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Thursday, 20 September 2012

Spaces for 'good' to thrive

Candy Chang is an artist who creates conversations with her neighbours in the public space. This photo shows the ways in which she uses large post-its on derelict buildings in a neighbourhood to gather people's ideas for what they would rather see there.

In this short six minute TED video posted below, she talks about her latest project that started as a blackboard pinned to an unsightly derelict building in her neighbourhood that asks people to complete the sentence 'Before I die I want to.................'

I have become fascinated by Candy's work and have been wondering how to use it in my neighbourhood alongside an Appreciative Inquiry. I live in an inner town neighbourhood in the north of England. It is a neighbourhood that feels to be at a tipping point. I love living here and as I approach retirement age, I want to remain here.

The major issues are an active bit of gang warfare and overt drug dealing. The gang warfare is within one community living in two different parts of the town. Imaginatively, the gangs are called the 'Top-Enders' (our neighbourhood which sits on a hill) and the 'Bottom-Enders' who live, as you have guessed, in the valley.

These gang members are also the brothers, sons, nephews, grandsons of the families in our community. Not surprisingly, no one is saying anything. From time to time we have the odd murder, more regular stabbings, beatings and occasionally even shots are fired. It was as well that the summer has been continuously wet. This has dampened the sparks that began to fire when the sun shone necessitating a significant police presence on foot and in the sky.

And like every other community there are so many positives, which is why I want to stay. And if I want to stay, I have to play my part. 

So........if people cannot speak out to tackle the bad, can we start to actively build on and create even more of the good? Could increasing the space occupied by the good and the positive actually decrease the space for the bad and the harmful. 

These gang members claim the physical territory - 'the streets are ours' is a direct quote. A bit of unexplained pop up 'Chang' magic might just be the way to intrigue and beguile before carrying out a more formal appreciative process to create a positive action plan.

Friday, 27 July 2012

A glance back...........

John Houghton has written an excellent blog this week for New Start magazine called 'Exposing the Lie'

In the blog John challenges the notion that people living in the most economically disadvantaged communities do not care about the plans and decisions that affect their lives. 

John's blog took me back to the work I did with ecumenical colleagues in the churches in Bradford in 1994. 

Called 'Powerful Whispers', it involved the Bradford Metropolitan District's top decision-makers listening to local people speak in four two hour sessions. Each session was held in one of four of the District's most disadvantaged communities. The decision-makers were asked to listen in silence, without response, as people talked about their lives and communities. This was to enable them to really listen without being distracted by thoughts of how they ought to respond.

Local people, who had complete control over the content and method of delivery, were answering the following questions: 
What is good about where you live? 
What are you already doing to make a difference? 
What are your hopes and fears for the future?

From the four Hearings a colleague and I drew out the key issues. For the first time the issue of consultation and decision-making arose. I quote it in full because, from John's blog, clearly it is still relevant.

This is what my co-author and I wrote in the final report in 1995:

Consultation and Decision-Making
'When resources are scarce, and the problems which need addressing are many, the quality of decision-making becomes crucial. Decisions have to be clear, and the reasoning behind them absolutely transparent, if people are going to accept decisions as being fair.

As the four steering groups prepared for the Hearings, it became obvious that people in areas which had not received regeneration mony from schemes such as City Challenge or the Single Regeneration Budget were feeling disappointed and a little bitter.

Ironically feelings were also running very high on Holmewood, which has had very substantial funding from City Challenge. Holmewood demonstrates that spending money is not in itself the key; great attention needs to be given to the way it is spent. Time and again we were given examples of what local people thought was money being inappropriately spent on projects which had not originated within the community.

They pointed out that thousands of pounds had been spent on hiring 'consultants' to canvass local opinions. Yet those consultation exercises were felt to be cosmetic. The view was that where local opinion did not coincide with that of those running City Challenge, then people felt that their ideas were ignored. This had led to cynicism about being consulted. On the other hand there are people involved with the running of City Challenge who feel that serious efforts have been made to involve local people at every stage. This is causing tension and there is the possibility that some of the strong community roots put down over the years are being undermined.

