Coming back in from the cold

“I just decided to go for a walk and that was the start of living on the streets… something I want services to understand is how hard it is to find them when you are in a crisis and finding it hard to function…I ended up sitting in A&E for a few days”

This blog is from Brook, who works with some of the Mayday team in Haringey, North London, using what he has learned from his own experience of systems surrounding public services to help the council and other organisations design more compassionate and effective responses to people going through tough times. Brook joined the Mayday team to speak at Shelter’s Conference ‘A system’s response to housing’ in March 2023. He shared some experiences of trying to access help, when he was at his lowest, which I haven’t heard anyone articulate in such a clear and powerful way before. A point that really stuck with me was this one, about what ‘progression’ on a care or support ‘pathway’ can feel like to someone who feels they are ‘progressing’ away from the help they need, and back towards the situation which had become unmanageable and which had led to a crisis for them:

Services “see your crisis as the starting point, but the crisis is always the last thing in the long series of events that led to it. It is the beginning and the ending.” ‘Progression’ can feel like taking steps back towards the situation which had become unmanageable.

There’s lots more in the blog which is really worth reading on the Mayday site: Navigating Invisibility and Regaining Control.

I needed services which would build a system with me that worked for me, and where I felt more in control. It’s only when you have experienced what it’s actually like to be homeless that you can really understand how people think and feel when they cross that threshold and everything it takes to start coming back in from the cold again.

Good old-fashioned support work

When you start measuring relationships, you really lose the core beauty and variety of it. With a strengths-based approach, we are claiming some of that back.

One of the challenges for developing new approaches to supporting people is that it can either be seen as too radical (We’d love to do this, but our commissioners/providers wouldn’t be up for it…) or not radical enough (We do this already, or It’s just good old-fashioned support work).

The PTS Response approach we take does draw on a long history of people working in a human, compassionate and empowering way, and it doesn’t have any single unique element, but it does draw together practices which I’ve not seen combined before. These include insights into inequalities, structural racism and thinking about trauma which weren’t widely-available in the ‘good old days’ of community social work, for instance. We can see so much unconscious as well as conscious bias in past decades, that it’s impossible to imagine that social work and healthcare, led and managed even more disproportionately by a small section of society, was immune to it. I don’t doubt, however, that the professionalisation of many forms of support, and the marketisation of many public service areas, has removed ways of being with individuals and communities that didn’t survive the newly professionalised, commodified and marketised public service worlds, despite the value which we are reclaiming now.

My colleague Jhoana Serna, our Head of Coaching, and Ol Townsend of our partner agency Platfform, discussed these questions for this New System Alliance blog, which I found thought-provoking:

When you’re overwhelmed delivering services in a scarcity system, can you really find the space to shake the foundations?

Whole system reform centred on strengths-based and relational services

In How we lost sight of the point of public services and what to do about it, a New Thinking paper published recently by New Local, Prof Chris Fox and I argue for a radical re-imagining of public services. Here is the short read:

The challenges facing public services in 2023

The challenges public services face are complex and cumulative. They are a product of under-investment over the last decade but also of ill-conceived structural reforms over the last 30 years. Too often reforms have mimicked outdated notions of competition and tighter management taken from the private sector with disappointing results. The irony is that this has happened while the best of the private sector has been reinventing itself based on new concepts of innovation, environmental and social responsibility and new, empowering organisational structures.

The challenges we face now have been in the making for decades, but as we enter 2023 they seem to be reaching a tipping point. Across multiple parts of the public sector including health, social care, criminal justice and education staff are less well, are leaving their professions and are getting harder to replace. Particularly worrying is the rates at which more experienced staff are leaving, raising questions about the support available for less experienced front-line staff who are often over-stretched due to high vacancy and sickness rates. Simultaneously demand for services is increasing, not just in terms of numbers, but also in the complexity of that demand, be it health services working with ageing populations or poor mental health or schools responding to children who, as a result of the pandemic have missed education or, in the case of very young children have lower than expected levels of speech development. These challenges are being exacerbated by broader social and economic trends including a decade of low productivity, the high costs of childcare and housing relative to wages and, more recently, the increase in hybrid working and the costs of living crisis.

It will be tempting for public service leaders, faced with these challenges, to see ever greater control as the only viable response: making it more exacting for people accessing services to prove themselves eligible, setting ever-tighter boundaries around the support organisations can offer, managing front-line staff more tightly and closing cases more quickly. But such approaches simply shift need from one service to another or create different kinds of crises. Radical change is needed, but what form should it take?

