Tag Archives: locality

Fail early, fail often

“… far too many public service systems ‘assess rather than understand; transact rather than build relationships; refer on rather than take responsibility; prescribe packages of activity rather than take the time to understand what improves a life’. The result is that the problems people face are not resolved, that public services generate ever more ‘failure demand’, that resources are diverted to unproductive ends, and that costs are driven ever upwards.

This is the claim from Locality chief executive, Steve Wyler, in the forward’s to his organisation’s report ‘Saving money by doing the right thing: why ‘local by default’ must replace diseconomies of scale‘.

The report, published earlier this month, was written by and produced in partnership with Professor John Sneddon of Vanguard Consulting. He argues that the politically popular idea that the best way to cut costs in the public sector is to outsource services in massive blocks to large private sector contractors, who can provide cheaper, more efficient services through economies of scale, is fundamentally wrong. It’s wrong not only because the services provided to vulnerable people are worse but because they also fail to save money.

The most striking sections of the report are the case studies of four people, whose multiple interactions with public sector agencies are used to illustrate the problems generated through failure demand. In the case of public services, failure demand means someone approaches a public sector agency with a problem, the agency either doesn’t do anything or does something(s) that doesn’t help and, as a result, that person has to approach more public sector agencies to solve both the original problem and the additional problems created as a result of the original problem not being solved.

In one case study, Ruth, a victim of domestic violence struggling to look after her six children while also managing health problems, knew exactly what she wanted from public sector agencies. She wanted help with housework and adaptations to enable her to access the first floor of her home (which she wasn’t able to do due to health problems).

Ruth’s local social services department chose to provide her with: “Two anger management courses for [two of her children; Two parenting programmes; Help cleaning one bedroom; Toilet frame, perching stool and bath board for a bath she could not access; Family intervention programme

These services were delivered by the combination of: “Eight social workers; 22 support workers allocated; 30 referrals in core flow; 16 assessments in core flow; 36 teams/services

The help that Ruth actually wanted would’ve cost up to £20,760 over 4 years, the ‘help’ she has received has cost an estimated £106,777 over a similar time period.

In another, Melvyn, a 75-year-old ex-miner living alone in a council bungalow living with epilepsy and a lung condition wanted help to stay in his home and have control over his life.  What actually happened was that: “Over the last 2 years Melvyn had spent 162 days in hospital of which, conservatively, 72 days (44 per cent) were avoidable. He had involvement from seven different agencies and 30 different teams and professionals. He went through 29 separate assessment processes. Given that the assessment process was repeated every time he re-presented or when one professional referred him to another, 66 per cent of these assessments were repeated.

Melvyn’s health conditions have become progressively worse, his independence and quality of life have both been dramatically reduced and entering the residential care system now seems inevitable.

In these cases, public services clearly aren’t succeeding. Rather than meeting the needs and aspirations of vulnerable people, they’re offering one size (doesn’t) fit actions picked from a pre-determined menu of agree interventions.

Unfortunately, experiences of people subjected to multiple failed interventions from public sector agencies that send them hurtling into somebody’s righteously-exasperated case study, are used to justify a wide-range of different and often contradictory positions.

The report is weaker when explaining the arguments behind the ‘local-by-default’ model it proposes as an alternative. ‘Local-by-default’ means services providers having: “A thorough knowledge of the predictability of demand for services”.

This “enables service providers to ensure that people who present as needing help can be met immediately by people with the requisite knowledge and skills to assess need and organise service provision.

The result is that: “Real economies of flow replace imagined ‘economies of scale’. Each locality is different; its needs can only be understood in a local context.

The other principles the report advocates are: ‘Help people to help themselves‘, ‘Focus on purpose not outcomes‘ and ‘Manage value, not cost‘.

The question is what does that actually mean? In someone else’s ‘change the delivery model’ policy report, Melvyn’s story would show why it’s important that older people are given personal budgets to spend on commissioning the support they want and need, from whoever can provide it.

Free market commentators might argue that Ruth would have been better off if state agencies just weren’t there at all and she’d turned to a local church for help.

Sneddon and Locality argue for public service providers (whatever sector they’re employed in) who listening to people, find out what they need and help them get it. It’s ‘Person-centred’ and it’s ‘multi-disciplinary’. They don’t like payment-by-results or other forms of ‘outcome-based management’. Advocates of bigger, more impenetrable silos should look away now.