Consulting people is never a simple process. People are often reluctant to express opinions or lack the confidence to contribute ideas. They often feel that they do not have the knowledge to participate. The usual methods of questionnaire and public meeting are limited to drawing from people the kinds of issues which concern them and their families. People who are struggling to survive do not necessarily complain the loudest! There needs to be clear recognition that real consultation is expensive in terms of time, as well as money, in those communities which have the most problems but that this expenditure can represent a sound investment.

If Bradford is going to be able to cope with scarce resources and growing needs, then creative ways have to be found of including citizens in decision-making. People need to be helped to think about their own locality but also to develop a wider picture of concern and awareness.

At the de-brief meeting which we organised for those who had spoken at the four Hearings, people became very excited when they shared with one another the issues that they had raised at the indiviidual Hearings. When they realised that they had such a common agenda, there was a sense that they wanted to explore further what this might mean, not only for their particular area, but for the city as a whole. They felt that there was strength to be gained by working together and understanding each other.'

The next twelve years of my working life in the District was spent turning this desire into a reality.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Listening to learn and deliver

Listening to clients/customers/patients is fundamental for developing the right products and services. I am still amazed that something so simple and effective is often skimped or ignored. Yesterday I listened as a worker vented her frustration that a potentially valuable pilot scheme was being undermined before it started because client involvement was being squeezed out.

Today Louise Casey published her report on 'Troubled Families'.  It reminded me of work I undertook in 2010/11 in a Metropolitan Borough. That work was concerned with re-designing services for families with complex needs. 

We started by listening to fourteen families whose lives had moved successfully from chaos to stability. We asked them to tell us about what had happened and what they thought had made the difference.

Listening is so powerful and so revealing. People's stories can reveal what needs to happen to make real change possible. The experiences, analysis and ideas reveal aspects of an issue that even the most experienced workers might never spot. Interventions based on what is revealed increase the chances of future success.

Listening to paid staff, especially frontline staff, is equally important. We followed on from listening to families, by listening to frontline staff and their managers. Pasted below is a summary of the learning that emerged from that listening.

Three ingredients for success – The families’ stories and experiences revealed a clear pattern for success in helping families to move from vulnerability to stability.

This happens when an identified worker:

-       Treats the parent as a full partner by drawing on their strengths and experiences and building a trusting relationship;
-       Ensures that the immediate needs (identified by the parent) are met, drawing in the help of other agencies where necessary;
-       Ensures that the parent has the opportunity to learn about tools and strategies that will enable parents to cope with their lives.

‘ (The intervention) leaves people with plans and feeling in control. I have the tools to do it myself. It has created a feeling of being more in control.’ (Parent)

The right relationships‘She talked to me like a real person’. (Parent)
‘She kept me on the straight and narrow. She told me when I was doing well.’(Parent)
‘The nurse remembered what I had said. She’d read the notes’. (Parent)

Seeing the family as a whole - Both families and staff understand that in order to do the best for children, it is vital to see the family as a whole and pay attention to all the factors that affect it. ‘We never rescue the mother ’ said by a senior manager as she described the repeated damaging behaviour of some mothers.

The following were identified as important:

-       Building trust between parents and workers.
-       Developing a culture that sees family support as being a good and natural thing to access. Several parents commented that often parents do not like to admit that they need some help. Typical parent remarks: ‘He is my son, I should be doing this’. ‘You don’t want to feel you are pestering’. ‘ I was afraid they would take kids away, it stopped me getting help earlier.’
-       Empowering families to make their own decisions.
-       The worker being free to offer enough time at the right time to build the right relationships and respond to issues.

The right practical help – ‘I needed practical things doing and she did them’.
       ‘She gave me practical help with debts. When I have been down she has helped me sort things out’.
       ‘She acted like a sort of research assistant, information and help that she could find out about away from the house.’

This is both powerful in terms of building trusting relationships, particularly where the worker in the first instance responded to what the parent thought was needed. One of the staff focus groups suggested that a ‘joined up’ pot from all agencies’ could be created for this purpose of giving practical help (e.g. childcare and transport). They made the point that the ability to help needed to be immediate and not involve a long drawn out process.

