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Fake relationships and Revolution 3.2

Monday, February 13th, 2017

The launch of the Jo Cox Loneliness Commission a couple of weeks ago attracted more media attention than might be expected for such an event. No doubt this was largely due to the appalling circumstances of its genesis: Ms Cox was deeply concerned about the issue and was planning the commission at the time of her murder. MPs Rachel Reeves and Seema Kennedy are now carrying forward the work that she began.

However I don’t think the tragic association accounts for all the attention: As I have written previously, at least one in five Brits are lonely often or all of the time. Loneliness is a twenty first century  plague and although almost all the press coverage over the last two weeks has focused on  older people this is, as I noted a couple of weeks ago, a misleading emphasis.  Study after study has shown that no age or social group is immune.


We have been thinking about the early action contribution to this conversation. Our Early Action in Later Life report stirred passions in 2014 with the assertion that “befriending schemes are to social isolation what food banks are to poverty”.

We meant no disrespect to befriending schemes or to Food Banks, both are an essential response to a crisis, but neither, on their own, offer a long term solution. Alongside the remedial work we need a deeper, longer term approach to redressing the causes of loneliness.  Just as we must ask “why are so many people hungry?” and tackle those issues, so too must we ask “why are so many people lonely?” and confront the causes

This takes us into the wider issue of social isolation which we need to address not only to beat loneliness but also to boost educational performance, enhance economic opportunity and social mobility, reduce health inequalities, improve social cohesion and indeed do almost everything that really matters.

And, far from making progress on social isolation, we are not even moving in the right direction. Instead we are, as Alvin Toffler wrote, “experiencing the dizzying disorientation brought on by the premature arrival of the future”.  Our every transaction is now automated from paying the rent to fixing a doctor’s appointment. Social media has redefined our understanding of friendship. We have limitless virtual networks but fewer real friends. Those that we do have are likely to be scattered and distant. We network but we don’t relate. And we have devalued our understanding of the concept of “relationships” to the point where I travel to Birmingham and Virgin Trains assure me that they “value our relationship”.

Fake relationships are as ubiquitous in 2017, and just as insidious, as fake news.

Across the sweep of history this sequence is not unfamiliar. First the agrarian, then the industrial revolutions disrupted social patterns and called for new ways of behaving individually and collectively. Social change followed but it took a while. Now we are again in the catch up phase. Part 3.2 as it were, of the technological revolution that has so transformed our lives in recent years.

We have to tackle the scourge of social isolation by fixing the cause. To do that we must begin with a two part question:

First, what is a real relationship?  I think it is one that nourishes with depth and meaning.  It is between people, possibly facilitated by a machine or an organisation but not with a machine or an organisation. And it is about more than kindness or reciprocity, empathy or solidarity although it is all these things. It may be closest to what in Africa is known as Ubuntu – “my humanity is inextricably bound up in yours. We belong in a bundle of life” Desmond Tutu.

And then, what is a real 21st century relationship? We can’t rewind the clock even if we wanted to. Our generation’s big challenge is to fathom out how we use and benefit from the recent advances in ways which don’t devalue our essential humanity but which value, sustain and enrich it.

Voluntary organisations like ours don’t have all the pressing mandatory duties of a statutory authority. We have the freedom, and with the freedom a responsibility, to try to understand not just how we manage or ameliorate a problem but how we build a better society. I’m not sure what Revolution 3.2 should look like but I do think  we should try to free the space to think about it not least because, as Dr Toffler also said, You’ve got to think about big things while you’re doing small things, so that all the small things go in the right direction.”

Let there be hope

Monday, December 19th, 2016

“So this is Christmas, what have we done?”

We entered 2016 with business leaders predicting economic recovery but with austerity still pounding through the public realm, with local authorities particularly in our most hard pressed areas confronting impossible choices and anticipating imminent crises for social care and other essential services, with further deep cuts in the voluntary sector, closures and redundancies almost inevitable and with more evident and abject poverty than at any time in my working life.

