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Posts Tagged ‘deep value’

Nurturing relationships: The test of a shared society

Monday, January 16th, 2017

How many contacts do you have stored on your phone? The head of an adolescent mental health unit once told me that his patients typically had 6 to 10 contacts listed and most of those people were likely to be professional helpers like himself. Social isolation could be both a cause and a consequence of his young patient’s ill health. It was certainly a common characteristic.

I was thinking about this when I read about the Age Concern research published last week revealing that “Half a million people over the age of 60 usually spend each day alone, with no interaction with others, and nearly half a million more commonly do not see or speak to anyone for five or six days a week”.

And whilst we are on the subject of alarming numbers an Action for Children survey of 2,000 parents in 2015 found that almost a quarter said they ‘always or often’ felt lonely.

Social isolation is not a problem for the young or for the old. It is a galloping crisis for us all

Last week we wondered on this blog whether a “shared society” is empty rhetoric or the PM’s genuine intention. If the phrase has any serious substance our collective ability to reconnect with one another, or at least to reverse the trends, must surely be the test.

The consequences may vary – loneliness, ill health, long term unemployment etc. – but the roots are the same. School performance, economic opportunities, physical and mental health, and ultimately life expectancy are all substantially influenced by the strength and depth of our social connections. Very few of us glide effortlessly through life without ever experiencing any difficulty. Our capacity for coping and bouncing back depends in part on our readiness, our acquired skills and strengths, and in part on the support around us, the networks and relationships which sustain and recharge us.

We often make the case for early action but nowhere is it more self-evidently essential. As the Early Action Task Force has noted befriending schemes are important but not sufficient. They are to loneliness what food banks are to poverty – an essential response to a crisis but not a long term solution. The early action response to isolation would involve a commitment to sustained community building throughout the life course – essentially what much of Community Links work on the ground has been all about for almost 40 years.

As we explored on this blog a few weeks ago technology has, in recent years, swept into every corner of our lives often, in the process, sweeping out friendships and relationships. We think people change lives, not transactions. Valuing and developing this element of deep value in our services here, and working to embed it more broadly across the public domain is another long standing priority for Community Links and now more urgent than ever.

The most useful work experience placements or internships are invariably shared across “warm networks” and as many as 8 out of 10 new jobs go to people known to the employer. The old cliché about it not being “what you know but who you know” is still a fair comment on the state of social mobility and, more broadly, on the distribution of opportunity in communities like ours. Building networks, and nurturing the confidence to negotiate them, is the focus of Community Links programmes like Future Links which won a Charity Times Award last October. It isn’t rocket science but it is important and it does work.

Incidental Connections showed that there is no single right way to build communities and to nurture effective and meaningful relationships but doing it better in 2017 may well be the single highest priority for organisations like ours, Jobcentres, GPs, police officers, schools, and indeed any agency in the public domain. Whether Theresa May is, or is not, seriously committed to building a shared society, we should be.

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

Monday, October 10th, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

Make mental health everyone’s responsibility

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

Focus on transitions throughout the life course

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

Make ‘deep value’ relationships central to delivering services

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

The case for early action on mental health

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

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

Acting early this Breast Cancer Awareness Month

Wednesday, October 5th, 2016

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

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

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

A culturally sensitive calling and health advocacy service

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

Working with children and parents in schools

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

Increasing awareness, uptake of screening, and self-checking

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

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

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

Love, trust and the teachable moment

Tuesday, September 20th, 2016

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

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

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

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

What, in practise, might this mean?

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

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

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

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

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



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










Acting earlier on child protection: is care the only option?

Tuesday, June 28th, 2016

Following a number of high-profile child deaths, social services’ increased aversion to risk coupled with a political drive to hasten and increase adoption has led to applications to take children into care hitting a record high.

 photo VSF_zpseh2m3v5s.jpg

Image courtesy of Volunteering Matters

A number of public figures have raised concerns about this rapid rise in applications, including Sir James Munby, president of the high family court division, and Dave Hill, president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services. Their common message is that adoption is always an option for those that need it, but a more balanced approach should be taken to ensure that families are not being broken up unnecessarily. The process of removing a child from their family is inevitably traumatic, and the current system is not always providing the high quality care needed for children to achieve better outcomes. Furthermore, foster and residential care is extremely expensive, costing local authorities roughly £2.5 billion a year. With social services across the country already straining under the pressure of cuts, it’s clear we need to rethink how children’s services can be provided more efficiently, whilst ensuring the best outcomes for children and families.

