services, and hearing the voices of group and communities who should be able to access support but are currently excluded or poorly served.

If you would like to talk about how to apply this thinking to your area, council or Integrated Care Board, please get in touch!

A blinding light

An early use of flash photography, I learned from artist Anthony Luvera on World Homelessness Day in Birmingham, was by Jacob Riis who used flash photograph at the end of the 19th century to photograph homeless people flop houses and other previously unseen recesses of poverty. Riis was also one  of the first to use photography to raise awareness and change minds about a social issue. Images of bleary-eyed, disorientated people, dehumanised as much by the sudden flash of light as by the effects of poverty, set the tone for a century of representations of people going through tough times as objects of pity and fascination.

Luvera was speaking at the launch of Construct, his participative photography project, which began with him spending time with people at homelessness support services, getting to know people, and then helping them to take their own ‘assisted self-portraits’. Here is a little of (roughly) what I said for my bit at the launch:

I’m struck by the way that Anthony challenges the traditional idea of the artist as lone genius, taking his subjects, and creating his art from them.

Charities leaders are often uncomfortably close to that traditional model of the artist: inspired by the people we work with, but ultimately creating our unique vision for our organisation, for our ‘beneficiaries’, ‘service users’ or in the most up-to-date jargon, ‘customers’. Around the time that Jacob Riis was both bringing a social problem into public consciousness, and dehumanising the people he wanted to help, charities and early public services were still very much working in the tradition of the Poor Laws, which sought to help, control and punish in equal measure. We like to believe we’ve escaped those roots, but the image of the camera flash momentarily engulfing the scene of someone’s suffering in its glare brought to mind the way that every ‘support journey’ in our modern community services, starts with the brutal glare of the Needs Assessment: a slice through everything that is going wrong in someone’s life, in which the goal, if you want any help, is to display every possible need, risk and problem.

Anthony and some of the work of Construct

The art we are launching today starts with a relationship, and it’s clear that how it’s made is as important as what is created. We heard from Mauvette earlier that her participation in the project was more than a snapshot, it was an ongoing relationship, and the fulfilment of her long-held dream of being a photographer, not just Anthony’s. The potential for social change was all the greater. The co-created portraits do not fetishise suffering, vulnerability, or heroic battles. People present themselves as they are: human.

Eschewing the easy snapshot of a ‘subject’, in place of a painstaking processing of getting to know each other: there is a lot that we in charities and support services could learn about how to start real conversations and see whole people.

Birmingham’s Choir with No Name, including some of the Construct artists, perform at the event

How do national networks create system change?

Do national networks create change? I’m involved with three networks which are coming together as part of HumanLearningSystems Week to share their core change ideas:

This session will explore how alliances and movements are trying to achieve system change within public services, co-led by three prominent networks:

  • Human Learning Systems is an alternative approach to public management which embraces the complexity of the real world, and enables us to work effectively in that complexity. HLS will present on learning organisations (Gary Smith, Plymouth City Council)
  • New System Alliance is a UK wide alliance of people and organisations working to change the systems people come up against when they experience tough times will present on strengths-based working. I’ll be joined by our coach and learning lead Jhoana Serna.
  • Think Local Act Personal is a national partnership of more than 50 organisations committed to transforming health and care through personalisation and community-based support. The partnership spans central and local government, social care providers, the NHS, and the voluntary and community sector as well as people with lived experience. TLAP’s experts by experience will present on co-production

 A panel discussion will follow looking at questions such as:

  • What works and doesn’t work in pressing for radical change in public service systems?
  • Should change makers be disruptive or collaborative? Radical or incremental?
  • To what extent do/ should national partnerships like ours collaborate and compete?

The event is free online 10-11am 10th Oct. Register here

Does your area or organisation want to become strengths-based?

Have you ever wondered if your organisation could be more person-led and strength based in the way you work?

We are match-funding the costs of our strategic advice and consultancy offer for up to three organisations or areas! We must hear from you ahead of Sept 9th to be in the mix for this one-off opportunity.

Mayday offer strategic advice which draws on our experiences of radical organisational transformation and of developing the #PTSResponse: a strengths-based, person-led coaching alternative to traditional support work. We offer:

– System Reflect sessions for frontline & leadership teams who want to challenge themselves to think outside of current systems

Wisdoms people-led inquiries, to generate insights and ideas for action from a more diverse group of people who use – and don’t currently use – your services

– Organisational change support to look at every aspect of your strategy and operations through a strengths-based lens.

Our work ranges from working with a small grassroots soup kitchen and food bank which wants to remain person-led in its journey as it becomes an established local charity, to working with health and council partners in a London borough to introduce multi-level change to tackle inequalities through a combination of new support approaches and system redesign.

We have secured funding to enable us to offer a 50% discount to a small number of places or organisations. Contact robert.white@maydaytrust.org.uk or download our services brochure to gather more info.

Can you help lead and grow Mayday Trust?