The right time I just got letters from school. They didn’t know him. He started missing school when it was English. I tried to get him tested for dyslexia. Even with (the intervention), it was still a fight at the end.’ (Parent)

Offer help sooner by having lower thresholds to allow earlier intervention. Improve the ability to have an early identification of families that might have problems in the future. Provide preventative work that is client-led. ‘

Taking a positive approach to build resilience – ‘I have always worked, gone to college. I have got a place at Uni. I want to show people.’ (Parent)

Build on and build up the strengths of families with the clear aim of strengthening resilience in families by: developing a family’s own idea of their existing strengths; praising and encouraging positive change; empowering families to do things for themselves

Having a leadership that learns and liberates – The interviews and focus groups demonstrated just how much knowledge, skills, experience ad ideas for improvement lies with families, frontline workers and their managers. There is a huge opportunity to build a flexible, responsive, cost-effective service by drawing on that. The expressed desire was:
-       for a leadership that has a clear authority;
-       builds strategy and policy from families and staff experience and knowledge;
-       notices and rolls out what works;
-       gains the commitment of all services;
-       is able to rationalises interagency working;
-       ensures permanent services that leave fewer gaps. 

The Power of One – From the emerging practice of the lead practitioner, staff and families felt that this could be taken further to included:
- one assessment;
- one strategic plan - achievable outcomes for all and no random acts of intervention;
- one worker - lead practitioner who is accessing services from any agency/sector (anybody);
- one email -that can trigger response from all agencies when needed.

The Power of Many – At the neighbourhood level:

- staff based together wherever possible;
- opportunities for networking to strengthen multi-agency working;
- more support and flexibility from ancillary services e.g. transport /   housing;
- involving children, young people and families in deciding how services should be delivered.

Communicating what services can offer to families and listening to them, honouring their strengths and experiences.

Simpler and smarter bureaucracy – see the Power of One.

Building up a ‘can do’ staff whose skills are valued and respected. Enabling structures that give permission to act, support flexibility and working creatively and provide the right support and training.

The right services  - services that are in the right place, at the right time. Features include:
 holistic drop-in services,
- daily face to face contact,
- one to one,
- group work and
- self help.

Services that are family focused rather than service focused; are proactive rather than reactive; and allow creative and innovative approaches eg 3rd sector approaches. This would include services available at the very local level, with out of hours and some 24/7 cover

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Profoundly simple ways to improve

My current work with people with diabetes and health/social care staff has kept me alert to 'twitter' postings about 'engagement' issues. 

One such post led me to The King's Fund report 'Leadership and Engagement for Improvement in the NHS

''NHS leaders favour ‘pace-setting’ styles focused more on the delivery of targets than engaging patients and staff.

The business case for leadership and engagement is compelling: organisations with engaged staff deliver better patient experience, fewer errors, lower infection and mortality rates, stronger financial management, higher staff morale and motivation and less absenteeism and stress.

Patient engagement can deliver more appropriate care and improved outcomes."

When working with senior public service leaders, I too have noticed just how 'task driven' they are. Their eye is always on the next thing to do.

It is ironic that their proper desire to deliver the best services is undermined by their own busyness. It is doubly ironic that what would improve their ability to deliver better services is right under their noses - the knowledge, experience and ideas of staff and patients (or clients or customers in other settings).

In designing interventions aimed at reducing the number of people with diabetes who lose their sight, I have been working with patients and staff.

If anyone had been listening in to the conversations with the two groups of patients, they would have been surprised by the simplicity of those conversations. Yet the insights that came out are profound. 

I was delighted to have this verified when watching a video Dr Fogg, a Stanford University scientist. He was talking about the psychology of persuasion in behaviour change. His formula exactly matched the insights from the patients' groups. You can read more about this on the blogsite for the work:

So if you can't afford world class academics or consultants to help you improve your business, just listen to your people!


Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Abundant Possibilities

One of the comments that struck me in Peter Diamandis' TED talk, posted in yesterday's blog, was that three billion new minds will become connected to the internet by 2020. Three billion new voices that have never been heard before in the wider world, with the ability to create infinite new possibilities. 

We don't have to wait for 2020 for this phenomenon to materialise. Wherever you look, in workplaces and communities, there are voices that have never been heard beyond families or immediate work teams. Voices belonging to brains that teem with intelligence and ideas for transforming businesses and communities.