Rethinking how we protect children

As part of our work on building a case study gallery to showcase examples of early action, we’ve come across a number of projects that are taking a different approach to child protection, and supporting children’s services in the process.

In our ‘Rough Guide to Early Action’ we featured the Ceredigion CAB and Children and Families Services’ ‘Specialist Intervention Team’ (SIT), whose caseworkers are supporting families to address the underlying socio-economic problems which are often limiting parents’ capacity to look after their children, such as insecure housing, a lack of income, or high levels of debt. One third of families say that without the support of SIT, their children would have been taken into care. The team is also delivering significant savings by preventing social services from having to escalate their involvement.

More recently we interviewed Volunteering Matters’ about their ‘Volunteers Supporting Families’ (VSF) project, which has supported vulnerable families and children in a number of local authorities since its inception in 2004. VSF is premised on the notion that keeping children safe is the responsibility of the whole community – not only the parents. The project has yielded some very impressive results. By building trust and developing impartial relationships with parents, volunteers help families to make the changes needed to create a safe and stable environment for their children.

We’ve always emphasised that early action can take place at any stage of prevention; Pause is an example of intervention at a very late stage that nonetheless helps to break the traumatic cycle for mothers repeatedly having their children taken into care. Pause gives these women space to reflect, enabling them to overcome challenges and build new skills. Still being piloted, the programmes are already beginning to show promising results, with women being supported into a range of services and no further pregnancies to date. Pause estimate that if they support 100 women for five years, they could deliver possible savings of £10 million for social services.

Key ingredients for acting earlier

There are a number of parallels between these examples that can teach us something about taking an early action approach towards family breakdown.

Firstly, parents’ ability to look after their children is often limited by underlying factors, such as socioeconomic drivers, physical and mental health, and family conflict. Accordingly, preventing breakdown requires a holistic approach which overcomes silo-working and ensures that families get the support they need. As Lisa McFadzean of SIT often points out to social workers “let me threaten you with eviction, redundancy or stop your income altogether. Let me give you a bailiff knocking at the door demanding money. Tell me how effectively you’re going to parent?”

Secondly, using a third party, be they a professional or a volunteer, as broker between families and social services can often encourage parents to engage. Third parties have more time to devote to developing deep value relationships than a social worker does, making parents more willing to disclose information and confide their problems.

And finally, acting early reduces considerable social and financial costs. By ensuring that those who can be helped early are supported, this frees up resources to focus on more complex and serious cases. Enabling people to care for their children and equipping them with strategies to increase their resilience ensures that they are able to lead happy, healthy and more productive lives, whilst contributing more and costing less.

It’s easy to despair when considering the huge challenges currently facing our social services, yet these examples demonstrate that redesigning services can offer a more sustainable future. To achieve this at a systemic level, political and funding structures must be transformed, which is of course easier said than done. Yet we must continue to push for this, given that the choice is to prevent now or pay tomorrow; with children’s futures in the balance, is that a risk we are willing to take?

Seeking evidence for sanctions: compliance or support?

Tuesday, January 20th, 2015

This week I have been asked to give evidence on behalf of Community Links to the House of Commons Work and Pensions Select Committee as they examine the role and impact of sanctions within the social security system.

Parliamentary Committee roomThere is simply not enough evidence about the best form of sanctions to encourage people into work. Given this, plus the hardship that we know sanctions can cause, I will be continuing Community Links’ call for a full evidence-based review of the sanction regime. Until such a review is completed, the rules around sanctioning jobseekers should be reversed to their pre-2012 levels. I’ll also be calling for the introduction of a first-warning system, to prevent jobseekers having their benefits stopped the first time they make a mistake – and to ensure they understand the conditions of their benefit claim.

Sanctions (where benefits are reduced or stopped for a period of time) can be imposed on people claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) or Employment Support Allowance (ESA). They are applied in a number of circumstances including failure to attend meetings, not putting sufficient effort into looking for work, turning down a job, or leaving a job voluntarily.

Community Links is exceptionally well placed to understand sanctions, from the perspective of both their application and their consequences. Although our Work Programme advisors do not have the power to issue them directly, they may initiate a process that could lead to sanctions by “raising doubts” about clients who are not following the conditions of their JSA claim. Additionally through our advice services we often support clients who have been sanctioned. We have detailed our policy on sanctions in a policy briefing published last year, and have submitted written evidence to the current review.