In his rather touching farewell blog, my colleague Robert White, who is leaving on a jet plane in the direction of Australia in November, gives a sense of the adventure it’s been over the last two years, moving from a local authority commissioning role to work in one of the sector’s most radical, change-hungry charities at Mayday Trust. It’s worth a read, particularly if you are interested in applying for the role of Director of Development, Income and Impact (closes 20th July) which is essentially the role Rob is leaving at the end of October this year. Rob has been driving our income-generating and partnership building work with councils and provider organisations who want to do public services differently, whether that’s through employing their own strengths-based, person-led coaches, or pursuing whole-organisation or whole-system change. It’s an exciting role, at the heart of our ambitions and part of a small senior team that’s a lot of fun to work with.

Rob captures something about the work of the coaches, whether our colleagues in Mayday, or the 20 odd coaches working in other charities we’ve supported to adopt the model, which I think is central to what makes them special. He says he is constantly amazed by how coaches “are able to hold a relationship that can be so fragile and support people to see the best in themselves, whilst vehemently challenging the injustices they see around them.” That combination of delicacy in building support relationships that feel much more human than so many traditional support relationships, coupled with the tenacity and passion to see and challenge injustice, exclusion and inequality, makes the coaching role uniquely valuable and needed by people who often say they feel listened to and human for the first time in ages. It also makes it uniquely challenging to learn and deliver. As Rob says in his blog, it’s a huge privilege to witness and support coaches doing that work. I’m hugely grateful for the work that Rob has done to bring Mayday and that work to more people and new areas, including our new beacon area of Haringey in London. He will be a tough act to follow. If you want to give it a go, and think you can help us to build our ambitions, income and impact, do please get in touch!

Do strengths-based approaches work?

A 2021 literature review (Caiels, J, Milne, A and Beadle-Brown, J. 2021. Strengths-Based Approaches in Social Work and Social Care: Reviewing the Evidence. Journal of Long-Term Care, (2021), pp. 401–422.) (shared on twitter recently by former King’s Fund policy lead and author, Richard Humphries), came to the familiar conclusion that it’s promising, but hard to pin down as a concept and the evidence is still not there.

The authors helpfully note the difficulties in producing traditional kinds of evidence (eg RCTs) for complex cultural and system changes like the shift to strengths-based working. If a system change is hard to define and imperfectly implemented, who would the control group be in a traditional research model? How can you confidently attribute a positive outcome to a strengths-based service intervention, when many factors can be affecting someone’s wellbeing?

They note briefly at the end that the “review may be limited by the lack of evidence in a relatively under-researched area of practice.” This is in fact the key fact here, and is worth setting in context.

Vast sums are spent on evaluating mainstream public service responses and they often produce robust evidence due the large sample sizes available. Tiny sums in comparison are spent on emerging models. They often find promising results, as the recent new economics foundation evaluation of our work did, showing that the PTS Response enabled people to take control of their support and reported huge improvements in their wellbeing including an increase in self-esteem, sense of purpose, and optimism, as well as better mental health including feeling happier, and a reduction in anxiety (report here). But their small scale limits their impact in the context of large scale established services and associated research programme.

This evidence trap is not incidental: it is a fundamental driver against innovation in public services, which set extremely high evidence bars to introducing new approaches (in comparison to the private sector which often tries something, and switches to the new approach rapidly if it appears to work better) while spending tiny amounts researching emerging approaches. This is ironic, because there is vast evidence of the ways that current service models do not work. Mainstream homeless support services for instance typically have little evidence of consistent effectiveness in helping people achieve long-term housing security. But that context is rarely considered or presented by studies such as this one, leading us to think about the evidence for new approaches as if it exists in a vacuum, leading us to ask, Is this new approach proven to be highly effective? Whereas a more realistic question is nearly always, Does this new approach appear to be less problematic than the current one?

Academics invariably unconsciously present themselves as impartial and apolitical, whereas researchers, like the rest of us, are deeply embedded in and influenced by the current public service and its system. An enquiry into strengths-based approaches is inevitably done by someone who has been conditioned to see deficit-based service models as normal and neutral, rather than as, say, institutionally ableist, sexist and racist.

In my book, I argued that public service researchers are unwittingly part of an “academic-public service complex” and to see that and have some chance of escaping it, need to abandon the fantasy of themselves as neutral. Like everyone with power in public services, they – we – are privileged. We either acknowledge that or don’t, but we can’t make that fact disappear. I argued that the impact of this can be lessened by co-designing research funding, programmes and projects with people affected by public services (at present only commissioners, politicians and people leading organisations with large budgets get to do this – again, not a neutral group), by working with peer-researchers and by engaging with the political nature of all public service related activity rather than pretending it doesn’t exist.

So it is indeed unarguable that the evidence for strengths-based approaches is currently patchy and incomplete at best. And also unarguable that deficit-based approaches are harmful and unwittingly or sometimes consciously abusive. Presenting only one of those facts is unconsciously political.