One of the joys of my work is to help organisations bring together people from within and without their organisation, to apply their brains together to create new possibilities.

Last week it was 200 people from public services, communities and businesses coming together to explore how they could each contribute to improving the lives of everyone living in a particular local authority area.

We brought our individual stories, thoughts and ideas to bear on the task. These were distilled to create priorities. People brainstormed their ideas for small actions that would make a big difference with current resources. And bold actions that could transform. They then signed up to helping implement those bold ideas.

The Leader of the Council wrote to me afterwards saying that people had said to him how much they appreciated being listened to. They felt that there had been a genuine reaching out to them. 

If this is followed up with support to the people who have signed up to act, then a whole new set of relationships and connections will have been started. New connections that will lead to a whole new world of possibilities.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Abundant Life

Reaching my late fifties, and with a first grandchild's life budding, thoughts of the future abound. Doom and gloom seems to be the forecast for coming generations, particularly in terms of the environment.

This talk from Peter Diamandis at TED 2012 demonstrates my own belief in the capacity of human beings to innovate in ways that will build a positive future - despite the seeming evidence to the contrary. Enjoy!

Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Moving the goalposts

The sense of deja vu described in the last blog, sent me scurrying to retrieve my work notebooks from 1990-1995. In those books are the texts of many of the talks I gave round the country about the impact of poverty. A poverty that was still being felt, and indeed deepening,  in Bradford a decade after the early 1980s recession. The title for this blog came from a section of a talk for a church conference where I was describing the 'poverty of power'. 

I wrote: 'There are few votes in poverty. Yet the impact of political ideology has hit those in impoverished circumstances extremely badly. An example is the 1986 Social Security Act which has caused, and still causes, untold hardship. The very legislation which is meant to provide a safety net, no longer does so. I'd like to tell two stories. The first to illustrate that lack of a safety net; the second to illustrate the feelings of powerlessness experienced by people with few financial resources to cushion them, when politicians move the goalposts....'

The second story that I told at that conference is the one that came to mind when hearing about the planned policy to cap rent and benefit levels in the latest Welfare Bill.

The story concerned one of the young single Mums who was a regular attender at the community project I had helped to found in 1988. Unusually she was one of the few people who had managed to keep her little family out of debt. One day she came to the centre in great distress, clutching a letter that she had received from the local Council, threatening her with eviction for non-payment of the 20% of the Community Charge (commonly known as the Poll Tax). which she like everyone else on benefit was then obliged to pay, regardless of the poverty of their income. 

This debt had occurred because the government had changed the rules. Instead of people on income support (the very baseline benefit that in effect constituted the poverty line in the UK) being exempted from the local tax, everyone now had to contribute at least 20% of that charge. This was in effect a cut in benefit which drove people below the poverty line. Rather than go cold, or hungry, or not replace her children's shoes for the winter, this Mum had defaulted on her Community Charge payment.

An additional misfortune for this Mum was that Bradford at that time had a new Council Leader. He planned to cut the Council Budget by £50m and was determined to reduce the debt that people had with the Council. The Housing Department were expected to issue eviction notices to persistent defaulters. Hence her eviction notice. Through the centre we were able to find the money to write off her debt, but what about all the others without that support?

So there was a single parent, once debt free, and then put into a perilous position because of a change in the national social security legislation and a change of Council Leader. Reader, that Council Leader was Eric Pickles, now Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.

Thirty years on from the brave world of Margaret Thatcher and Eric Pickles 'Thatcher experiment' in local government, we see the goalposts being changed once again. This time it is benefit and rent caps, potentially evicting families from high rent areas of cities. Rents they have no control over, and a policy they cannot influence. 

The House of Lords are doing their best, but as I said yesterday, the Coalition has no fear because their rhetoric of 'unfairness to those hard-working people who pay their taxes' is serving its purpose well. The irony is that the 'hard-working tax payers' will pick up even bigger bills down the line.

 Ideology clearly trumps learning.

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Deja Vu

Photo from 1980s
Over the week-end I found myself caught up in tweet debate that transported me back almost thirty years. It was about the Government's new policy of voluntary work placements for young people who are unemployed. 

Such has been the social media fuss about this proposed policy, that many of the major companies that had signed up to provide the placements, have withdrawn their support.