Then it got worse. 7 million people in the UK are now officially poor despite being part of a working family. Even the Governor of the Bank of England talks about the “growing sense of isolation and detachment” and “the first lost decade since the 1860s”. He may be overstating the good news. According to the independent Institute for Fiscal Studies, we are living through the worst period for real earnings growth since the Napoleonic Wars. Here in the Olympic borough of Newham, 34% of the borough’s residents now earn less than the living wage – an increase of 10% since 2010 despite exceptional investment and development. Remember when we thought that Food Banks were for another country and another time?

The numbers are grim but the shift in attitudes is worse. Late last night I bought paracetamol at the little shop down the road. “39 years in the UK and I’ve never had a cold” said the owner. I hoped she wouldn’t catch mine. “No chance” she said “even the germs in London don’t like us now.”

Thirty nine years, the living embodiment of contributing citizens and a hard working family and “even the germs don’t like us now”. The creeping acceptance that it is okay to discriminate and openly despise may not yet be a crisis but the “bend to justice” in Martin Luther King’s arc of the moral universe has swerved wildly and worryingly in the UK and across the world.

“Another year over, a new one just begun”

I understand why friends tell me that they turn off the TV news. Lately I’ve started to do that too and it scares me more than anything. We have work to do and, difficult though it may seem to be, we must embrace the New Year as another chance, a chance to rediscover hope. Here’s how:

1) You have your special power, use it:

Building a more connected, humane and supportive society isn’t just about money or organisations or governments or global movements. In fact it mainly isn’t. People change lives, one to one, and we can all do that today, person to person, from where we are with what we’ve got. Social isolation and the consequential fear, distrust and misery is a modern epidemic but one that we can personally attack. It is our special power. Do the human things that only you can do.

2) Organise in new ways:

Charities are important but not necessarily the same organisational structures in the same configurations as we have today. Community Links, the organisation with which I have been associated all my working life, has, like many in our sector, shrunk significantly in recent years. As I noted last summer on this blog “we would like to think that when we stop doing things it is either because the job has been completed or because someone else has found a better way of doing it. I realise with a heavy heart that neither apply in this situation”.

After nigh on forty years I feel this personally and painfully but times change and an unforgiving future holds no special refuge for unchanging institutions Far better to rethink, regroup, organise ourselves in new ways and renew the charge than surrender to sentiment.

Rigid tribal structures in our politics must be similarly interrogated. The most widely read progressive blog, Labour List, surveyed the wreckage of Labour’s share of the vote in the Richmond by election and concluded “it was a tough night for Labour but we have no choice other than to fight on for the causes in which we believe”. Really, not a moment of doubt and self-reflection? On a night when Labour hung on to less than 4% of the vote and when the decision of the Green Party, to withdraw its own candidate, was arguably critical to the narrow defeat of a sitting MP who had deliberately driven division with a singularly poisonous mayoral campaign, just six months earlier? This isn’t just about Labour. Across the party spectrum it is time for all of us who care about social progress to organise ourselves in new ways, work together better and worry most about getting the job done, least about who gets the credit.

3) Double down on speaking up:

The global banking crisis wasn’t the wake-up call I thought it might have been. Maybe Brexit will be. The vote wasn’t just a hammering for the political class or even for the business establishment but also for everybody else who never saw it coming. If the impending disentanglement is not informed by a better understanding of the needs of the most disadvantaged it won’t end well for any of us. It is time to speak louder and help other voices to be heard.

With important exceptions, civil society has been losing its voice in recent years. Time was when councils would be ceaselessly implored to not set a rate that couldn’t sustain essential services, when a Wednesday night TV play about one homeless family could spark national and transformational outrage and when charities were expected to disturb as well as to comfort. Now Food Banks are the response to hunger at home, not a Poor People’s March on Parliament, and as some of our most disadvantaged communities begin to feel the loss of European funding or the withdrawal of rights enshrined in EU law I wonder if there won’t be at least some charities in 2017 regretting their fearful silence in the referendum.

Never was there a greater need to educate and influence, to persuade and cajole, to make the case for fairness and justice and, yes, to take on the consequences. Speaking out whenever we have the opportunity in 2017 is not an alternative to practical pragmatic action, both are necessary, but, to again quote Dr King, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter”.

