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Archive for the ‘Leadership’ Category

Building emotional resilience in young people across the capital

Thursday, April 6th, 2017

Earlier this year Community Links were hugely excited to announce being awarded, by the Department of Health (DH), the opportunity to lead the highly innovative peer mentoring project, More than Mentors, which started its delivery in schools within the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham. Since this announcement we have also started work in the London Boroughs of Hackney and Haringey, and are reaching out to other schools and community youth groups to offer this crucial work in differing and diverse settings across the Capital.

Addressing the current crisis in young people’s mental health and focusing on building resilience 

Over recent years it has become increasingly evident that young people’s mental health needs to be seen as a priority for both health and educational services. Escalating demand against insufficient capacity within current services has created a growing crisis in mental health. As highlighted in our report: ‘Thriving Minds: Acting early on mental health’, the current crisis in mental health is as much a social crisis, as a medical or funding crisis. Mental health underpins so many aspects of our lives that, in order to tackle the causes of poor mental health, we need a far-ranging response beyond simply reforming mental health services. We need effective, evidence-based initiatives in the community that can deliver more preventative support and are focused on building resilience.

More than Mentors is a new and creative model of peer mentoring, which has been co-designed and co-delivered as a pilot study in east London. Through the Department of Health’s “health and social care volunteer fund” Community Links has been invited to take the lead in rolling this programme out in 5 boroughs across the capital – with Jo Richardson Community School and Eastbury Community School, both in London Borough of Barking and Dagenham, being the first schools where we have successfully delivered this intervention.

Building on this success, we are now not only continuing to work within these 2 schools, but have also brought on board 4 more secondary schools in Barking and Dagenham with whom we shall be working over the next academic year. With the support of the Barking and Dagenham CCG (Clinical Commissioning Group) and the Education department within the local authority we are aspiring to offer this programme in every secondary school within the borough by the time the project has been completed in March 2019.

But we have also begun working in the London boroughs of Hackney and Haringey, and will be offering this More than Mentors approach within both boroughs in schools and youth groups, build the evidence base for its impact and demonstrating the wider need.

More than Mentors draws on the best evidence from across the field, exploring peer mentoring as a way of preventing significant mental health conditions in young people. Peer mentoring – where older adolescents support their younger peers – has been shown to prevent the development of mental health problems in research studies. However, frequently in practice, little attention is given to the evidence around recruitment, training and support of these volunteer mentors. Community Links, with a wider partnership team (including East London Foundation Trust and the Anna Freud Centre) are working with adolescent volunteer through to commissioners, to further co-develop, test, evaluate and subsequently disseminate an approach which sustainably delivers an effective voluntary peer mentoring workforce across London.

Rolling out More than Mentors across the capital

The More than Mentors delivery team, based at Community Links, are now busy training peer mentors, supporting peer mentoring and will soon be Training the Trainers as More than Mentors youth practitioners. The programme strives to prevent future mental health conditions in young people, and to ensure those who are struggling are able to access the support available across schools and community settings within the capital. By supporting students earlier, we are addressing early markers for mental health conditions such as depression, stress and anxieties, reducing associated symptoms and supporting students in feeling able to overcome everyday pressures. Furthermore, by connecting with the local transformation agenda for Children and Young People’s mental health services, we will also look to support the development of an approach that is focused on building resilience in young people.

The More than Mentors programme

This programme trains young people aged 14-18 years old in schools and community settings such as youth clubs, to become peer mentors through a 2-day/5 session accredited (NOCN) programme of learning. Mentors are then able to offer a 10-week programme of support for mentees (aged 11-16 years old) – a programme that offers both one-to-one support and group-based, positive activities. The mentors and mentees are supported throughout the programme by experienced More than Mentors Youth Practitioners and a mental health specialist. At all stages the mentors are supervised and supported in their development as a mentor, ensuring that they can offer guidance and support to their mentees.

More than Mentors is an ambitious programme, which aims to support many young people across the capital by taking a new and innovative approach. Our first 2 schools have allowed us to work with 40 young people so far. But now, we are hoping to involve up to 400 young people over this coming academic year – having a real impact on how we support young people and build their resilience. We are keen to keep you informed of how the work is progressing. We will be sharing regular blog posts so that young people and professionals can read about the project, and hear what young people and wider stakeholders feel about the work and its impact within their schools and communities. These are exciting times for Community Links, and we are looking forward to sharing this important work with you.