Twitter is not the best means for nuanced debate. It did
reveal though just how agitated I feel about the government's welfare reform proposals. A horrible sense of deja vu pervades almost every aspect of the proposals.

The Welfare Reform Bill comes back into the House of Lords this week. The Lords has defeated the government several times in their scrutiny of this bill. As Andrew Rawnsley points out in The Observer at the week-end, the government is losing no sleep over this opposition. They are comfortable and confident knowing that there is public support for the hard line they want to take with unemployed people and others who are in receipt of welfare benefits. It seems that hard times breed hard line attitudes - even though everyone is aware that unemployment is high because jobs have gone.

So here we go again, thirty years on, hard line policies that vilify the most vulnerable. Politicians using the rhetoric of fecklessness, setting people against each other. Divide and rule that distracts from the real issue of policies that are hell bent on deficit reduction, not growth, thereby decreasing the chance of job creation. 

Is the answer to the deficit, really to drive those living on the poverty line, below that line? To make homeless, families that live in high rent areas? Families who will go on to cost the state much more money if that homelessness causes instability and dysfunction. To cause people to judge and treat those with disabilities as scroungers? Is that really how we want to live our lives with one another? 

According to a letter from Professor Alan Walker in The Guardian today, out of 27 EU countries, only Estonia has a higher level of poverty amongst unemployed people than the UK. Hard times are bad enough without our being manipulated into bad relationships with one another just to serve political ideology.

Friday, 3 February 2012

Happiness and productivity

A Conservative Councillor friend agreeing with the Labour Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Rachel Reeves? What on earth has united them? Turns out it was an article in The Sun shouting about £8 million being spent on a national well-being survey:

It is easy to take cheap shots at the whole idea of measuring 'happiness' or 'well-being'. Anyone who is tempted to do so, though, may well be missing a trick. Far from being soft, dreamy stuff, it has something of hard-edged economic value to offer as this highly entertaining exposition demonstrates.

Sunday, 29 January 2012

What do self-control & resilience have to do with happiness?

Two pieces in 'The Observer' caught my eye this last week-end.

The first in the book reviews section featured two books on willpower. Maximum Willpower by Kelly McGonigal and 'Willpower' by Roy F. Bauminster  and John Tierney.

It took me back to the early days of my relationship with the man who became my husband. He was impatient to do whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted. He didn't believe in waiting. I used to tease him, applying the psychology I was studying on my course to become a social worker: 'The trouble with you, is that no-one ever taught you at the age of three to defer your gratification!' (Though now he has no trouble in waiting for good wine to mature!)

Well it turns out that the extent to which children are able to defer their gratification at the age of four, is a predictor of future performance. Out of more than thirty personality traits used to compare students, only self-control turned out to be an accurate predictor of grade point average.

Baumeister and Tierney posit: ' Self-control is ultimately about much more than self-help. It's essential for savouring your time on earth and sharing joy with the people you love. People with strong willpower are more altruistic. They are more likely to donate to charity, to do volunteer work and to offer their own homes as shelter to someone with no place to go.' They believe that willpower evolved to help us get along that little bit better with other people. 

Sounds to me like self-control has an important contribution to make to our sense of well-being and happiness.

Which takes me nicely to the second thing to catch my eye. This was a report on Labour's shadow health secretary, Andy Burnham"s warning to the coalition about its 'happiness agenda'. Burnham argued that there needs to be more action to help people cope with the stresses of life. He believes that the priority should be to provide support to help people build up resilience to better withstand hard times.

In fact building resilience and the nurturing of happiness are connected. People can learn to notice the many small good things in everyday life, and to be consciously thankful for them. This in turn builds strength and resilience. There is good evidence of the extent to which people can be taught how to nurture happiness as a way to overcome depression and handle the tough things in life. Have a look at positive psychologists Barbara Fredrickson's research work on positive emotion and Martin Seligman's work on resilience to learn more.

So  I was doubly pleased to get as a freebie with my Sunday paper Tal Ben-Shahar's book 'Happier'. Lots of tactics in there to help me build up my resilience through self-control, altruism and noticing and appreciating all that is good, better  and best in my own life.

Tags: self-control; willpower; resilience; happiness