There has been a considerable increase in the application of sanctions – with referrals increasing by 30% since the introduction of a new, more stringent, system in late 2012. Yet over half of all reconsideration requests and appeals against JSA sanctions are successful.

Our submission to the Work and Pensions Select Committee’s current inquiry explores a fundamental question of approach – are sanctions intended to be a punishment for transgression or ‘nudge’ to improve behaviour? We believe that rather than focusing on compliance, the explicit and overriding rationale for sanctions should be about supporting people towards work: encouraging behaviours that move people further towards sustainable employment and discouraging negative behaviours which detract from this goal. We are concerned that there is no clearly stated rationale for the current sanctions regime. Alongside the lack of clarity, evaluation of outcome is impossible whilst no robust, independent examination of their efficacy has been conducted. We believe the current system of sanctions should be rolled back to the previous, less punitive system whilst such an evaluation is undertaken.

Overall we believe that the existence of sanctions can act as a useful ‘nudge’ for some people, when this is part of a strong and personalised supportive relationship with advisors. But sanctions must be applied as a last resort – when all other options have been exhausted. The harsh conditionality of a stricter sanctions regime has caused unnecessary hardship – sometimes preventing people from finding a job. An inflexible system which sanctions people unfairly, often without reason, cannot be delivered within a supportive relationship.

Our recent examinations of the welfare system have recommended a change in approach. In “Secure and Ready” we suggest a “presumption of willingness“, which sees conditionality and sanctions imposed only when a person has identified themselves unwilling to engage. A second paper, “Deep Value Assessment” sets out how an early assessment of job seekers – based on greater reciprocity than the current system – could improve outcomes. By taking the time to understand the detail of people’s situations, this could help more jobseekers into work, and reduce the number of unnecessary sanctions by enabling jobseekers and coaches to work better together. Jobseekers understand their own needs and abilities better than anyone. They should have much more opportunity to contribute to their own assessment; shape their own action plan and identify the support they need. A more participatory assessment would also encourage employment support to include a consideration of jobseekers’ strengths, instead of just addressing their needs.

Focusing on understanding what the customer can do – and wants to do – would encourage them to build on their strengths, and ensure many more were ready to move into sustainable employment.


You can view the whole evidence session on the Parliament Live TV broadcast:

Deep Value Assessment: How ongoing, participatory employability assessments could improve outcomes for jobseekers

Thursday, October 23rd, 2014

Today we publish our new report, Deep Value Assessment, which sets out how assessment of jobseekers’ needs and abilities could be improved.

The report comes as new employment figures show that unemployment is at just 6%, its lowest level since before the financial crash. Youth unemployment has also fallen substantially. But the same employment figures show that most of this decrease in unemployment is due to people moving into economic inactivity, and not into work. These statistics highlight how as the unemployment rate falls, it is increasingly difficult to get the remaining unemployed people – many of whom face the largest barriers to the labour market – into work. This echoes the message from recent Work Programme statistics which show the programme is still failing to deliver for the people with the most entrenched barriers to work.

There are many reasons why employment support services are struggling to deliver for this group, but problems with assessing the type of support they need are definitely an important one. Good assessment is crucial to any public service, and an essential part of tackling the problem of long-term unemployment is ensuring that employment support services – both Jobcentre Plus and contracted providers – have a solid understanding of jobseekers’ needs and abilities.

Many recent proposals call for a more efficient ‘segmentation tool’ as a way to improve support for people facing the most barriers to employment. Such a tool would identify early those jobseekers that were going to be the most challenging to get into work, and split them off into more intensive support. If a day-one segmentation tool could be made to work it would no doubt address some of the immediate problems in the employment support sector, such as creaming and parking. We originally undertook our research – which involved qualitative fieldwork with 40 jobseekers and several other stakeholders – by attempting to understand more about how such a tool might work.

A new approach to employability assessments

Ultimately, however, our research suggests that such a ‘segmentation’ tool may not be the best way forward in the longer term. Instead, a different approach is needed:

  • Firstly, assessment should be an ongoing process. To get an accurate, in-depth picture of a jobseeker’s situation requires continually updating the assessment. It’s essential that advisors have the time and resources to build Deep Value relationships, use them to continually assess needs and abilities, and tailor support accordingly.
  • Secondly, assessment should be more participatory, emphasising jobseekers’ own perspectives. Jobseekers understand their own needs and abilities better than anyone. They should be enabled to actively contribute to their assessment and thus shape their support offer. A more participatory assessment would also encourage employment support to include a consideration of jobseekers’ strengths and abilities, instead of just addressing their barriers and needs.

Now is an excellent time for the employment support sector to think about how assessment could be done differently. Discussions are underway for how ‘Work Programme 2’ should be commissioned, but with a few years left on existing contracts, there is time to start piloting different ways of doing assessment. These will need to be built into its design from the start, as this will have implications for how contracts are made and how providers are expected to work together.

The roll-out of Universal Credit is going to change both who receives employment support and how people interact with these services. Claimants will no longer be on a straightforward linear path from ‘signing on’ as unemployed to eventually moving into work. Instead claimants may have different periods of un- or under-employment within one claim, interspersed by periods of being in work. Ongoing and participatory ways of understanding their changing needs and strengths will be crucial, and reduce inefficiencies and waste by allowing employment support to be tailored to claimants’ increasingly varying situations. More work need to be don to understand how best ongoing and participatory assessment can fit within the new system.

Our report highlights four areas where the principles of a Deep Value approach to assessment can be put into practice now. The processes and tools of assessment need to be less ‘tick-box’ and more collaborative and engaging – and it needs to be possible to regularly update them. Partnerships need to be strengthened to ensure that different providers are able to share information about jobseekers’ strengths, abilities and barriers. Frontline staff need additional training to be able to undertake ongoing, participatory assessment. Employment coaches and advisors need to be enabled to build Deep Value relationships between jobseekers and their advisors.

Deep Value assessment done right would benefit all jobseekers, but in particular it would help those who the current employment support system is failing. Deep Value Assessment is about making sure that we can get, and act on, a proper understanding of jobseekers’ needs and strengths, and ultimately provide quality employment support for all..

One Newham, Many Journeys

Monday, February 24th, 2014

Liam Crosby has recently joined Community Links as Policy and Public Affairs Officer in this blog post he reflects on getting to know the borough. You can contact Liam via e-mail and on Twitter

The contrasting views West and East from the same point at Liberty Bridge highlight the huge opportunities being brought to the doorstep of established communities in Newham. Now is the time to make sure local people benefit

Roads. There are a lot of roads. Since moving to London I hardly ever travel by car, and so being driven around Newham today was very unusual for me. The roads really stick out – linking airport to river; Westfield Shopping Centre to Olympic Park. Roads everywhere, and full of people making their daily journeys. Today I’m on my first journey around Newham, having started working at Community Links just a couple of weeks ago.

Changes and challenges.

It’s clear the whole community is on a bit of a journey, as regeneration and development bring dramatic changes. Yvonne is showing me around: she’s lived all her life in Newham and now works for Community Links. She talks about how the area has changed: “Now everyone knows about Stratford”. There is a sense of excitement, of long-awaited opportunities finally coming to the East end.

But there’s also a clear feeling that some benefits from the “Newham boom” may not be being equally felt by all. Several people who I speak to talk of the same concerns among the community: will the flux of post-Olympic regeneration money stay around? Will the jobs that emerge be high quality and long-term? How will new and old communities in Newham integrate together?

An inescapable and concrete (excuse the pun) change as we drive around is the amount of construction work everywhere. Newham is at the heart of several large-scale infrastructure and regeneration projects. From Crossrail to the Olympic Park (not to mention the Skyline cable cars, hanging like a lost ski-lift crossing the river) It seems like every corner boasts some new building or recently completed project.

Again, however, there is an unease about who these projects are for. Often local people aren’t seeing the benefits (take the Stratford International rail station which has never seen a Eurostar train… and may never will) —despite the four years of hugely disruptive works to build Crossrail next to our Asta community hub, the closest station will end up being too far away for many local residents to benefit from.

A less visible change is the context of huge cuts to public services (Newham is particularly badly hit) and dramatic changes to welfare, which are having huge impacts on people’s lives. Voluntary advice services across the borough are seeing demand increase dramatically as the changes undermine people’s resilience and ability to proactively take control of their lives (some of our forthcoming research will highlight this).

 Our work, our approach.

So, I’m wondering as we zoom past the Thames Barrier, what kinds of work could be done to create a stronger, more resilient Newham? One who’s communities are joined up and ready to grasp the opportunities on the doorstep? I’m hoping to find some ideas where I’m going: to Community Links’ community hubs.

From what I can see, it’s clear that work really is rooted in the three elements of our approach:

  • Early Action – this is all about bringing people together and supporting them to build their resilience and readiness for the world. At Play, Sow and Grow- our environmental play focussed hub – I meet Muniira, who’s story exemplifies how this kind of work in a community can be really empowering. Her children first got involved with Community Links through Open Access Play, then her daughter worked for us for a short while. Through this, Muniira got actively involved herself, and now she’s organising culinary classes for the community, and cooking curry for some of the corporate volunteers who come down.
  •  Deep Value – our work is tailored to the needs of specific service users and/or communities. For example, at Chandos I met Hakim who started coming in to use the computers, and is now actively involved and thinking about running his own IT skills session. By really getting to know Hakim, Community Links staff have developed efficient and productive two way relationship, in which we tailor our work for him and he is empowered to give back to other users of the hub.
  •  Ground Up service users are really involved in the running of the hubs: setting the agendas for what goes on. At Chandos hub, I run into a meeting of local residents who were planning what the hub should focus on in the next few months (re-invigorate the gardening group? Organise a women-only salsa class?). And in Rokeby several volunteers from the local area run various sessions.

Even now in my third week on the job, I can already see how much of our work in the policy team is influenced by this approach to our on the ground delivery. The Early Action Task Force aims to make the case for precisely this type of work. Our policy work around back-to-work support focuses on how the Deep Value approach can be integrated into large-scale programmes and government policy. And our soon-to-be-released report on the local impacts of welfare reform is all about taking lessons from the ground and communicating them to policy makers.

As we’re driving back, Yvonne says about her time in Newham: “It’s a strange journey, but it’s an exciting journey”. The next few years will be crucial on the journey to determining whether promises made to London’s East End communities are delivered. We will never see opportunity on this scale again – we must make sure we all make the most of the journey.


The Curious incident of the line that got lost

Wednesday, February 12th, 2014

There was much to admire in Ed Miliband’s Hugo Young lecture on Monday evening. We particularly welcomed his commitment to “driving innovation by rethinking services on the basis of the places they serve not the silos people work in” and his assertion that “every user of a public service has something to contribute”.

The principle that we all need help at some time in our lives and we all have something to contribute underpins our work at Community Links but is sadly missing from most public services and we know, because we see it everyday, that rigid silos waste money and hinder the development of the deep value relationships that really change lives. Community Links publications dating back to Side by Side in 2008, Time Well Spent in 2009 and Out of the Ordinary in 2010 have been making the case for user involvement, mutual aid and what is now called “relational welfare” since before the recession and, of course, if achieving more with less was worth doing then it is even more important today.

Thats why we were as puzzled by what Ed Miliband didn’t say on Monday as we were pleased by what he did. Advisers were briefing over the weekend that “Miliband also promises to roll back decades of centralisation in local government, saying councils should be given powers to control three to five-year budgets in areas such as crime and justice, social services, the Work Programme and social care.” Or at least so the Guardian reported on Monday morning. Twelve hours later this line was nowhere to be found in either the circulated transcript or the speech as delivered.

We think that the introduction of longer term budgeting and planning is fundamental to the delivery of the aspirations in the rest of the speech. Our Early Action Task Force has been making the case since the publication of its first report The Triple Dividend in 2011. Services planned without long term or even medium term visibility on their funding respond to crises, chase easy wins and choose false economies. Longer term visibility incentivises smart investment and the forestalling of future liabilities. In a period of fiscal restraint, this allows for more thoughtful prioritisation and for the development of a realistic need reduction strategy even within the confines of a smaller envelope.

So what happened to the errant sentence? It seems unlikely that such a specific promise was misheard by the journalist. Maybe it was in the speech at the time of the briefing but didn’t make the final cut perhaps after consultation with shadow ministers or perhaps because the detail sat uncomfortably within a wide ranging lecture that was generally heavier on aspiration than on specifics. Maybe it is being held back for a later announcement. We must hope so. The alternative explanation, that Mr Miliband’s senior colleagues lack the courage to deliver on their leaders convictions is far more alarming.

Ten Principles for Better Government

Tuesday, August 6th, 2013

Today the Institute for Public Policy Research publish a thought-provoking personal essay, by Community Links co-founder David Robinson setting  out 10 principles for ‘whole system’ reform and provision of public services that is focused on the needs and resources of citizens and society.

ten point checklistThe parliamentary recess half way through the lifetime of a government is a good time to pause and take stock.

Public services are changing, and will change radically and fundamentally. Demographic shifts are increasing need at the same time as expenditure is being reduced and while many services are shrinking. In combination, these trends are creating a spiral of decline. As the remaining resources are sucked into managing the greatest needs, earlier-stage interventions are abandoned – spending on prevention fell by almost 10 per cent between 2010/11 and 2011/12 (Reeder 2013-forthcoming) – and more problems are becoming more difficult, when they might have been prevented entirely. Effective services fall into a tailspin, leading to crisis management, with inevitable consequences.

Eighty per cent of the deficit reduction strategy is staked on cost-cutting and there is a long way to go. The Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that 69 per cent of the cuts to current spending (excluding benefits) will still be outstanding at the end of this financial year (March 2014) – there is no precedent for administrative cost-cutting on this scale in the UK (Emmerson et al 2013). Christopher Hood and Ruth Dixon have shown that even the most effective period of cost reduction (in the later years of the John Major premiership) yielded less than one-fifth of the goal being pursued by the present government (Hood and Dixon 2012).

What if the targets are not achieved? Maybe the chancellor will return for another assault on local government – although Birmingham city council leader Sir Albert Bore was warning before the last budget round that we were witnessing ‘the end of local government as we know it’ (Butler 2012). The options get more limited and increasingly desperate.

In short, cuts without fundamental systems reform disrupt and disfigure without resolving or transforming. They generate more needs and more expensive needs, may well fail to deliver the short-term savings target, and are very likely to be storing up problems that will become increasingly complex and expensive.

We need now more than ever to challenge and change culture, systems and structures, to take a different approach.

It must be grounded in an understanding not just of the economic context but of the nature of the society that we are becoming, and it must articulate a more effective, sustainable and equitable alternative.

Reclaiming the old normal
The report into management and care at Mid Staffordshire hospital published in February 2013 revealed ‘the unnecessary suffering of hundreds of people’, ‘a lack of care, compassion and humanity’ and a ‘system which put corporate self-interest ahead of patient safety’ (HOC 2013). Three weeks later, Professor Bruce Keogh started work as the new NHS national medical director promising that hospitals would be fined if they failed to provide the best care (see Campbell 2013).

Care driven by fear of punishment? The prospect is discomforting but it isn’t new. Talk to social workers, teachers, probation officers and care workers and you will find that regulations and systems, impersonal transactions and a fear of risk and reprisal shape the culture in which they all work. Public services are reduced to a set of transactions when the real need is for a more personal relationship, for common sense and human kindness.

Now listen to those who use the services and those who do not. For some, family, friends and neighbours are more than adequate but for many they are not – moments of joy go unshared, battles are faced alone. More than a million pensioners enjoy less than 30 minutes’ social contact in any given week, our services must change. And so must our communities.

England is more segregated than at any time since 1966 (Dorling et al 2008). Weak communities and social isolation are widely considered to be one the greatest challenges facing Britain today (JRF 2008). Just one in five people know their neighbours well even though 95 per cent believe it would be positive to do so (Big Lunch 2010).

It is not a ‘new normal’ that we need to embrace but some part of the ‘old normal’ that we need to reclaim – our common humanity, mutual trust and a willing kindness. A piecemeal, programmatic response is one option, layering specific initiatives and isolated pilots over a failing system, more sanctions, inspections, enforcement, more waiting for trouble, more belated reaction and – ultimately and inevitably – more failure.

A better government, on the other hand, might understand the scale of the challenge and the importance of bold, whole-system reform. It would structure its narrative around the shared values which give our lives meaning, identity and purpose and  align its vision with the deep-set rhythms of our daily lives, talking about opportunities and transitions and making readiness its primary goal. It would pr event the preventable and champion relationships as the organising principle at the heart of all our public services.

Then, because government can lead and can enable but cannot achieve anything alone, it would co-produce and co-locate, fostering cooperation in our communities, services and politics, and changing the structures and the behaviours that right now are getting in the way.

These “10 Principles for Better government” are developed in an essay published by the IPPR today.

None of the principles will be a surprise to regular readers of this blog but sometimes its necessary to keep saying the same things and from our position here in one of the UKs most disadvantaged communities we think these things are particularly important

None are about saving money although all of them would.

They are all about a social alternative that is bold and just and would work better for us all, now and in the future.

Download the full publication from the IPPR website