4) Tell the story:

Austerity, Brexit and the American election were triumphs for the most effective story tellers if not the best stories. “Stories” wrote Ben Okri “are our secret reservoir of values. Change the stories individuals and nations live by and tell themselves and we change the individuals and the nations”.

Two kinds of tales nourish optimism – some of the here and now, some of the future. We need to reclaim the dominant line on both, to talk more in the New Year about what we can become with decent wages, decent homes, humane services, kindness for strangers, support for one another, the embrace of opportunities and we need to root this big forward looking story in the hundreds of thousands of little ones about all that we do well now but seldom celebrate.

5) Reclaim Hope in 2017:

I think we are a better society than we have often appeared to be in 2016 and I think a lot of other people think that too. It’s time to do the human things that only we can do. Change the ways we organise and work together. Speak out. Tell the stories. Most of all, because despair ne’er buttered any parsnips, own the promise of the future in 2017, reclaim hope and never let it go.

Champions of the Shengha

Monday, 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.

Our Talent Match Youth Mentor is a Vlogstar finalist

Friday, July 1st, 2016

Earlier this year, we hosted Media Trust for an exciting vlogging workshop for 18-25 year olds across our programmes. After months of workshops and presentations with over 1000 young people from 75 youth organisations, Media Trust’s panel selected our Talent Match Senior Mentor, Fateha Begum as a finalist for the Vlogstar Challenge.  

The Vlogstar Challenge, is a campaign run by Media Trust and the Jack Petchey Foundation, in partnership with YouTube and the Evening Standard. As part of the challenge, young people from London and Essex are trained in creating, shooting and editing video blogs using their smartphones. The aim of the challenge is to inspire and motivate young people to have their voices heard highlighting their positive contributions to society.

After participating in the workshop, four young people from our Talent Match programme submitted their best vlogs into the competition. Fateha used her YouTube space to vlog about youth and women empowerment, sharing her experiences as a youth worker. She was selected as one of 15 regional winners.

Fateha has since spent time at YouTube’s state of the art production space and will be attending a glitzy event at BAFTA tonight for the Vlogstar Challenge final where the winner will be announced.

Fateha chairs the youth board for our partnership employability programme with London Youth, and says: “Since being a part of the Vlogstar Challenge it has really pushed me to encourage other young people to get involved and to use YouTube as a platform to get our voices heard.”

“Vlogging is also a great enterprise idea. You don’t need the flashy equipment or to be qualified in film production, you can take control of your careers through these spaces”.

The Vlogstar champion will be awarded £2,000 for their organisation, £500 worth of equipment and 121 mentoring from YouTube’s experts.

We are wishing Fateha the best of luck for tonight. You can visit her YouTube channel here.

Paying for prevention: Six actions for funders

Wednesday, April 27th, 2016

In the second report of the Early Action Task Force – “The Deciding Time” we argued that voluntary agencies that are delivering acute services with a queue at the door can’t immediately release the time or the money to track back and work on prevention. If, we said, “the sector believes that this journey is important and timely it must begin it with funders in the vanguard”.

This challenge was picked up by a small group of the UKs leading funders. We worked with them first on applying our classification tool to their funding portfolios and then, building on this experience, on the development of a National Early Action Funders Alliance.

The Alliance was launched in July 2014 and now has a membership of more than 60 funders including most of the UK’s biggest and most influential grant makers. It has established and, from January 2015 begun making large grants through, its first joint project – the National Early Action Neighbourhood Fund.

The Alliance have also published a very helpful literature review “Making a Strategic Shift towards Early Action: Lessons and Recommendations“.