If you are interested in learning more about More than Mentors, then please get in touch;

Jason Turner – Project manager

jason.turner@community-links.org

Nick Barnes – Strategic lead advisor for More than Mentors

nick.barnes@community-links.org

A bill of rights for the next generation: What do you think?

Friday, March 3rd, 2017

Here’s a new idea which we are starting to think about.  Would it be useful, what might it contain and how could we make it work? We would welcome your opinion.

A Bill of Rights for Future Generations.

The Early Action Task Force is working in several ways to create the conditions, the understanding and the resources for early action to thrive. Our work is very practical. It is about doing what we can in the prevailing context – political, financial, cultural and legislative.  We wouldn’t want to abandon this pragmatic and practical approach but we are also thinking about opening up a new front:

The problem we want to solve:

We have a settled government with a political narrative that is dominated by Brexit. There are glimpses of other interests such as the PMs Shared Society speech but these are infrequent and insubstantial.

The opposition has very little influence.

It seems unlikely that either of the above will change before the next general election.

In this stasis we can support front line work and help to influence individual policies but building a society where problems are routinely prevented is an ambitious long term goal which will not be reached solely with the small pragmatic steps. We need to also think much harder about how we radically influence the direction of travel. We need to find a way of moving the conversation on to the big vision.

A bill of rights for the next generation.

All political parties need to offer a future that is better than the past but need and capacity are on irreconcilable trajectories. Likewise consumption and sustainability. Food banks, student loans, generation rent, trolleys in A and E, people sleeping on the streets – in different ways these are all symbols of a society that is moving backwards, not forwards. There is a political imperative, as well as a social, economic and moral obligation, for politicians to find a way of promising a better future, not as a rhetorical aspiration, but as a set of rights with a plausible plan for delivering them.

Suppose we began to talk about a Bill of Rights for Future Generations to fundamentally change how government thinks and behaves. Suppose we imagine the Bill as the set piece of the first Queens speech from the next government in three years’ time. It would be the world’s most far sighted and ambitious programme for ensuring a better future for our children.

Some of the ideas which we have discussed regularly on this blog would have a place (Ten year planning, transition goals, an Office for Future Generations, early action testing, a Next Generation Investment fund etc) but, to justify the billing it would need to be significantly more ambitious.

Leading that conversation

Suppose we think of this goal as a way of inspiring a different conversation over the course of the next few years.  The big objective would be extraordinary. Some more limited gains on the way would be worthwhile.

How would it be framed and what would it contain?

Please post your comments below in the usual way or mail me directly at david.robinson@community-links.org

We can’t address ‘the burning injustice of mental illness’ without proper social investment

Tuesday, January 10th, 2017

Yesterday Theresa May made some welcome announcements about the government’s future direction on preventing mental illness and promoting positive mental health.

She rightly identified that not only is mental health a social justice issue, but that the best way to improve it is by making it “an everyday concern for all of us, and in every one of our institutions”. Taking an early action approach is therefore imperative to preventing mental illness, and in doing so “transforming the way we deal with mental health problems at every stage of a person’s life”. In doing so she recognises, rhetorically at least, that the current crisis in mental health is as much a social crisis as a medical or funding crisis.

Thriving Minds: Acting early on mental health

Just before Christmas the Early Action Task Force published its latest report looking at how we can act earlier on mental health. Central to the argument of Thriving Minds is that as mental health underpins so many aspects of our lives, we need a far ranging response that goes beyond simply reforming mental health services.

A useful way of thinking about this was best put by report co-author Rosie Hayes, when she asked is mental illness the ‘Great Stink’ of our time? She highlighted that since the 19th century the government has recognised the benefit of investing in physical infrastructure such as the sewer system to improve public physical health, arguing that today we face a comparable situation in mental health. Therefore, similarly to the areas identified by the Prime Minister, we argue in Thriving Minds that schools, the workplace, communities, money, and the criminal justice system are important areas for early action beyond – and in collaboration with – mental health services.

