Community Links

Community Links blog

Where next for the benefit sanctions rollercoaster?

October 21st, 2016

Looking at a graph of benefit sanctions statistics since 2010, it has more in common with a nerve-racking rollercoaster ride than a DWP dataset. For many benefit claimants, that’s exactly what it has been. 

Between 2010 and 2013 the number of sanctions against people claiming Job Seekers Allowance more than doubled, from a rate of 533,000 a year to an eye-watering peak of over one million. Since then they have almost halved, raising the question: why the great rise and fall in sanctions in the space of just a few years and where will they go from here?

Benefit sanctions (where a claimants benefits are reduced or stopped for a period of time) are a pertinent issue for Community Links. Through our delivery of the Work Programme we are obliged to ‘raise doubts’, often leading to claimants being sanctioned, while through our advice services we regularly support clients who have been sanctioned. For many years, Community Links – alongside others in the third sector and academia – has campaigned against the punitive use of sanctions as they have driven many of our service users into destitution and away from the Government’s stated aim of encouraging people into work.

Why the great rise?

In 2010, the Coalition Government’s new Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Iain Duncan Smith, signalled the starting gun in a statement to the House of Commons: “we expect co‐operation from those who are seeking work. That is why we are developing a regime of sanctions for those who refuse to play by the rules.”

The impact was immediate, resulting in more Job Seekers Allowance (JSA) and Employment Support Allowance (ESA) claimants being sanctioned and more people likely to receive multiple sanctions. At the same time sanctions also increased in severity, in terms of length for JSA claimants, and in terms of length and income reduction for ESA.

Adding to this, the numbers of people unfairly sanctioned also increased dramatically. One of our service users, who was strongly work-orientated, explained how powerless and destitute not being able to attend a job interview due to an incorrect decision made her feel.

“I had times when I literally had no food and no gas. I just lay in my bed looking at the walls. I couldn’t travel or make any calls. I couldn’t even afford to get the bus to sign-on, but I knew that if I didn’t go I’d be suspended again. It’s like a vicious cycle. I turned up to the Jobcentre actually hungry. I hadn’t eaten for two days and I was scared that if I was five minutes late they might suspend me again – it really wasn’t easy.”

The increased numbers of claimants being sanctioned for failing to participate in training and employment support – largely via the Work Programme – had a significant impact on the overall rise in sanctions, and in 2014 this accounted for 31% of all sanction decisions. Another factor attributed to the rise was the DWP raising its off-flow targets (the removal of claimants from the unemployment register) for Jobcentres. Although the Government has repeatedly stated that sanctions targets do not exist and that they are only imposed as a “last resort”, there have been numerous reported incidences of Jobcentre staff being put under pressure to impose financial penalties on benefit claimants in order to meet staff performance standards.

And then the fall?

As with the unprecedented rise, Government have never provided a clear explanation for the precipitous fall in JSA sanctions since their peak in 2013. The fall in JSA claimants (dropping 49% between 2013 and 2015 due to the labour market recovery) obviously had a large part to play.  However, the monthly rate of sanctions as a proportion of JSA claimants has also halved during this period, suggesting a significant change in policy.

Other key factors influencing the downward trend have been a reduction in referrals of claimants to the Work Programme and the growing number of claimants being transferred from JSA to Universal Credit (UC), for which sanctions statistics are not yet available.

Whilst the continued demise of sanctions is welcome, and the work of charities and others who influenced this change should be commended, they still cause untold hardship and misery, even if it is for a smaller number of claimants. For many of our clients, a sanction means going hungry, being unable to heat their home, and in some cases not being able to afford the bus fare to meet a Jobcentre advisor in order to find work.

The future of sanctions

The noises from the new Government indicate a potentially more constructive approach to social security. The new Work and Pensions Secretary, Damian Green, has said that there will be ‘no new search for cuts in individual welfare benefits’, and has scrapped reassessments for chronically-ill disabled people seeking to claim ESA. His predecessor had already introduced a “warning period” for those facing a sanction. However, this does not mean that the rollercoaster that many of our most vulnerable service users have been on will not rise again.

A commitment to no new cuts in welfare benefits could in itself be an incentive for Government to seek cost savings through increasing benefit ‘off-flows’ and hence increasing sanction rates. The introduction of in-work conditionality in Universal Credit (UC) and the new Work and Health Programme will introduce new sources of sanctions in the coming years, though it’s still unclear the balance it will adopt between support and punishment.

Community Links will continue to make the case for sanctions to only be used as a last option. In submissions to the Work and Pensions Committee and National Audit Office we have continued our call for a full evidence-based review of the sanctions regime, as well as asking the DWP to provide a clear rationale for applying conditionality to UC claimants in work. We believe that the focus of any regime should be about supporting people into sustainable and fulfilling employment, rather than ensuring compliance, which too often results in destitution on the one hand, or forcing people into unsuitable, low paid insecure work on the other.

Dr David Webster, October 2016, Explaining the rise and fall of JSA and ESA sanctions 2010-16

The Second Revolution

October 19th, 2016

The driver of the 214 bus last night greeted us warmly, stepped off the bus to help a passenger who was partially sighted, roared with laughter when he played the recorded message that says “no standing up stairs” and then explained the joke (you had to be there, the 214 is a single decker), thanked us for travelling on his bus and, at the end of the route, wished us all a safe journey home.  As we motley strangers traipsed round from Finsbury Square to Liverpool street station we talked about what a nice man he was and said good night to one another.  The driver of the 214 had built a community in five bus stops.

Of course all this was very trivial and transitory, but I don’t suppose I am the only passenger who has wondered today how different life might be if all our routine interactions were infused with such humour and humanity.

As it happens I had been reading on the bus Gaby Hinsliff’s Guardian piece about the “Internet of Things”. Her sub-heading had tempted me in: “We are a generation struggling to look after elderly relatives. Maybe technology can ease the load?”

The internet of things is essentially the networking of everyday devices, already allowing the uber cool to start boiling the kettle before they get home and the fridge to order more milk when the bar code isn’t showing on its shelves.  The same kind of technology might be used to send out a message if an elderly relative hasn’t followed their usual routine.  Hinsliff imagines how useful this might be in a world where the “harassed care worker has 15 minutes to get you fed or bathed or dressed but not all three” and where “the state simply can’t guarantee to look after older people in any half-decent manner and nor in many cases can their children”.

Hinsliff isn’t wrong about the children, or the state or the harassed care worker but surely if we think smart white goods are the answer here then we haven’t understood the roots or the dimensions of the crisis. In recent years technology has swept into every corner of our lives. Every transaction is automated from paying the rent to fixing a doctors appointment. Social media has redefined our understanding of friendship. We have limitless virtual networks but fewer real friends. Those we do have are likely to be scattered and distant. We network but we don’t relate. Our organisations and our social systems are more efficient but less human. We are more atomised and automated, more comfortable with technology but more remote from one another.  We spend 10 hours or more, every day, looking at a screen.

The internet and all that it has spawned are wonderful things transforming our lives in many positive ways but they are just that – things, not a replacement for human relationships.  Our generation is allowing technological progress to become so disconnected from social progress that we are rapidly approaching the point where the damage it does will exceed the good that it serves.

We are not the first to reach this kind of disjunction. The industrial revolution is the obvious comparison. It wasn’t only about entirely new ways of working but also about entirely new ways of living. At first the essentially rural population struggled to adapt but in time our great great grandparents began to learn how to embrace and exploit the advantages of industrial progress and  how to manage and redress the disadvantages.  This, the second, social revolution, was no less seismic and significant in the evolution of our society than its industrial predecessor.

This is not a silly plea for the techies to slow down. It is a hurry up call for the second revolution. Every pound that is spent on the universities, the industries, the speculative punts that are driving the technology should be matched by another. These funds should be dedicated to reimagining the world in the light of our enhanced capacities and to directing the revolutionary forces in ways which don’t undermine our essential humanity but which value, sustain and develop it.

If we don’t, and if it is to be only the kettle that notices when I am dying at home on my own, I think I might prefer to be left to get on with it.

What do Community Links and the punk movement have in common?

October 17th, 2016

Community Links is turning 40 in 2017. That means we’re a few months younger than the punk movement, whose 40th anniversary is currently being celebrated. 

While Community Links may admittedly have little in common with the Sex Pistols, the beliefs animating this charity’s founders and the rather more legendary Sid Vicious were rooted in the same decade of forgotten industrial peripheries and broken ideals that followed the 1960s, with their passionate rejection of postwar injustice, their popular struggles, the widespread student demonstrations and all the local-yet-global mass protests. The ultimate goal of this – then small – group of activists from east London might have been justice for all rather than a rebellious call for anarchy in the UK, but the irreverence and DIY ethos animating some of the first actions organised by Community Links had perhaps something to share with the ripped-up T-shirts and gravity-defying mohawks that still define the punk era.

“With £360 we bought an aging Routemaster, unscrewed the seats, sold them, bought art supplies, knocked in some benches and a couple of moveable tables,” remembers David Robinson of those early years. The bus could soon be seen parked on council estates around Newham, as a diverse group of community workers, activists and volunteers entertained children, listened to people and gave advice. When, in the early 1980s, the tower blocks campaign was set up in collaboration with local residents who were tired of being isolated in low-quality, high-rise forms of social housing that tended to sway in the wind, the loudspeaker became Community Links’ most prized possession; leaflets and other campaigning material were hand-drawn, glued together and published as zines; and protest strategies also included gathering a group of people, having them dress up as cardboard blocks and shout loudly, at the demolition of two high-rise estates, “2 down, 107 to go!”

Radical beliefs and radical action required radical means. If the system wasn’t working, the only way to escape alienation was to go back to the roots, back to the people, back to the community. To do something radical yourself. To do-it-yourself.

A lot has changed since then. Forty years are a long time for a human life, let alone in the existence of an organisation. The Greater London Council, Europe, Thatcherism, Gordon Brown and the coalition meant doors were opened then shut abruptly; that funding abounded then was hard to come by. Community Links has indeed grown then shrunk again, but that initial DIY sensitivity still pervades it – though it’s expressed in different styles, ways and forms. The work on how third sector organisations should live their values, published in the mid 2000s, is one such example: “It was produced as a report,” says Richard McKeever, who oversaw much of Community Links’ editorial output through the years, “but it has a toolkit at the back. It’s go-and-do-it-yourself stuff.” Not too different from some of those early National Tower Blocks Directories, which included constructive stories of empowerment and how-to guides on a wide range of topics, from getting rid of cockroaches to regenerating green spaces on high-rise estates.

And it’s precisely these local stories, these ground-up perspectives, these simple human insights into complex social issues that have characterised the work of Community Links since 1977, while the political context has continued to change around. Gone are the days when the charity resembled more a spontaneous movement than a mainstream organisation, and the same is true for punk – which last summer was curated into exhibitions at the British Fashion Council and the British Library. But structural definitions aside, the imagination of those who’ve participated in both likely remains the same. It remains radical; it remains open to rejecting and reinterpreting the system as a whole if needed; it remains focused on the acquired awareness that alternative – and sometimes more effective – solutions can be found in the pragmatic knowledge of local communities. That’s why Community Links has never ceased to gather stories, amplify the voices of the disempowered, propose constructive narratives, bring local people in touch with Downing Street, and Downing Street in touch with Newham. And that’s also why we’ve been working, for the past five months, on a book that will hopefully act as a collection of thoughts, recollections and learning narrated through the voices of some of the people who have interacted with Community Links for the past four decades. To inspire, despite the adverse context stifling most changemakers today, a different policy framework. A systemic, go-and-do-it-yourself type of framework.

The book will be released next year, in time for our 40th anniversary celebrations. Keep checking this blog for updates!

Is mental illness the “Great Stink” of our times?

October 10th, 2016

Last week, we argued that investment in social infrastructure is equally important as investing in physical infrastructure for our economy. Today, on World Mental Health Day, it seems appropriate to explore how early action can be applied to mental health – and how this can create better outcomes and deliver significant savings too.

The ‘Great Stink’ of London. Image by David Holt.

Since the 19th century, the government has recognised the benefit of investing in public health. The “Great Stink” of 1858 led Victorian reformers to make the case for investing in public sewage systems – physical infrastructure that enabled healthier lifestyles and reduced the significant costs of disease. These reformers recognised that poor public health not only had a terrible human cost, it was also bad for the economy as people were less able to work.

Today, we are facing a comparable situation in mental health. Mental health problems represent the largest single cause of disability in the UK, affecting one in four adults and costing the economy around £105 billion a year – roughly the cost of the entire NHS. Yet mental health budgets in the NHS and Public Health remain low, and despite mental health gaining increasing prominence in the public realm there still seems to be little recognition from other sectors that mental health is also their concern.

We’re making the argument for society to act earlier – by acting before mental illness occurs and stepping in quickly when problems arise – ensuring people are ready to both deal with setbacks and seize opportunities for flourishing lives. We’ve realised that many of the broad tenets of early action can be applied specifically to mental health, some of which are outlined below.

Make mental health everyone’s responsibility

A key ingredient for effective early action is breaking down siloes and promoting ‘joined-up’ services. To ensure that support is provided at the right time it is crucial that mental health is seen as everyone’s responsibility – embedded at every scale and in every activity. Whether it’s by placing talking therapies within the community like Haringey Thinking Space, taking mental health into schools like Mancroft Advice Project, or addressing mental health in the workplace like happier@work, it is clear that extending mental health beyond the health sector enables earlier action to support people’s positive mental wellbeing. We are not arguing here that all service professionals, for example, should be experts in mental illness and therefore able to deal with acute mental distress: that is the remit of referral routes and specialist services. However, we are saying that everyone should have some understanding of good mental health, ensuring that those who don’t qualify for specialist support aren’t neglected until they reach the point of crisis.

Focus on transitions throughout the life course

In our previous early action work, we’ve talked about the need to focus on transitions throughout the life course. Some of these transitions are universal, such as starting school or work, or facing retirement, whilst others are experienced by particular groups, such as leaving care, having a child, or leaving prison. People can be particularly vulnerable at these transition points if they are not prepared for them, and this can negatively affect their mental health. Ensuring people are prepared to face these transitions not only means they are resilient to such shocks, but also that they are ready to seize opportunities when they arise. Not only can this deliver savings as people are less likely to suffer mental health problems, it can also stimulate growth in the economy – as Cliff Prior argued in our blog series, a Question of Growth, with regards to supporting people back into work.

Make ‘deep value’ relationships central to delivering services

Whilst researching for our case study gallery, we have constantly been hearing about the importance of long-term, trusting, and compassionate relationships between service providers and recipients – what we call ‘deep value’ relationships. This can take a variety of forms, such as the peer-mentoring undertaken by SOS Project or the long-term relationships that Includem builds with young people. It appears that these type of relationships make interventions more effective because they have the underlying benefit of improving people’s mental wellbeing, often relating to their confidence and self-esteem. Tellingly, the standards for ‘enabling environments’ created by the Royal College of Psychiatrists to promote positive mental wellbeing in any setting, including schools, hospitals and prisons, state that the ‘nature and quality of relationships are of primary importance’.

The case for early action on mental health

It appears that we are facing our own version of the “Great Stink” today, as the public increasingly recognises the crucial importance of positive mental health and the current crisis in mental health care. We believe that an early action perspective on mental health presents the moral and economic case for investment, and the themes above indicate the beginnings of what our social infrastructure could look like.

We’ll be building on this work in our upcoming themed paper on mental health, following on from ‘Secure and Ready’ and ‘Looking Forward to Later Life’. The series aims to provoke new ways of thinking and acting earlier, beyond just the realm of experts already working in and around the topic. To support this aim, we are exploring mental health through the settings of education, work, money, housing, communities, and criminal justice. If you would like to discuss the report further with us, or you have any interesting case studies you think we should feature, please do get in touch.

Acting early this Breast Cancer Awareness Month

October 5th, 2016

“If Julie hadn’t detected her cancer early what would have been the cost? Not just to the NHS, but the loss of income to her family, let alone the human cost of her suffering. She worked full time, had a family, two children and a partner. What would have happened to them?”

Community Links Health Projects Manager, Frances Clarke, knows all too well the importance of detecting cancer early. This is a particularly pertinent issue in Newham, which has some of the worst cancer survival rates in the country, with only half of women over 50 in the borough attending breast cancer screening, compared with almost three-quarters of women for the rest of England.

In 2010 Community Links decided to take tackle these unacceptable figures, and establish two new programmes dedicated to Detecting Cancer Early. The first telephones people at risk to persuade them to attend screenings, as letter invitations and other reminder services weren’t working. The second acts even earlier by going into schools to explain the signs and symptoms of cancer, the importance of self-examining, and to encourage students to raise awareness with their parents.

A culturally sensitive calling and health advocacy service

Our calling project contacts women five to seven days before a breast screening appointment. Team members can speak a variety of languages and have a detailed knowledge of their local communities. It began as a reminder service, but soon evolved into health advocacy, as callers recognised that people were often unaware of screening services or had practical reasons stopping them from attending. Now callers reschedule appointments, give house-to-clinic travel directions and tell people about local services if they are carers. Funded by NHS England, the breast screening project now reaches 20,000 women every year, working in Camden and Newham.

Working with children and parents in schools

Our schools project has raised awareness of breast and lung cancer in eight schools in Newham. It’s different because rather than visiting for one-off lessons, it works with staff to embed the project into school activities over the long-term. It runs field trips for pupils to see cancer screening and interactive peer-led health lessons with cancer survivors, incorporates cancer awareness into other lessons, and spreads its message through newsletters, displays and social media, engaging parents at performance and parents’ evenings.

Increasing awareness, uptake of screening, and self-checking

The screening project increased women’s uptake of breast screening by 15% in consecutive years, whilst the schools project found that girls’ knowledge of breast cancer symptoms increased by 58% and by 54% among mums. The number of mums who self-check monthly also rose to 46% and their awareness of local screening services increased by a third.

This dual approach demonstrates that everyday social interactions, a friendly phone call or family conversation can literally save lives by encouraging early detection. Frances Clarke said “we’re saving people’s lives immediately, but we’re also giving people skills for life to continue self-examining and spreading information to the generations above and the generations below. Grounded in Community Links core principles of early action and deep value relationships, this approach also reduces demand on already overstretched NHS cancer services, freeing up vital resources for those who need it most.

With Breast Cancer Awareness Month upon us again, it is more important than ever to focus our energies on practical early action solutions to beat breast cancer.  Our ‘Detecting Cancer Early’ programme is just one of many early action projects that we are featuring in our online case study gallery.

‘A country that works for everyone’ requires investment in our social infrastructure

October 4th, 2016

The government’s new mantra, ‘a country that works for everyone’, was the central theme of the Chancellor’s speech at the Conservative party conference yesterday. However, whilst his analysis of why we voted for Brexit – “large parts of our country feel left behind” – and the uncertainty it evokes was convincing, his answers to these problems were less so.

In contrast to many other commentators, I was left with a feeling of déjà vu after watching his speech. True, he seems less keen on blindly pursuing austerity than his predecessor and perhaps more amenable to increasing investment, but the apparent focus of this potential investment drive remains similar to George Osborne’s; Hammond signalled that it would largely comprise of “targeted public investment in high value [physical] infrastructure”. However, as we argued following the previous Chancellor’s Spending Review last year, it would be a wasted opportunity to invest in physical infrastructure alone.

A missed opportunity

If this government truly wants to deliver “an economy that works for everyone… not just for today, but for future generations too” then we must also increase investment in our country’s social infrastructure. This can be anything from enabling children to be ready for school, to ensuring that people who leave prison are provided with jobs, friends and houses to prevent them from re-offending. Alongside important physical and economic infrastructures this is what will yield the greatest amount of prosperity, as argued by many contributors to our A Question of Growth blog series earlier this year (a summary of which you can read here. In the language of the Early Action Task Force: investing wisely and early in social wellbeing yields a triple dividend: thriving lives, costing less, and contributing more.

To date previous governments have consistently failed to deliver on this front, but with the delayed time-frame for implementing austerity we now have the perfect opportunity to ensure that this government does not follow the same path.

Investing in society

It is clear that the Chancellor has already decided he wants to invest more, so now the fundamental question is in what? In his speech he rightly celebrated the potential for a long term vision enabled by the creation of the National Infrastructure Commission, the remit of which is to “prioritise and plan… test value for money… [and] ensure that every penny spent on infrastructure is properly targeted to deliver maximum benefit”. It is just a shame that this is narrowly focused on physical infrastructure alone.

It would be a bold yet sensible to widen its remit or set up a whole new commission on early action investment: identifying those areas where investment in our nation’s social infrastructure could yield the greatest returns and then ensuring that money is available to enable individuals and communities to reach their potential. This is the only way that the new government can deliver a “strong, prosperous economy” that “works for everyone”, addressing those all-important ‘burning injustices’ identified by the Prime Minister in her inaugural speech.

Partnership success that builds brighter futures for young people

September 29th, 2016

Last night Community Links and our corporate partners Bank of New York Mellon won the Corporate Community Local Involvement Charity Times Award for our Future Links employability programme.

Since 2009 this fantastic project has enabled hundreds of young people furthest from the labour market to develop the necessary skills to progress into work or further education, with 85% of our graduates moving into a positive destination.

Our CEO, Arvinda Gohil, who attended the awards, said:

“I am delighted at this result, many congratulations and well done to everyone who was involved and continues to be involved in this great partnership. My particular thanks and congratulations to the young people who have participated in this programme and made it such a success over the last 8 years.”        

Key to the programme’s success is the longstanding partnership and support of our corporate sponsor BNY Mellon. Long-term partnerships with companies are invaluable to organisations like Community Links, enabling us to plan ahead, build our sustainability and innovate. This national recognition of the strong local partnership we’ve developed provides an opportunity to reflect on what’s key to a successful relationship between a charity and a company.

Future Links supports young people aged between 16-19 years old who live in Newham and who are not in education, employment or training (NEET). The training is focused on building the confidence, resilience, networks and skills of our young people and supporting them through the job application process. Alongside being the sole funder of Future Links, BNY Mellon plays an important role in the programme delivery. Participants visit their offices twice during each 10 week course – receiving support from employees with their CVs and interview skills and attending a graduation celebration at the end.

Future Links success would not be possible without the support of BNY Mellon and our skilled and committed programme staff, who dedicate so much time, energy and enthusiasm to the young people they work with. At the end of the day, Future Links’ success is a reflection on the hundreds of young people who have worked so hard over the years, and who have built brighter futures for themselves, their families and their communities.

Karting Challenge raises over £13,500 for Community Links

September 27th, 2016

The 21st annual Community Links Karting Challenge took place at Team Sport, Docklands on 21st September, raising over £13,500 to support Community Links.

Eight teams consisting of 37 drivers from corporate firms across London competed in a two-hour endurance race to raise important funds for our charity. Teams from companies including Morgan Stanley, Thames Water, Henderson and Investec took on Team Sport’s 800m track to complete the most laps and win the endurance race.

This year’s winners were Morgan Stanley’s IT team who came top of the board for both the top fundraisers and the fastest driving team.

Since its inception, the annual Community Links Karting Challenge has teamed up over 1,500 individuals from 35 organisations and raised more than £425,000 for Community Links.

Ian Robinson, Head of Fundraising at Community Links said: “The Karting Challenge is Community Links biggest in-house fundraising event and it is a fantastic night to bring together some of our closest supporters.”

“We are overwhelmed with the incredible amount all teams have raised this year and deeply grateful for the support we receive from companies and their employees to tackle poverty in east London. These funds will enable us to continue helping individuals overcome crisis and create opportunities for disadvantaged people.”

Oli Bage, Executive Director Technology and Data, Morgan Stanley said: “Since 2002 Morgan Stanley have been competing in Community Link’s annual karting challenge. We are passionate about competing on the track, but even more passionate about raising important funds for the critical work that Community Links does in our local community. They really make a difference to people’s lives, and it is great to feel part of their team for the evening.”

Champions of the Shengha

September 26th, 2016

You could be looking at  the game Champions of the Shengha and the book “Change the world for a fiver” for quite some time before you noticed any connection. That is exactly how we would want it to be.

Both are bright, attractive and original products highly competitive and desirable in their own markets but there is more: both are explicitly designed to drive positive behaviour change, to influence social and cultural norms and to help prevent complex, expensive problems.

The first was a little book that reached number 3 in the Sunday Times best seller list and sold over one million copies in 2004. It was effectively 50 public service announcements presented in a style that was modern, engaging, irreverent, challenging and fun. It was produced by the then new Community Links project called We Are What We Do and was probably the first consumer product explicitly designed to “nudge” – to change behaviour but not through threat or exhortation. Steve Hilton was one of the volunteers who helped with the creative work. He was so inspired by the idea that when he rocked up at No 10 as David Cameron’s principal adviser six years later he established, in Downing Street, the government’s own Behavioural Change Unit

The equally successful and ground breaking “I’m not a plastic bag” designer tote bag followed – a collaboration with market leader Anya Hindmarch. Gradually our learning and thinking advanced and the products and the process became more subtle and sophisticated.  The project became an independent social enterprise applying a, by now, well tested  and rigorous research, design and venture building process to issues like mental illness, poor diets, social isolation and energy inefficiency. We Are What We Do changed its name to Shift, I am still the chair and Champions of the Shengha is our latest offering.

We have been developing “Champions” through our purpose built BfB Labs. Here we have been pioneering emotionally responsive gaming as a way to increase resilience to mental health problems amongst young people. After 3 years of R&D, we are launching our first product today. Champions of the Shengha, trains and rewards players for controlling their emotional state. This is tracked through a unique wireless wearable device which we call the BfB Sensor. Our recent independent clinical trial on the game not only showed that participants loved playing it, but that it could effectively train emotional regulation skills and that the young people quickly started to apply these skills in their everyday lives.

We think the game is groundbreaking and the potential is huge. Online gaming is an enormous market. Many of the existing games are compelling, even addictive. Clear and uncontested evidence shows that regular playing of these games affects our behaviour and damages our mental health particularly in the vulnerable adolescent years. Champions of the Shenga doesn’t just mitigate these dangers it turns them upside down – it is also compelling and fun and commercially competitive but it builds rather than reduces the players emotional resilience and it improves rather than damages their mental health.

We are launching Champions through crowdfunding on Indiegogo  today. It may all seem a long way from Community Links and a funny little book but its roots are here and its purpose is our purpose. Please take a look at  Indiegogo, join us if you possibly can and be sure to spread the word.

Love, trust and the teachable moment

September 20th, 2016

Three months ago today politicians were united across the normal divides in paying tribute to Jo Cox, their murdered colleague. I doubt whether the word “love” has been used in the House of Commons as many times in the entire lifetime of a government as it was in that single afternoon. Love was, they agreed, Ms Cox’s defining characteristic, love of family and friends, love of constituency and colleagues, love of humanity.

Listening to the tributes I was reminded of a phrase used by our health worker colleagues. They talk about “teachable moments” – the period immediately after a scare or a near miss, a cancer alarm, an illness affecting someone we know –  a time when we are most likely to respond to messages about changing our behaviour because we have been shocked into a new  perspective. These are the moments when the truly important breaks through our casual acceptance of routines, conventions and mindless habit. How often have we all heard people at funerals or memorial services say “it makes you think about what really matters”?  Perhaps we have said it ourselves.

Briefly and optimistically I thought those last days of June were national  “moments” and that the awful shock of the murder might jolt politicians, and more broadly our national discourse, into a new appreciation of love and trust.

I was heartened at the time because I thought it showed a common acceptance that love should be the guiding principle at the heart of public life, public services and public discourse even if articulating the idea and acting on it is potentially awkward, sensitive and complex.  The quality and depth of human relationships, not the efficacy of the transaction, determine the value of the outcome. The transfer of knowledge or the delivery of a service may create the necessary conditions for progress but it is the special attributes  of the human bond that  console and strengthen, that nourish confidence, inspire self esteem, unlock potential, erode inequality and so have the power to transform. This is what we at Community Links calls the “deep value” in a successful relationship. It is not just about the spending of time but also about, in the words of  Cicely Saunders, “the depth of time.”

What, in practise, might this mean?

For government it means devolving power not only to cities and regions, thats just a beginning, but to the smallest viable unit of delivery. None of us feel human in organisations where everyone is just a number, and often a very long one. Policy makers used to talk about “double devolution” – from Whitehall to City hall, then from City Hall to neighbourhoods and communities. The phrase, and the practise, seems to have been forgotten in the most recent, welcome but inadequate, wave of half measures. It should be recalled.

For public service agencies, in all sectors,  it means conditions and protocols that recognise the primacy of the human interaction in all that they do, prioritising staff discretion and autonomy, systematising the consistency and stability of the client / provider relationships, planning ample time for relationship building and rigorously and  unambiguously separating  policing and supporting.

And for individual workers and small teams it means a clear set of competencies that can be articulated, taught, managed , appraised and replicated just like any other essential skill.

These would be ambitious and wide ranging changes, collectively revolutionary, but they all begin with having the maturity to talk about love and trust, the insight to understand its importance and the courage to design it into legislation, to services, to organisational processes and to our national discourse, not, as so often today, to very deliberately design it out.

Occasionally a debate in the House of Commons captures a public mood and elevates it. June 20th was such a moment. We share a responsibility to preserve the opportunity that it gave us, to nurture the new perspectives that it revealed and, step by step, to be directed less by custom and practise, rigid convention, unthinking adherence to rules and rote and guided more by our better angels.



This piece first appeared on : A Better Way –  the blog  of a new network of social activists challenging business as usual, improving services, and building  strong communities.