Some councils are trying the ‘Local-by-default’ model. Stoke City Council took: “the radical decision to launch a comprehensive multi-agency initiative – across local authority, police, fire and rescue, NHS and TSO-provided services – to understand how people interact with the totality of public services…”

Now: “Multi-agency teams work together in individual neighbourhoods, come to understand local issues and get to know local families. These pioneering projects are breaking down barriers, improving outcomes and rebalancing the lives of customers to boost the economic and social wellbeing of whole communities. The results are profound.

There’s nothing particularly new about saying that we need good services rather than cheap ones. There’s also nothing new about multi-agency approaches. Whatever happened to Connexions? While I’m sure Vanguard Consulting does a good job with Councils and others it works with directly, on a wider policy level the report doesn’t have a clear, practical message for public sector decision-makers that extends far beyond ‘do good stuff, do less bad stuff’.

It’s equally unclear how talk of ‘managing value, not cost’ would miraculously make the battle for resources go away. While services that understand people’s needs are better placed to meet them, even the best run services will not be able to meet to all perceived need. ‘Saving money by doing the right thing’ (unsurprisingly) doesn’t have all the answers is a useful contribution to the debate about what public services are for and how they can be made to work better.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Knowing your rights

To Stratford last Wednesday for East London’s event on the government’s new Community Rights, organised by Urban Forum (where I am a trustee) and Locality.

The Localism Act 2012 gives communities four new rights: Community Right to Build, neighbourhood planning, Community Right to Challenge and Community Right to Bid. The first two of these are well explained by their names. The Right to Build provides communities with: “the right to build small-scale, site-specific projects without going through the normal planning application process” while the right to neighbourhood planning gives communities the right to draw up a plan for their area. Neither of these Rights are simple to exercise and, based on discussion at the event, it seems that in London at least, it may be quicker to go through the existing planning permission process than to use Right to Build.

Right to Challenge and Right to Bid are more cryptically named. The Right to Challenge is not a right for communities to challenge the decisions of councils (or anyone else), it’s a right to express an interest in delivering services that are currently delivering by the local authority or fire and rescue services ‘where they think they can do it differently and better‘.

The basic process is that, if a community group – usually a charity or social enterprise – thinks they could run a particular service better than the local authority (or service), they can put in an ‘Expression of interest’ which the local author has to consider. If the local authority accepts the challenge, the group making the challenge does not necessarily get to run the service – it’s put out to tender and anyone can bid to run it.

Slightly less confusingly, the Right to Bid does give community groups the right to bid ‘to buy and take over the running of assets that are of value to the local community‘. Of course, broadly speaking, anyone has the right to bid to buy anything from anyone else at any time. Things only become difficult when it comes to the questions over whether the owner wants to sell and whether the buyer can afford to buy.

The more specific use of Right to Bid is that it enables community groups to nominate assets of community value which the local authority has to consider adding to a local list of community assets. If a building is put on the list then – if and when the owner decides to sell it – community groups have a six-month window to raise the funds to make a bid to buy it.

As Annemarie Naylor of Locality’s Asset Transfer Unit explained at the event, whether or not Right to Bid  enables lots of community organisations to buy lots of buildings if the owner doesn’t want to sell to them, the process will enable community groups to demonstrate to the local authority that particular buildings are valued by the community.

The other people on my table at the event were mostly from relatively small local community organisations. The general feeling was that while it was good to be aware of these new Rights coming into existence, they were unlikely to be directly applicable to what we were doing.

Although the practicalities were clearly explained by Locality’s Glen Arradon, there was confusion about the motivations behind Right to Challenge. Some said that, as they understood it, the government’s policy was to contract out as many public services as possible anyway so they couldn’t understand why an extra mechanism was needed or why community organisations needed to be involved. Others felt that while some local authorities might be keener to put services out to tender than others, there was no clear value in community organisations trying to make them do so if they didn’t want to – as the most likely result would be that the contract would end up going to a private sector provider anyway.

The key benefit of the Rights for charities and social enterprises seemed to be that, while they might not be practically useful in themselves, their launch had been accompanied by the launch of a grant funding programme, managed by the Social Investment Business, to support organisations looking to buy property or take on the running of public services – whether or not they specifically used the Rights to do so.

While there may be scepticism, many local authorities have already set up websites instructing local organisations on how to make use of the new Rights – such as this one on Right to Challenge from Hammersmith & Fulham – and the rest will ultimately have to do so.  Some organisations definitely will attempt to use the Rights, some local authorities will welcome that.