We would also add private renting to the Prime Minister’s list, as renters are 75% more likely to experience serious anxiety and depression than homeowners. This is largely down to insecurity in the private rented sector, itself a consequence of unaffordability, short-term tenures, and poor living conditions. If we don’t tackle these issues – and the issues identified in the other 5 areas mentioned above – then it is unlikely we will be able to prevent mental illness, let alone promote positive mental health. Legislative approaches like those found in Scotland with the Private Housing (Tenancies) (Scotland) Act 2016 and more local initiatives like co-regulation of private landlords are promising starts, but more must be done.

Was it all just rhetoric?

As other commentators have pointed out, we should be sceptical of these pledges – however welcome they are on the surface – when previous governments have at best consistently failed on mental health provision and, at worst, actively damaged it with cuts. David Robinson wrote on our blog yesterday that announcements like this – and Blair’s “Giving Age” – are sometimes pure rhetoric entirely lacking in policy substance. The mere fact that mental health was given such prominence in the Prime Minister’s first proper speech on social policy makes us optimistic, but equally we are wary about aspirational announcements with no new money to back them up. Only time will tell how serious this government really is about addressing our current mental health crisis and, ultimately, long-term investment in key social infrastructure such as schools, the workplace, and communities is the most likely thing to yield a triple dividend: enabling people to lead thriving lives, costing less, and contributing more.

Patrick Jenkin: remembered by David Robinson

Thursday, December 22nd, 2016

Almost 40 years ago I went to see Lord Jenkin at his constituency surgery. I was endeavouring, unsuccessfully, to get a government grant to help set up what ultimately became Community Links. I realised that a dreamy adolescent with a bit of an idea would never get a meeting with a senior politician in the approved manner so I pretended to be a constituent and just rocked up at the surgery. Patrick Jenkin, as he then was, not only saw me and talked to me at some length but we eventually did get our grant.

Patrick must have realised very early on in our relationship that I didn’t live in Woodford but perhaps he also saw some higher purpose in the shallow deceit. He was consistently kind to me and quietly supportive throughout his life even after it would also have become clear that my personal politics were different from his own.

The death of Lord Patrick Jenkin today reminds me of the true and important line from the maiden speech of Jo Cox, a political rival who we also lost in this fraught and often fractious year “We are far more united, and have far more in common with each other, than the things that divide us”.

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.

Six ways society can act earlier for mental health

Friday, November 25th, 2016

On the 9th December, the Early Action Task Force will be publishing its newest report: ‘Thriving Minds: Acting Early on Mental Health‘. Within the report we’ve focused on six areas, although we could have doubled this list as mental health runs through everything in a circle of cause and effect. Below is a snapshot of our thinking on how society can act early on mental health.

 photo Six ways to act early on mental health_zpsndcbvjeb.jpg
1. Education

Half of all diagnosable mental health conditions in adults begin before the age of 14

Given the above statistic, our school years present a significant opportunity to promote positive mental health early. School can take measures to promote positive mental health, such as the whole-school approach of the Mancroft Advice Project. Local and central governments also need to ensure that their policies are focused on promoting positive mental health in children through collaboration with local services and reducing the pressure of exams.

2. Work

Mental health problems account for 47% of long term absences from work

If people felt they wouldn’t be stigmatised for having a mental health problem, they’d be much more likely to disclose this and take time off earlier to prevent their mental health from reaching crisis point. Training in Mental Health First Aid can aid understanding and reduce stigma, whilst organisational approaches such as ‘happier@work’ can make workplaces a more mentally positive place to be. Of course, some people may still fall ill and need time off work, so it’s also important that employment support services are tailored to those with mental health needs to enable them to get back into sustainable, good quality work.

3. Money

Problem debt makes a person twice as likely to develop a mental health problem

At present, a significant number of people are caught up in a vicious cycle of mental health problems and problem debt. By reducing the amount of problem debt people take on, improving early access to advice, and changing debt collection practices, we can act earlier to ensure the cycle is broken. CAB’s ‘Healthy Advice’ scheme is a good example of how services are innovating to ensure they are reaching the people who need advice as early as possible.