The argument in The Deciding Time – that funders have the both opportunity and the responsibility to be thought leaders and the crucial agents of change – is as critical today as it was in 2014. When I was invited to address the Funders Alliance a couple of weeks ago I thought about six actions that I would like every independent funder to consider:

  1. Join the Alliance: Don’t consider this one for too long – just do it! It is a lively and thoughtful coalition committed to prevention but also keenly aware of the challenges and of competing pressures for their funding. Joint work like the ground breaking classification exercise and the Neighbourhood Fund are a smart way forward in uncertain territory.
  2. Know where you are: You can’t plan a journey if you don’t know where you are starting from. Our work with funders began with the development of a simple tool for classifying current expenditure. These measurements can then form the base lines for transition goals e.g. “We will shift expenditure towards earlier action by 5% per year for the next 4 years” . This guide explains the classification process which has now been adopted by a very wide range of organisations.
  3. Ask the question: “How are you reducing need?”: Many grant makers now ask applicants for evidence of their environmental policies. This has been driving awareness and behavioural change across the sector with a ripple effect well beyond. There is an opportunity to do something similar around earlier action. Grant makers should ask to see 5 or 10 year Transition Plans with milestones for the gradual shift of resources into earlier action.
  4. Strike a grand bargain: When a grant seeker asks for funding to meet the needs at their door the grant maker should offer 25% more – first to meet the need and then to reduce it. That or nothing. We call this extension funding. Over 5 years to 10 years and on a substantial scale it would transform the nature of need and the role of key funders.
  5. Invest in the sustainably of those organisations: One of the many deeply depressing aspects of the Kids Company story was the oft repeated outrage that the charity had such minimal reserves. Infact the terms of the Cabinet Office grant very probably insisted on the return of any grant money left unspent at the end of the year. Other funders would have expected the same. And who runs the marathon to raise funds for a charity that promises to keep its money in the bank? So it is that reserves in this sector are often acquired (if acquired at all) by a rare and inverted slice of someone else’s misfortune (legacies) or by a stealth bordering on deceit (we achieve the objectives but don’t spend all the cash and don’t tell anyone). This is no way to run a serious organisation with long term plans. Responsible funders should routinely add a 5% tier one contribution to every grant just as they now routinely include full cost recovery. This would enable successful organisations to plan to reduce need in the longer term and to build with solid reserves at the heart of the business model.
  6. Measure the difference, not just the numbers: Embedding a whole system shift towards earlier action requires structural and cultural change. It will not be achieved by layering short term projects on top of failing systems or regressive cultures. Projects may be a means to an end but are not the end game. Consequently numbers can only ever be a partial indicator of progress. Ethnographers should be engaged to access progress and it should be their insights, as much as the numbers in the outcomes column, that drive the continuous cycle of testing and learning – design/deliver /assess. Design/deliver/assess.

Ask anyone in the third sector about their long term vision; invariably they will talk about obsolescence, working for the day when they are no longer needed. Press further. What did your organisation do this week, this year to advance that day, to reduce need? Too often the answer is little more than an unhappy shrug. We are too busy doing what we do. Many funders display a similar disjunction between what they think they are for and what they support .

We know that present trajectories, social, economic and environmental are all unsustainable. These escalating needs cry out for braver, bolder, more challenging leadership from third sector funders driving the shift to prevention. These six simple steps can unleash the change that we all seem to want but are seldom achieving.

Moving Beyond Enforcement: Early Action Policing

Tuesday, June 2nd, 2015

This week Deputy Chief Constable Andy Rhodes of the Lancashire Constabulary joined us in London to talk about early action policing. His overriding message, for me at least, was that for police work to be effective we desperately need to move away from the enforcement model. Andy argued that police work is still seen as waging total war on crime and, whilst kicking down doors and rushing around with flashing blue lights can be exciting, this is ultimately not the best use of anyone’s resources.

The work led by Andy is an attempt to address this, creating a police force that acts earlier at every possible opportunity; enabling people to flourish at the top of the cliff rather than catching them at the bottom.

Creating an early action culture

Total war on crime is also total war on criminals. This culture, reinforced by training regimes, encourages many police officers to be pessimistic and form a pejorative view of the 10% of the public with whom they have to deal on a regular basis. A few of these people are undoubtedly nasty individuals, but many perpetrators of crime also have complex problems that lead them to commit such acts in the first place.

Too much enforcement therefore leads to a deficit of compassion. As one paramedic, working on a project aimed at reducing demand created by vulnerable people who make excessive and repeated calls, put it: “don’t judge people based on where they are, but on where they have come from”.

Empathy is central to this; recognising that every individual has strengths and assets to nurture, and that everyone needs a personalised approach that takes into account their unique past and present situations. One such example of this can be seen in the Jobs, Friends, and Houses programme in Blackpool, detailed in Andy’s previous blog post for Community Links.

Leading the way for systems change

Sometimes when we talk about leadership we focus on those at the very top. They are important because they have the power to stand in the way of  (or even encourage) initiative, but as Andy pointed out it is often the front-line who are most excited by change.

Many of his comments on this reminded me of a piece by Ray Shostak in One Hundred Days for Early Action, the Task Force’s latest publication. In it he argues that we need to ensure that we need “a movement of front-line practitioners” that must “start with people working together to advance their shared ideas”.

Indeed, as Andy told us, the defining moment of his early action journey was the realisation that common ground is not good enough: you need a shared purpose. Hitting targets is not much of a motivator, but changing lives is. Due to the highly discretionary nature of police work, officers must want to act earlier. By exploiting the intrinsic link between values and a shared purpose the early action ethos can be inculcated.

This is particularly important when we consider some statistics that Andy shared with us. Firstly, from a very simple economic perspective, Lancashire Constabulary currently spends 48% of its time dealing with issues that may have been prevented had they been addressed earlier, including issues around welfare, anti-social behaviour, and public safety. Secondly, many resources are used by a range of organisations beyond the police for a small population of high intensity users. Real benefits – both financial and social – can be derived by acting together across organisational silos.

One response to this realisation was the creation of an early action department. This integrated 8 separate teams from a range of organisations that were already doing early action work. They now collaborate to decide the best course of action as early after a referral as possible, utilising a multi-agency home assessment of need and a lead professional to oversee the process. This enables a wide range of professionals to work around a shared purpose: supporting those with complex needs and ensuring they have the opportunity to flourish.

Total war

At the end of the session Andy mentioned that Lancashire Constabulary had just been awarded £4.3m from the Innovation Fund over 2 years. He welcomed this, but warned against the temptation to throw money at new initiatives when core services could be made far better by investing in integration and systems change.

Ultimately Andy is leading the charge at Lancashire Constabulary; no longer waging total war on crime, but on entrenched need and vulnerability.

Staff are being encouraged to move beyond seeing criminals as ‘the enemy’ and instead as people with histories, human vulnerabilities, and capabilities. Different organisations are being encouraged to work together and address need far earlier than they ever have been before.

There is still much work to be done. However, if inspiration is the first step in any total reinvention of a system and a culture, Lancashire Constabulary has already taken one huge leap forward.

Launch of “Towards Effective Prevention: Practical steps for the next government”

Thursday, July 17th, 2014

In our newly launched paper, “Towards Effective Prevention”, the Early Action Taskforce argue that early action, an ethos that emphasizes intervening earlier at all points in the lives of individuals, should be a central part of the next government’s policy framework.

The paper outlines a set of recommendations that could contribute to this vision, split broadly into three themes. Firstly, by building support for early action goals across the whole political spectrum we can enable people to live happier and healthier lives. Integral to this is ten year, longer term planning, including regular budget reviews to ensure changing economic circumstances are taken into account. Finally, we must increase investment in early action by utilising better information, incentivising the breakdown of silos, and encouraging collaboration between a wide range of innovative people and organisations.

Responses at the launch

The recommendations were welcomed by Margaret Hodge MP, chair of the Public Accounts Committee, who stated in her response that it was time early action, a common sense idea that most sign up to in principle, was implemented across the board. She argued that moving beyond a parochial focus on political cycles was integral to this, and that leadership firmly rests with the Treasury and Cabinet Office. Furthermore she called for ring-fenced funding for early action initiatives, and suggested that Labour would do well to adopt an explicit early action ethos if it gained power in the 2015 General Election. Indeed, some of these ideas are already embedded in Labour’s most recent thinking about public services.

Alison Scott, assistant director at CIPFA, echoed some of these sentiments and added that there is a need for accounting practices to focus on outcomes as well as outputs. She argued that, by quantifying future liabilities that were likely to incur without such a transformation, we could incentivise a shift towards early action. She also recognised that whilst buy-in from the Centre is important, we must not forget the importance of a local approach in finding solutions and overcoming silo working.

These responses prompted a thoughtful discussion from attendees. A fundamental concern centred on the high costs of simultaneously running both preventative and acute services. This is exactly why longer term planning is needed, however, as higher costs in the first few years will be saved further down the line as demand for acute services diminishes. It is very important that this is made explicit in plans and budgets during the interim period in which policy shifts towards early action.

Another strand of discussion emphasized how we need to understand the way in which cultures and systems reinforce each other. Whilst it is important that we financially incentivise change, there must also be a shift in wider policy cultures. Linked to this is a need for a concerted effort to replicate successful early action initiatives. Both of the above could be addressed through a more localised approach, one which complements change at the Centre. This is an issue that the Taskforce has started to think about, and will be developed in more detail at a later date.

What are we waiting for?

It is always striking how you can tell anyone about early action and they will, to some extent, agree with its central tenets. Unfortunately there are still several barriers to overcome in both central and local government; barriers such as short termism, under investment, and silo-working.

It does not need to remain this way. The 2015 General Election is a prime opportunity for any new government to transform what is currently accepted as common sense into something concrete; a platform of early action from which everyone in society can benefit. With the framework set out in this paper, there is no longer any excuse not to act.


The paper launch was reported at localgov

Underspent housing support funding does not mean it is not needed

Monday, July 7th, 2014

Newham rooftopsSometimes we shy away from stating the obvious. Perhaps we are afraid that, in doing so, we will attract the scorn of others. Sometimes in not bothering to challenge seemingly straightforward messages they can be twisted and take on a whole new meaning.

A good example of this is a recent press release by DWP about Discretionary Housing Payments (DHP). DHP is an important source of support for people experiencing hardship, most of which is caused by welfare reform.

The press release states that 63% of councils have spent less than their DHP allocation for the year, approximately 1 in 10 have spent less than 60% of their total DHP budget, and 18 have spent less than 50%. It argues that “recent scare stories about councils running out of money were grossly exaggerated”, and that “vital reforms are fixing the broken welfare system… as part of our long term plan”.

This is important because DHP has become one of the primary tools to mitigate the worst impacts of welfare reform. Although the amount of funding has been increased substantially – it tripled to £180 million last year according to the press release – it has also been extended beyond its original purpose of supporting those struggling to pay their private sector rents, to also help people affected by the Benefit Cap and Bedroom Tax as well.

Distorted reality

The major implication of this press release is that there has been plenty of support funding, and that councils actually needed less than was originally thought. This is a distortion of the truth.

Firstly whilst the 63% figure is true – 240 local authorities have spent less than 100% of their total allocation – of these, 73 (30%) have spent over 95% of their total allocation. This could be seen as prudent fiscal management. Many of those councils who spent 95% or more also had to reject tens of thousands of support funding applicants, presumably at least partly because demand exceeded supply. This mirrors JRF research findings that most councils are making full use of DHP even if individual practice varies.

Secondly, if we compare data for the ten most deprived local authorities in England with that of the ten least deprived some interesting patterns emerge. For example, all ten of the most deprived had spent over 99.5% of their total allocation (which includes any extra money they have bid for and won), and seven of the ten had spent over 100%. In contrast, 5 of the least deprived councils had spent less than 95% of their total allocation, and the average underspend was almost six times higher than the average underspend for the most deprived local authorities.

Those who overspent in the least deprived areas did so, on average, by £7,661: just 3% of the average overspend for the most deprived areas. There are far more people affected by welfare reform in more deprived areas, and it is exactly those areas who have to make up the shortfall in DHP funding from elsewhere in their budget.

So what?

This may all seem self-evident: of course there is more demand for hardship payments in more deprived areas, that’s just common sense. However, when we combine the above with recent research showing how the ten most deprived areas in England face cuts averaging 25.3% between 2010 and 2016, ten times higher than the average of 2.54% in the ten least deprived areas, the story gets even more worrying. There is already less money for vital support services in these areas due to cuts, and this is exacerbated by the need to find more funding for DHP from elsewhere. In fact, “recent scare stories” may not have been “grossly exaggerated” after all – especially when we consider warnings of future funding problems for local authorities and the fact that actually many people, particularly those with disabilities, have DHP claims rejected anyway.

Those who have underspent may not have done so due to a lack of need, but rather due to confusion and miscommunication – both within and beyond councils. As the remit of DHP has been massively expanded there was a need for caution: expecting a fund to be perfectly spent in its first year is unrealistic. Another important point to consider is that the introduction of the Benefit Cap was delayed, which could well have had an impact on the amount that councils spent. Furthermore, some local authorities apply curious conditionality to their DHP awards; take North Lincolnshire, for example, which denied funding to tenants who made ‘negative life choices’ such as smoking or even having satellite television. Finally, funding allocation was done using a complex and opaque formula; partly based on previous spending rather than need, which is a fairly static way of allocating hardship funds in a time of such social turmoil – turmoil largely brought on by the cumulative impact of welfare reform.

Those who have overspent are likely to need more funding in the future, or risk not properly supporting those who need it most. There are other potential impacts too; for example, increased rent arrears, homelessness, and additional costs to the voluntary sector who often have to pick up the pieces.

Closer to home

At the risk of stating the obvious, then, continued funding for DHP and other support is still desperately needed. This is especially true for those areas where spending has been high. Newham, for example, is the third most deprived local authority in England. The council spent 99.52% of their DHP allocation for 2013/14, and actually proactively targeted people who were going to be worst affected by the cumulative impact of welfare reform. This is a laudable approach, and we should also welcome the fact that central government made more money available for these vital hardship funds. However, if the press release is taken at face value it is unlikely funding will be increased in the next year. Indeed, the overall amount for DHP is likely set to reduce in 2014/15 and 2015/16. As a result some tough decisions are going to have to be made over the next few years, and not just in the most deprived areas.

Locality: the nationwide network for community-led organisations.

Monday, March 10th, 2014

Geraldine Blake. Chief Executive, Community LinksI was delighted last week to be elected as chair of the London Regional Network of Locality  – the nationwide network for community-led organisations.

Community Links is an active member of many federations and partnerships where we join with others to campaign for change and to amplify our impact … but there is something quite distinct about Locality.

Locality acts a central support helping member organisations build their capacity, launch new enterprises and win the investment to develop new community assets. Work on Neighbourhood Planning has supported communities to voice locally determined development priorities and the national Community Organisers programme adopts a ground-up approach that puts local people at the heart of deciding local services.

Locality is a “movement” as well as an organisation. It has grown from its early roots over 120 years ago in Toynbee Hall, east London and the other “University Settlements” where student volunteers lived in the Victorian slums working alongside local people to improve education, employment and living conditions. This was a radical move to develop a coherent set of practical solutions, rather than provide individual responses – and it played a significant part in developing the ideas of the Welfare State in the second half of the last century.

Times have changed – modern Britain may be unrecognisable to our Victorian Founders – but I’m sure they would understand the approaches we take. Innovation, community enterprise and control of assets are also represented strongly in another and more recent strand of history. The Development Trusts Association – saw rapid growth in the 1990s and merged with BASSAC to form Locality in 2011.

It is this coherence and practicality which persists throughout the history of the movement  – with at its core a set of solid values. Sharing expertise, finding news ways to solve old problems –  and, crucially doing it together with others – are in the DNA of our movement.

We have worked closely with Locality over many years, recently hosting five Community Organisers in the first wave of this government scheme. Last Autumn Community Links published a piece of research for Locality analysing the shifting public sector funding landscape which sees smaller organisations consistently at a disadvantage in public sector contract delivery. Our proposals for collaboration and building alliances are the practical response of committed organisations embedded within their communities who can deliver change. This change will not come from community organisations alone – it needs support from business and the engagement of government to make every community a place of possibility.

It was a closely fought election this week with an almost equal number of votes for all three candidates, so in the spirit of our collaborative movement I’ll be working closely with joint vice chairs Aaron Barbour of the Katherine Low Settlement (and formerly a Community Links colleague) and Lainya Offside-Keivani Chief Executive at Abbey Community Association.

As we continue to work within the communities of London we will collaborate with other partners and other sectors and co-ordinate support from our friends in city corporates. Combining the efforts of voluntary and community organisations we can influence policymakers  by sharing the real experiences of the people we work with – and in doing so, support local people to generate their own opportunities.

Carrots, sticks and sanctions

Tuesday, February 4th, 2014

Job Centre plusYesterday’s news that Michael Gove will be issuing guidance to encourage schools to implement “old-fashioned”, tough punishments – such as writing out lines or picking up litter – will no doubt spark much controversy among teachers and the educational establishment about what works for changing behaviour and encouraging achievement.

These proposed changes in schools mirror drastic changes which have happened over the past two years within Britain’s social security system. Conditions for benefit recipients have been dramatically tightened, leading to unprecedented increases in numbers of people being punished – ‘sanctioned’ – and having their money taken away.

Whether or not you think that strict punishments positively impact on behaviour, most people would agree that such punishments must be given out fairly and communicated well if they are going to have the desired effect. To stick with the school example: imagine being punished when you haven’t been told the rules. Imagine being made to write lines, but not told the reason for your punishment until several weeks later. Imagine being made to stay behind in one class then punished again for missing another. Imagine a teacher telling you they believed you that you were sick, but that their boss had told them they have to punish you anyway.

At Community Links we are finding many of these scenarios playing out with people’s benefits – resulting in severe and very harmful impacts on people’s health, wellbeing and even on their job search. In particular, we are finding:

  • Some job-seekers who are made to join the Work Programme don’t fully understand the conditions of participation, or the consequences of not following them: effective communication from the JobCentre before referring people to the Work Programme would be useful.
  • People are often sanctioned but not well informed of the reason. Sometimes people’s money can be stopped for something as small as being a couple of minutes late for a meeting, and they only get a letter explaining the reason for their sanction several weeks later.
  • Often, and increasingly, people’s benefits are stopped because they miss an appointment, even when the reason is that they were getting on with searching for work; and even if they have got agreement from staff at the JobCentre. For example, Rita who came in to Community Links’ advice service had been sanctioned when she failed to sign on for JSA, even though the reason for this was that she was doing voluntary work at her local community centre, and despite the fact that she had gained the prior agreement of JCP advisor.
  • Organisations (like ourselves) providing employment support are not given the flexibility to give sanctions in a sensible way; often the rules dictate that we must put someone forward for a sanction even if we know there is a good reason for their behaviour.

These problems cause huge upheaval to people’s everyday lives, and belie fundamental unfairness in the sanctions system. They urgently need to be fixed. To encourage this, Community Links has recently provided evidence to the government’s Independent Review of sanctions, in which we highlighted these issues and several others.

But in spite of implementing some of the most drastic and severe changes to our welfare system since it was set up almost 100 years ago, the government still hasn’t ordered a thorough investigation into the fairness of sanctions, what impact they are having on families, or how effective they are at encouraging people back to work.

A broader investigation is urgently required in order to evaluate the changes which have been made in the last two years. We are glad that a cross-party group of MPs has recently pushed for such a review, and disappointed that Iain Duncan Smith yesterday would not commit to a further Review.  Failing to order a full review which fully investigates the various impacts of sanctions risks perpetuating the feeling—already present among some of the people who we work with—that strengthened sanctions are just about punishing jobseekers rather than encouraging them towards sustainable employment.

Sanctions have an important role to play in getting people into work. Jobseekers need strong and personalised support during their journey into work; and an inflexible system which sanctions people unfairly and often without reason cannot provide that. We are looking forward to hearing the results of the Independent Review – we’re sure it will include some important lessons.Job Centre