Re-thinking public services

We need a fundamental rethink of the role of public services. At the heart of this new vision is a different way of understanding the relationship between people who deliver services and people who use those services that is based on working with and building people’s strengths. Strengths-based working implies that people who are usually seen as the passive recipients of services have knowledge that has value for shaping their own lives, the service offered to them, and service systems more generally. Strengths-based approaches do not ignore needs, but they do look beyond them. They do not impose a single, uniform service on people according to what the service regards as their needs. Practice must be person-led: with the individual identifying their own strengths and goals and working towards them at their own pace, rather than the service deciding what matters.

There is a risk these approaches are over-simplified. At worst they can simply result in ignoring people’s needs and looking vaguely to ‘the community’ to provide more support than services. But genuine strengths-based working seeks to empower people to build their capabilities and increase their self-efficacy and sense of agency. Lots of professionals across different parts of the public sector will argue that they already work in this way and of course, some do and many aspire to. However, we argue that to really embed these ways of working and to make them the norm, not the exception, we also need a fundamental re-think of what it is to work in public services. It’s not just about wishing that current roles were more valued and therefore better paid. We need to actually create new roles which are more valued by the people they support and the people doing the job. People who deliver strengths-based services must be able to listen and empathise deeply, and to be able to recognise the wider context of a person’s life, such as the inequalities they may be experiencing. They will have a strong commitment to reflective practice. Their work will tend to be psychologically informed, including a high awareness of the impact of trauma on people’s behaviour and capacity. Fundamentally, the relationship between people who seek and people who offer services will change dramatically from the highly managed, narrowly defined transactions characterising current services.

Strengths-based working therefore requires deep changes to the structure and culture of organisations and local systems at every level. Without radical reform of the organisations and systems that deliver public services, relational and strengths-based approaches struggle to take hold and tend to remain as small-scale projects, over-reliant on the drive and determination of a few charismatic and driven individuals. There are some common characteristics of strengths-based organisations:

  • Values-led recruitment which attracts people who have strong communication skills, self-awareness and empathy.
  • Teams delivering strengths-based and co-produced services tend towards self-management.
  • Authentic Leaders who also embody the qualities of strengths-based front-line workers, such as self-awareness, strong values and self-reflection.
  • Co-creation – the idea that people with lived experience are integral to the design and running of services – will feature in organisational governance structures.
  • Collecting evidence for learning rather than control, and striving to be learning organisations which are constantly innovating.
  • Strengths-based organisations recognise that solutions to the challenges people face normally need system-wide responses and that the system can often be a cause of some of the challenges that people face. They therefore tend to create flatter organisational structures with porous organisational boundaries, based on networks rather than hierarchies, where knowledge can flow across organisational boundaries and new innovative solutions can be developed both within and across organisations.

So, a strengths-based approach changes the power balance in services, first giving more autonomy to front-line staff teams and secondly helping people who use services to avoid becoming stuck in a dependent role. Empowering people requires empowered, local public services and workers. A radically different approach is needed and at the heart of this approach are relational services that focus on people’s strengths. We are not the only people arguing for this, but what makes our approach distinct is that we go much further in describing the skills and capabilities that public service staff need to work relationally and the kinds of teams, organisations and systems that are needed.

How do we build more diverse charity boards?

We are recruiting up to three new trustees for Mayday Trust. We have a really high-performing board, but we have some vacancies, a couple of skills and networks gaps (including finance), and we’ve recognised that our board does not reflect the diversity of the people we aim to support, nor of our team. My experience is that a team’s diversity, as well as being the right way to live our values, is strongly linked to its effectiveness in many areas, such as its ability to recognise and respond to a wider range of risks and opportunities, and to avoid group-think.

Over a couple of cycles of recruitment, we’ve been taking lots of advice on how to diversify our board. Organisations which we’ve learned from include Race Equality Foundation, Charity So White, Queer Trustees , Action on Trustee Racial Diversity and Getting on Board – those last two have great free guides to diversifying boards. Some advice has been about how we present ourselves in pictures and language: we had diversity we weren’t showing the world, and we benefitted from checking our adverts for unconscious bias in our language using tools like this one. We’ve looked hard at our recruitment packs through a diversity lens and changed them a lot with input from the whole team. With each new version, we realised there was still more to do. We also needed to make a clearer commitment about equity, diversion and inclusion at every level, which led us to form an EDI group, and develop and publish a plan. And to recognise that achieving it will be a starting point, but far from the end goal.