4. Criminal Justice

90% of prisoners have a mental health problem

The criminal justice system is host to many people at the sharp end of the collective failure to act earlier for mental health. Yet the system can play a role in creating an alternative for these people. We’ve come across excellent examples of Street Triage and Liaison & Diversion schemes which divert people away from the criminal justice system and into the care they need. Acting earlier also means making prisons mentally healthy environments, so they aren’t creating or exacerbating mental health problems for offenders who will eventually leave prison. Finally, the majority of offenders do not go to prison, so it is important that probation services are equipped to provide support in the community, as well as ensuring offenders are ready to re-enter society.

5. Housing

Renters are 75% more likely to experience serious anxiety and depression than homeowners

Insecurity in the private rented sector, as a result of a lack of affordability, short-term tenures, and poor conditions, is a significant damaging factor to private renters’ mental health. Accordingly, it is important that these issues are tackled in order to reduce the likelihood of mental illness and promote positive mental health – the Private Housing (Tenancies) (Scotland) Act 2016 is a promising start but more needs to be done.

6. Communities

Chronic loneliness is a comparable risk factor for early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day

Local services can play an important role in preventing loneliness and fostering social connection, ranging from highly formal services explicitly aimed at connecting people, to the more incidental connections that are created through the varied community spaces and events that we might engage with on a day to day basis for other purposes entirely. Building these connections can positively influence the way that we think about ourselves and our communities, in turn promoting better mental health, as demonstrated by Haringey Thinking Space.

 

It is evident that if we are to act earlier to promote positive mental health, we need to be acting before people need to engage with mental health services. In order to achieve this, it is essential that we recognise the current crisis in mental health as a social crisis, as opposed to simply a healthcare crisis. In acknowledging that mental health is everyone’s responsibility, sectors should act together to share the cost of early action, as well as the resultant benefits – the triple dividend of enabling people to lead thriving lives, whilst costing less to public services and contributing more to our economy.

If you’re interested in the ideas we’ve raised here and would like to know more, please sign up to our mailing list to ensure you receive a link to the report when it is published. You can also attend our discussion on early action for mental health, hosted by the Big Lottery Fund, on Friday 9th December from 9.30am-12pm. For further information and to register for a free ticket, please visit our Eventbrite page.

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

Monday, 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!

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

Tuesday, 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.

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.

A Question of Growth: Preventing Harm and Taking the Longer Perspective

Tuesday, August 23rd, 2016

Over the past month we have been posting a range of guest blogs on the topic of early action growth. In this final blog we attempt to draw out some common themes across them all and highlight the big questions.

 

 

 

In common policy maker parlance “growth” – largely referring to an increase in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) – is often synonymous with “economic success”. By this traditional measure alone it would appear that the economy has not done particularly well since Brexit, with the latest estimates from the National Institute for Economic and Social Research (NIESR) suggesting that in July GDP fell by 0.2%.

Measuring success

In reality GDP is just one indicator. It therefore only captures part of what constitutes “economic success”, and economic success is in itself only one way of thinking about progress. As many of our bloggers suggested in their pieces, this is fundamentally a problem of emphasis. The weight that we give to different measures frames what is recognised as contributing to human progress, and also therefore what is disregarded as unimportant. In this sense it is unhelpful to assume that any growth in GDP is axiomatically a good thing, particularly when we take into account wider social and environmental indicators.

Indeed, as Professor Anne Power of the London School of Economics (LSE) pointed out in her blog, “beneficial growth cannot be measured” by traditional economic indicators such as GDP, profit and Gross Value Added alone, as they are not necessarily “the best drivers of human progress”.

How, then, should we measure and define “good” or “beneficial” growth?

Many of our bloggers would agree that we should be wary of dismissing GDP entirely, with Dan Corry (New Philanthropy Capital) pointing out that this risks alienating policy makers and losing what is a useful, if partial, indicator of economic change. We must therefore supplement it with other concepts and measures. One suggestion, as advocated by most of our authors but particularly strongly by Anna Coote (New Economics Foundation), is to think about well-being: understood here as “the way people feel when they lead a good life, functioning well on personal and social levels”. This can be further expanded to include environmental wellbeing: although some of our authors differed on whether ‘growth’ in and of itself was an intrinsically damaging focus, they all broadly agreed that economic success cannot be decoupled from environmental protection and social progress.