Locality’s My Community Rights website provides further guidance on what the Rights are and how to make use of them. As the debate about charities and social enterprises running public services (and taking on community assets) intensifies, these Rights will definitely be part of the discussion. It’s too soon to say how big a part of it they’ll be.



Filed under Uncategorized

“People are motivated by things that make them emotional” – Jess Steele interview, part one

In the run up to the 2010 general election, David Cameron pledged to build an army of 5000 trained community organisers to tackle poverty and social breakdown. In February, Locality won the contract to deliver the programme and the recruitment process started earlier this month.

At this early stage, it seems that the numbers of people with strong views on the government’s support for community organising, vastly exceed the numbers of people with a clear idea of community organising actually is. With this in mind, I went to ask Locality’s head of innovation, Jess Steele, what the programme’s all about.

To begin with, why is this programme necessary? If people want to do organise in their communities, why aren’t they just doing it already?

“Some people are just doing it to some extent but every kind of funding and resource support for the last 20 years has mitigated against people just doing it – building trust, respect, relationships and collaborative grassroots work. Everything has been about: ‘you’ve got to develop your project’, ‘you’ve got to write it up and write up all the outputs and outcomes of that project’ and then you take that project to a funder. Then you establish the governance and you have to do a whole lot of hoop-jumping before you get anywhere.

What’s so special about this programme is that it says that actually trust, respect, relationships, mutual listening and systematic engagement of people on their own terms is in itself worthwhile and is a pre-requisite for people having freedom and the mutual capacity to take action on their own behalf.”

There’s going to be 500 paid organisers. What specifically are they going to be doing?

“500 organisers will be hosted by local community organisations in a variety of places around the country. It’s basically a twelve-month bursary-funded process of learning. So, during that year, these people are trainee organisers but they’re also very much active in local communities themselves.

What they do during the first six months – which is the intensive training period – is a parallel process of guided action in their local community plus reflection as a group of organisers from all over the country. So mutual reflecting together on how that guided action is going and what lessons they might have for themselves and each other.

We’re using the process known as Root Solution – Listening Matters developed by RE:generate over the last 20 years. They will be leading that training and leading those guided actions.

 At its core that process about one to one listening on the basis of the idea that people are motivated by things that make them emotional – either things they love about their local area or things that make them sad, angry, frustrated, worried. And it’s only worth really talking to people about those things – in the broadest sense – because those are the things that will motivate people to act.

You do not ignite the impulse to act by showing people a load of statistics – we know that through the experience of neighbourhood renewal. Neighbourhood renewal showed us a whole load of statistics: you die younger, you’re more likely to be burgled, you’re more likely to get pregnant before 16, you’re more likely to fail your exams but – despite being fairly horrifying – those statistics didn’t ignite the impulse to act. Where we’ve seen grassroots action it’s because groups of people come together and they love something and they want to make the best of it or they find something really makes them angry and they want to do something about it.

So the programme is about that systematic listening process, first one-to-one then moving into small groups and cascading that out. The organisers themselves will be seeking what’s known in the programme language as ‘mid-level community organisers’ – what we think of as activist organisers – people who are not paid and trained but who are recruited by the organisers themselves.

These are people who will be recruited because they care and what they particularly want to do is do some more listening and spread that listening out, because through listening what you’re building is powerful, mobilisable networks of people who trust each other because they’ve listened to each other and they’ve heard each other. Now, out of that comes action because when you’re listening to people you start with what they love and what they’re concerned by and then you talk to them about their bigger picture dream, vision and about their project ideas – specific things that they want to work on. That then leads into taking action.

From our point of view the action can range from everything from action to change the powerful, if that’s what’s required, to action that is very much DIY – working together collaboratively to take a specific action which could be about clearing up or building a new project, whatever it might be.”

In terms of the programme as it moves forward, how is it going to be sustainable. Is the idea that organisers will generate income to pay for their roles?

“The idea is that we will support the host organisations to try to make those roles sustainable. So, the government is only paying for this training year for each individual. What Locality will do is try to help the host and the organisers themselves to think about how – in their unique circumstances, in their unique part of the country – they might make this work sustainable.

At the same time we will be seeking – and I’ve already begun this – to seek different approaches where funders, whether they’re charitable foundations or private or public, might be able to make funding available without adding strings. The challenge is to make the work sustainable but to make it sustainable without strings. 

I think what will happen is that where local communities value the organiser who’s worked with them for a year – and where they really see that this is beginning to lead to some interesting and fantastic opportunities – it will be those local people’s role to convince funders.

What Locality will try to do is on the one hand to help the organisers to be entrepreneurial and the host to be entrepreneurial but, on the other hand, we’ll try to help funders work out how they can directly listen to communities where organisers have been working to hear if those communities would like to see that continue.

So, we’re looking at new approaches to communities challenging funders to fund things that don’t necessarily have specific outcomes. That’s hard but there’s a huge move in that direction from funders. There’s a huge interest in ‘how can we listen to communities more directly’ rather than just taking funding applications from community groups and those groups that are good at writing funding applications get funded. How do we listen to those communities that don’t sit down and write the funding applications? There’s a huge interest in that and if we can help to make that happen then it could be quite transformational for ordinary funding streams as well as government programmes.”

Are you thinking that this funding will come mainly from charitable grant funders or could it also potentially come from councils?

“Certainly but it’s about getting the model right. The no strings bit is very hard with local funders particularly so what we’re trying to do is begin to explore how that might work with larger funders who have quite broad aims – like the Big Lottery.

Once we get a model that works we can see whether councils would like to do something similar – to listen to communities who say ‘actually, this is really good for us, this organiser’. The other thing is that there is some evidence that organised, networked mobilised communities end up creating cashable savings because they end up doing so much more for themselves. That means that in theory at least that it might be helpful for councils to fund ongoing mobilisation, networking, organised communities but only if we can find a way that they’d do that without strings. That is extremely challenging at local level but it’s certainly something that we continue to explore.”

What happens in areas where it doesn’t work?

“It’s very much a learning programme so if it doesn’t work in particular areas we absolutely need to understand why it doesn’t work. We will learn at least as much from failures as we learn from successes, so we need to squeeze them dry for lessons.

(In some cases) it might be that it was successful but very self-contained and actually. Or it might be that it was so successful that it kicked off some major challenges and conflicts. So, it might be successful but in lots of different ways.

The idea, though, is that this is a one-off opportunity to create a new movement in community organising at scale, homegrown, across different types of places in England from dense inner cities to rural areas via every other type of place – so scale and diversity and national networking are the really crucial things about this programme.

The important thing we need to do is to make sure that there is some national stability and sustainability for the programme. In the government’s tender documents they talked about an Institute for Community Organising. It may well not have that name but we will certainly seek to create a legacy body for the programme that is owned by organisers themselves and that continues to promote the recruitment, training, support and ongoing accreditation of community organisers.

And that body will work with other organisations because while we’re working on a particular model there are other approaches and we want to learn from and collaborate with them.”

You mentioned the different approaches – from your tender bid your approach seems to be somewhere inbetween a more consensual approach or a more confrontational approach to organising, perhaps I’m slightly simplifying that. Is there a sense in which the organisers won’t look to get too focused on challenging government?

“There’s a range of axis on a spectrum, I suppose, but the one we specifically talk about in the bid is between Freire and Alinsky. It’s not fair to characterise Freire as consensual and Alinsky as challenging, though, because Freire is incredibly challenging but what he’s challenging is consciousness.  (For him) it’s not just about haves and have nots, it’s raising critical consciousness, critical awareness – so that is actually fairly challenging in its own right, it’s just a different focus to the challenge.

So, I think we see ourselves as combining really important parts of both of those thinkers, along with another thinker called Santos De Morais. He was imprisoned with Paolo Freire. He takes this consciousness another stage to talk about entrepreneurial consciousness and economic literacy because in the end Freire was all about ‘the poor will become empowered through literacy which is based on consciousness’, Santos De Morais says the poor will become empowered through jobs and wealth – which they create themselves on the back of critical consciousness.

So, it’s about what you can create yourself, in an empowered way, not because some Business Link adviser tells you to but because you have become collaboratively conscious of the other people in your community who want to solve something together – you can solve it together.

And whether that is about building something, creating together, or whether it’s about marching on the town hall to change the powerful, the crucial thing is to do that effectively, to not waste people’s time in campaigns or business development that is going to be ineffective.”

End of Part One.

Questions in part two include: ‘Creating the programme was one of the government’s flagship Big Society promises, do you think that’s a help or a hindrance?’


Filed under Uncategorized