We also looked at what really mattered to us in who we were looking for. Previously, we’d specified prior board experience, because we are a national charity with many complex challenges, but we recognised that this would perpetuate that lack of diversity. So now we have welcomed applications from first time trustees. That’s meant offering support with CV writing, informal chats, a Meet the Team session, support to understand the role ahead of interview, and more intensive support and buddying to take on the role. We will probably learn much more about what’s needed if anyone who is new to being a trustee takes us up on the offer. We’ve also offer the option of applying with a video instead of a covering letter. This was partly with inclusion in mind, which raises the question of how we could make a trustee role genuinely accessible for someone who had barriers to accessing text-based information, given how much of our current governance relies on lengthy and detailed board papers.

We also would like to find someone with experience of going through tough times or facing broken public service systems. Most of our meetings are online and we pay travel expenses of course, but we have also needed to recognise that people may have other financial barriers, so we have offered help with childcare costs or the cost of IT equipment or broadband.

All of these are an investment at a time when money is very tight, but as a team we’ve decided that diversity at every level is a non-negotiable. Now that we’ve made the changes we have, they actually feel pretty basic – things we should always have been doing, but which I know we are far from the only charity not to have in place. We’re still learning and are undoubtedly still getting things wrong, so I’d love to hear from charities which have gone further down this road than we have about what you learned along the way.

Here’s one of our brilliant new trustees, Halima Khan, talking about her experience of Mayday so far:

How we lost sight of the point of public services…

… and what we can do about it, is the title of a paper I’ve co-authored with Prof Chris Fox in which we argue for a radical re-imagining of public services. The paper is published as the first in a new series by think tank New Local here. It draws on the work of innovative organisations like Mayday Trust as well as Chris’s work on social innovation at MMU’s PERU unit. It’s been particularly enjoyable working on a paper with my big brother, and we’ve tried to combine my operational experience with his academic strengths. We didn’t even squabble that much over who’s ideas were the best…

The challenges public services face are complex and cumulative including high vacancy rates, poor staff morale and people accessing services with complex needs. These challenges are a product of under-investment over the last decade but also of structural reforms that mimic outdated notions of competition and tighter management taken from the private sector, with disappointing results.

It’s tempting for public service leaders, faced with multiple challenges, to see ever greater control as the only viable response. But such approaches simply shift need from one service to another, demoralise staff or create different kinds of crises.

So we need a fundamental rethink of the role of public services, a new relationship at the core of our support services, and an approach that doesn’t ignore needs, but does look beyond them.

This is not just about wishing that current roles were more valued and therefore better paid. We need to actually create new roles which are more valued by the people they support and the people doing the job. Front-line practice will be more strongly person-led, more reflective and involve more delegated responsibility for more empowered staff. This isn’t just a change at the ‘frontline’. The organisations and systems people work in will have to change radically, otherwise the most promising initiatives for sustainable public services will remain as small-scale projects, on everyone’s wish-lists, but reaching far too few people.

The paper is here:
I’d love to hear what you think! 

Charities: whose voices?

Yesterday, the #CharityReformGroup – a group of charity CEOs committed to using their voice to drive reform – has launched its inaugural report: Its key message is that charities are underrepresented in the national conversation, compared to private sector leaders and others. It argues that charities need a louder, stronger voice, and that this means their chief executives should be more confident and more willing to put their heads above the parapet. It cites culture wars, the expressed scepticism towards charity campaigning of the current government, and self-imposed ‘chilling’ of debate by charities concerned or confused about what kind of (non-political) campaigning is both permitted by the Charity Commission and constitutes a good use of charitable resources. It has some bold messages and is well worth a read.

I agree with the report on charities’ voices being too quiet. None of us should be party political organisations, but we should all be social change organisations, and it’s hard to be a social change organisation if you don’t talk about the change that’s needed, as well as demonstrating it through your work. Campaigning and challenging the status quo has always been part of charities’ missions, and always should be.

However, the report’s argument rests on two assumptions, both of which I think are worth unpacking.