Ultimately since growth is such a deeply embedded concept in our political lexicon, disregarding it doesn’t help us to communicate effectively with policy makers and politicians. However, we can be much clearer about the characteristics of good growth and much more explicit about promoting beneficial growth as opposed to any old growth. We are not attempting to come up with a concrete definition of “beneficial growth” in this summary blog, but it is clear that it has some fundamental elements to it. This was encapsulated by Anne Power when she wrote that we desperately need “a less greedy, more socially just, more equitable and more environmentally sensitive approach to growth”.

Early action is the foundation upon which this can be built.

Beneficial growth and early action 

So what does beneficial growth supported by early action look like in context?

Both Debbie Pippard (from Barrow Cadbury Trust) and Dan Paskins (Big Lottery Fund) suggest we should think differently about how we relate the early action agenda to market forces. Debbie’s argument is that the poverty premium, in which poor people end up paying more for essential services and goods, is hugely problematic not just for moral reasons but for economic ones too. If we could reduce or abolish it, one answer being through collective consumption practices, then we could free up more money for spending in the wider economy. Dan Paskins’ argument mirrors this, calling for early action strategies that “ensure the aggregate benefits of globalisation are shared more equitably”. By investing in early action – arguably the ‘social infrastructure‘ of the UK – we can intervene more efficiently in market failures and societal problems, leaving us with more money to invest in classic growth strategies around physical infrastructure such as transport, education, and science.

The point about investment is crucial. As Caroline Slocock (Civil Exchange) notes, early action is not a cost but an economic investment. We therefore need a positive cycle of investment in early action that clearly yields a return on investment (arguments around investing in science and education to increase our ‘human capital’ already recognises this), and there are already tools out there that can help us to measure this (for example in New Zealand). Other early action areas that are traditionally seen as costs rather than investments include welfare – something the Task Force has written on before – as highlighted by Neil McInroy (CLES), employment support, and mental health.

Ben Jupp (Social Finance) takes (un)employment as his focus, arguing that the massive inequalities individuals with mental health problems face in the labour market constitute “a major drag on our economy”. Governmental attempts to address this have been patchy to date – the Work Programme for example has been particularly unsuccessful at helping those with health problems – but there is hope if we can invest more money in early action activities such as Individual Placement Support that integrates health and employment support, starts with people’s wishes and aspirations, and aims to get people into work they actually want to do as fast as is appropriate. In doing so we can harness people’s potential and enable them to flourish.

Also thinking about mental health, Cliff Prior (Big Society Capital) discusses Social Impact Bonds (SIBs) as a newish form of investment that can yield social and economic benefits. For him – and indeed many of our authors – the argument that it is too costly to invest in early action is glib, particularly when you consider the huge economic and social costs of mental health problems. He points to several SIBs such as Newcastle’s Ways to Wellness and the Fair Chance Fund that are aligning funding from different sources for positive social and economic outcomes for individuals, communities, and for society as a whole.

Do no harm

Bobby Kennedy’s speechwriters did not write the following for our blog, but they could well have done. Of course the specifics are dated (it was written almost fifty years ago), and it is so frequently cited that it’s now a bit clichéd, but it’s worth repeating in full:

“Too much and for too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things.  Our Gross National Product, now, is over $800 billion dollars a year, but that Gross National Product – if we judge the United States of America by that – that Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage.  It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them.  It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl.  It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities.  It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children. 

“Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play.  It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials.  It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.  And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.”

Therefore thinking about growth in terms of GDP/GNP (themselves not interchangeable terms) alone is unhelpful, and will only lead us down increasingly narrow corridors of thought and action. Relentlessly chasing meaningless targets – take, for example, the incessant focus and triumphalism around record employment figures by the current Government, with no real critique of the quality of the work that people find themselves in – will not create beneficial growth.

Early action provides an opportunity to not only broaden the debate, but to widen the horizons of what we want to achieve and how we want to achieve it. All future growth strategies should therefore take two principles as their starting point: for growth to be truly beneficial it must do no harm – to individuals, communities, or the environment – and take a long term view.

Applying these basic tests to any policy or activity would highlight those that were not likely to lead to beneficial growth – for example, a policy helping people into work, but mainly into poorly paid and insecure jobs – and those that were – for example, employment support that takes into account people’s needs and desires, enabling them to find appropriate, sustainable and fulfilling work.

To steal Cliff Prior’s conclusion: “good growth – sometimes you know it when you see it”.