Assumption 1 is that charities which work in the social change sphere, are always part of the solution, and never part of the problem. That’s an assumption I’ve generally made myself throughout my career, but I now work at an organisation that, almost uniquely, found a way to enable people we worked with to tell us that, although we did lots of good, we also did some harm, and the harm in their view, outweighed the good. We were offering what Nesta called bad help, which was keeping people stuck in services. We were obsessed with their problems, but couldn’t or wouldn’t see the problems support systems were creating for them – dependency, dehumanisation, deskilling – of which we were a well-meaning part. So would the people we supported have felt it was important for us to speak on their behalf? We listened, ended our previous support and accommodation business model, and have spent years coproducing with people a support approach which puts them, and communities in charge. It is only now that we are starting to explore what sort of a voice we think that we, the people we work with, and the emerging network of like-minded organisations should have and be. We no longer think of ourselves as entitled to speak on anyone’s behalf, but we do try to earn our voice, through the more equal relationships we try to build with people, and what they teach us. Which links to the second assumption.

Assumption 2 is that a charity’s voice is its chief executive’s voice. As a charity chief exec, I certainly have – and want – a voice. But our goal is not, ultimately, for me to be an increasingly effective or louder or more amplified voice. Our goal is to walk alongside people who have experienced tough times, and have used, or been excluded from public services, as they develop their voices. This should be as much about sharing our platform as building it, and as much about being an ally as a leader. So I would be happy to see more charity chief execs on news and current affairs shows than we do at present, but I would be watching a group in which people like me were over-represented: white, middle class, middle aged men. So, how much more powerful if we practised what we preach, and distributed that leadership responsibility much, much more broadly. If we lived and demonstrated the social changes we were calling for. The steps towards doing that are to codesign our mission, our practices and our messages with the people we aim to help. As a charity sector, we will all need to embrace models of more distributed leadership, more autonomous roles, more peer-peer management, and building networks while dismantling centralised hierarchies.

The goals implicit in the report are creating social change, and hearing a broader range of perspectives: not just those with the biggest budgets and best connections into current power structures. If we continue to see success for our sector in terms that are defined by generations that ignored so many of the inequalities – of gender, race, disability, class – that the next generation have made very clear they refuse to ignore, we can’t achieve those goals. There will always be a private sector organisation with a slicker PR machine, or a think tank with better connections. Where charities could compete, and win, in public debates, is in our authenticity, if we can demonstrate it: our ability to find and amplify voices in which other sectors have no interest.

Because whether we are working in tiny grassroots community organisations, or huge multi-national charities, our mission is to shift power, not from one group of executives to another, but to redistribute power and opportunity more equally among those who are too often excluded from the power structures of every sphere of public life, including ours.

Going the first mile

I’ve enjoyed getting to know the Relationships Project recently and joined their Relational Councils network session this week. We share a lot of values, beliefs and practices between the Project and The New System Alliance. A phrase of the Project’s which I particularly liked was that, while most services and leaders value relational work (being human, listening, forming a deeper connection), they tend to describe it as ‘going the extra mile’ when it needs to be the ‘first mile’ in all of our work. This chimed with the way we describe the PTS Response as being ‘relationship-first’ (see the new messages on our updated website): we value and track outcomes, but our learning is that meaningful outcomes follow the right relationship, whereas starting with assessments & goal setting stops that relationship forming, which is self-defeating.

Another speaker at the Relational Councils Network from Kingsley Hall, a community organisation with a long and rich history in East London, said that relational working and community building happens where people laugh together, cry together, or break bread together. That brought to life for me something about a difference between genuinely person-led approaches, which go to where people are and spaces which are meaningful to them, in contrast to so many services which are offered exclusively in offices or “service settings”.

The session was focusing on the cost of living crisis and posed questions including, How can we focus on relationships when someone’s immediate need is cash? I’m often asked a similar question about Mayday’s work with people who facing a crisis like being homelessness. Our approach is not of course a substitute for a roof over your head, or any other kind of crisis response services. But too often, when services get into crisis mode, they park or abandon their relational, strengths-based or person-led thinking, in favour of acting quickly and taking charge. They may move from the places where we feel at home, to those ‘service settings’. The urgency and the under-resourced nature of many of those services creates a powerful impetus to act in that way. But there is a cost to putting someone in the passive role of patient or service user, asked only for ‘compliance’. For people who experience multiple crisis, that cost is cumulative.

We need to stop seeing more human approaches as only feasible in the realm of ‘prevention’ or ‘early intervention’, and start seeing the principles of forming a connection, seeing a whole person, and enabling rather than fixing, as being even more vital at those times in people’s lives where their confidence, independence and capacity for hope may be at its most fragile.

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.

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: