Better Way national gathering

Tuesday 3rd July and Wednesday 4th July 2018

The Better Way dinner, 3rd July

Caroline Slocock, co-founder of the network, welcomed the guests and introduced four speakers:

  • Martyn Evans:  CEO of the Carnegie UK Trust, which has supported the Better Way network since its inception.

Martyn, welcoming members to the dinner, reflected on the importance of ‘associational life’ as a key part of democracy.  The state can do some things better than civil society and there are some things only it can do eg provide national armed forces, but part of its role is to enable others in society to do what they do best - an issue explored in the Carnegie UK Trust’s Enabling State project.  In the 21st century, we need to reimagine the state and also the role of civil society.  This issue lies at the heart of the Better Way network, whose origins began in an event he had attended with Steve Wyler, Caroline Slocock and others at Windsor Castle some years ago, which eventually led to setting up the network via an earlier initiative, A Call to Action for the Common Good.  CUKT had helped fund this work.  Like other projects it supports, such as on kindness, the Trust recognised it was exploratory, potentially ground-breaking but also highly risky: none of us at the outset could be sure about what we would achieve, if anything.  He applauded our spirit and what the network together had achieved so far.

  • Sue Tibballs, CEO of the Sheila McKechnie Foundation and member of a London cell.

Sue spoke about SMK’s recent report, Social Power, and her related essay in Insights for A Better Way.  She said that civil society was too passive at present, and tended to focus too much on influencing institutional power and delivering services.  But it had enormous social power by virtue of its proximity to people and the relationships it forms.  Government should value the voice of the sector but most importantly we should ‘get on with it’ ourselves in civil society, using this power.  The key message: change starts with us.

  • Danny Kruger, a founding member of a Better Way, currently working in the Office of Civil Society on the civil society strategy.

Danny said that the civil society strategy – a draft of which is currently being consulted upon in Government - will not be a set of policies or include major policy changes.  However it would, he hoped, represent a significant shift toward what he described as a ‘gentle revolution’ -  ie moving away from seeing people as individual units and costed transactions to relationships and also in favour of ‘responsible business’.  He said that we should expect to see a shift in language - eg from procurer to co-creator -  and thought it should be seen as a starting point for dialogue between Government and civil society in future.   

  • Steve Wyler: co-founder of A Better Way and Panel Member on Civil Society Futures, the inquiry into the future of civil society underway.

Steve gave us some insights into the emerging thinking of Civil Society Futures and the links across the thinking of the network.  Civil society’s role had evolved over time, eg from the alleviation of poverty, to social justice and, more recently, to service delivery.  Against a backdrop  where people are now feeling a lack of agency and as a result of AI we may be facing a ‘us and them’ future, civil society could play a vital role in putting power into the hands of communities and connecting us in ways that humanise how we do things.  But civil society is not yet fit for this purpose, he said.  It is in fact part of the problem, perpetuating a command and control model, hoarding power, fighting its own corner and not allowing others to step forward.  Looking ahead, the Inquiry was now focusing on four areas: place; belonging and identity; work and purpose; and organisations.  The thinking was moving toward a new ‘a new PACT amongst us’, where PACT stood for P: power and participation; A: accountability and access; C: community and connecting; T: trust and transformation.  And it was looking at the ‘architecture’ to push things in this direction including a ‘new social national grid’, connectivity over activity and rethinking the hierarchy of evidence in measurement.  This was all rich territory for a Better Way.

2) Gathering event, 4th July

Session one: what we’ve learnt during the year:

Kathy Evans, a founding member, welcomed everyone to the event and then Caroline Slocock introduced Insights for A Better Way: improving services and building strong communities, which was launched that day. She said the collection of some 40 contributions had fleshed out the Better Way propositions and had helped us deliver on our priorities for this year (which had been identified at last year’s Gathering).  These were:

  • Creating stories that move hearts as well as minds, bringing our propositions to life
  • Exploring what it means to be a Better Way leader, what we have started to call ‘shared leadership’
  • Demonstrating the rich potential of communities, people and organisations
  • Finding ways to put the Better Way propositions into action, avoiding lip service.

She added that we had also made some progress on our other priority, diversifying the network, which was reflected in this volume, though there is more to do, particularly in bringing people from other sectors in the network.

She said that the stories and essays shed light on the individual Better Way propositions and showed in many different ways why they were important and how they could be achieved.  They were a stepping stone to our final Call to Action – our goal at the end of the third year of our network in July 2019.  

Some themes were emerging that might be developed in that Call to Action, she suggested, which were as follows, inviting contributors who were present to speak for one minute about what they had written:

1) Shared leadership: (reflecting the Better Way propositions on ‘collaboration’ and ‘changing ourselves’):

  • Sue Tibballs invited us to become bolder leaders and recognise the legitimacy and potential of ‘social power’.
  • Cate Newnes- Smith had come to see herself as a ‘systems leader’ in Surrey and said that this started with no longer seeing the organisation as the end, actively seeking to collaborate across and within sectors, and creating shared ‘big hairy goals’.
  • Audrey Thompson drew on her experience of being a ‘local connector’ in Doncaster to show how it can unlock ‘social leadership’, which is especially important in disadvantaged areas.

2) Relationships (reflecting our propositions on ‘deep value relationships’ and ‘building on strengths’):

  • Richard Wilson pointed to the underlying factors that support ‘Good Help’ including helping individuals to find their own sense of  purpose  and the confidence to act, all of which requires strong relationships.
  • Colin Falconer described how he and the late Jane Slowey (to whom the collection is dedicated) invented ‘Advantaged Thinking’, which sees young people as assets rather than focusing on risks and deficits, in a direct challenge to the negative narrative of ‘disadvantage’ that pervades much of the voluntary sector.

3) Better way organisations –(‘organisations without walls’, as we have described them in our Better Way discussions, which bring in or are led by experts in lived experience, engage with the communities they serve and empower front line staff to build strong relationships with those with whom they work):

  • Karin Woodley spoke of how we need to keep our organisations personal, praticising ‘radical listening’ which treats communities more as partners than consumers, creating the diversity within our organisations that reflects those served, and shaking off contracts that take organisations off mission.
  • Simon Shaw talked about how the Food Power programme is involving experts by experience to say what they want, and how this is changing how they talk and think about food poverty.

4) Better Way places (reflecting our propositions on ‘local’ and ‘prevention’)

  • Nicola Butler talked about the positive examples of Hackney Council and the Governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in relation to play.  Hackney Council is practising effective local partnership with play providers and the local community and actively values the particular contributions of local organisations in commissioning and reflects the priorities of local people.  But national partnerships are also supporting this work in a complementary way. Both are needed.
  • Bethia McNeil, who is exploring in a Better Way cross-cutting group how to shift the bias in current measurement away from national to local organisations, explained that we need a shift away from high-stakes accountability and targets toward measures that show whether organisations are delivering on their mission - so that we ‘hit the point, not the target’.
  • Caroline Slocock explained that ‘social infrastructure’ – the buildings and built environment; the services and organisations; the social capital within communities and between organisations –builds readiness and resilience, but is being undervalued and cut back.  We need to invest more and think holistically.

5) Mass participation.  Providers are very focused on services, but ‘freeing people from services’ could be our aim, a point made during the Better Way visit to Ignite in Coventry in 2018:

  • Sona Mahtani called for ‘a Selby Centre in every area’, describing the extraordinary diversity and energy in Tottenham. The simple act of bringing people together unleashes creativity, opportunity and energy that people create themselves.
  • So Jung Rim, who had grown up in Seoul and witnessed first hand the social innovation revolution of the Mayor there, explained how she is now working in the Social Innovation Exchange to create different platforms for diverse voices.

Then there were two cross cutting strands in the Insights volume:

6) Better way systems that help make better way leadership, relationships, places, organisations and mass participation happen:

  • Toby Lowe spoke about the complexity of individuals, people and systems.  The current flawed process model  - of individual action by organisations leading to specific outcomes - is beginning to be replaced by collaboration and a growing movement toward funding and collaborative commissioning which genuinely reflects that complexity.
  • Graeme Duncan, speaking about schools, lamented the impact of high-stakes targets and the way in which they were leading to the exclusions of pupils and teachers abandoning the  very principles that often drew them to teaching.  He proposed new principles that could be adopted instead of targets.
  • Matt Kepple made a plea for the social sector and others to take up the immense opportunity created by new technology to share data on what works – our own wikepedia – and empower others to improve services.

7) Last but not least: arresting stories, which bring home why and how these things can be achieved:

  • Clare Wightman spoke of her experience of putting local people in touch with a vulnerable family in a difficult estate and the unique value of this support network, so much better than ‘services’.
  • Steve Wyler told the group of his experience of an elderly neighbour who had been able to make her own way and evade social services through the kindness of strangers but fell ill when finally forced to be under their care, when a ceiling fell in.
  • Kathy Evans recalled her own journey toward becoming a ‘thought leader’, battling with ‘imposter syndrome’ and recognising that you need to lead with your heart, not your head, in order to challenge the status quo.

In open discussion, some of the points made in response were:

  • We often focus on the ‘what’ we do, but it is the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ that is more important in delivering a Better Way. 
  • We need to work on language, which is not connecting with the people we serve, recognising that different language works for different communities and there are different levels of engagement and discourse for practitioners, specialists and users.
  • We also need to find a different language other than that of ‘delivering services’, which does not embody the Better Way propositions.
  • It’s important to employ people from within communities and people with lived experience and to be more self-reflective about what we claim.  For example, we are not giving people agency or empowering them, they have it already, we need to ‘give our organisations away’ and give others the space to take power.
  • There is a specific job to be done, which some are doing, to engage the voices of communities in articulating what they want.
  • Diversity is critical, not an add-on.  We need to reflect the communities we work with.
  • The relationship between the state and the social sector has sometimes been mutually supportive but the state has now become a generator of harm eg through the ‘hostile environment’ and the punitive nature of some parts of the welfare state.  This presents a different problem to simply trying to reform its processes or work alongside it.
  • Recognising and protecting human rights, rather than thinking of our core activities as being about the more effective delivery of services, is important.
  • We focus too much on institutional power and the provision of services and need to spend more time working with individuals and communities and influencing the public debate (which is often a key block or spur to change).
  • We need to engage with politics in the sense of policies and the wider narrative more – this is how systemic change happens.
  • Who are ‘we’?  ‘We’ should not just be the social sector – we need to widen our network - and we should stop seeing ‘we’ as institutions and organisational interests.
  • Seeing ourselves as system leaders and social activists is important.

 Hot topics: ideas others can adopt

The group then broke into the following syndicates to discuss four topics.  Here are some points coming out of these that were brought back to the wider group that seemed to resonate:

Collaboration in action (led by Cate Newnes-Smith, Toby Lowe and Matt Kepple):

  • We need to develop measurement to enable learning rather than accountability – note that the airline industry learns from accidents, whereas the NHS holds people heavily accountable for them.  Measures need to come from purpose and must include qualitative information.  It’s too much about numbers now. 
  • Understanding the complexity of issues, people and systems unlocks shared leadership.  Cate Newnes-Smith and Toby Lowe committed to work in Surrey to help them better understand the systems and issues there and to use local councillors as allies.
  • Matt Kepple said that it would be useful to use technology to visualise the complex factors affecting individuals, for example on obesity.  This would enable organisations to understand better and target their contribution.  It might also allow a person to become more aware of what was available and help in guiding their transitions.  An example of where such a map might exist, or could help, was support for older people in Lambeth, where different organisations coming into contact with individuals are signposting help by others.

Building on strengths/deep value relationships (led by Rich Wilson, Karin Woodley and Colin Falconer):

  • There was a strong message about the importance of relationships in the Better Way network itself, and the fact that these were under-estimated as a way of facilitating change.
  • Some suggestions were put forward for helping to make these relationships stronger – ‘liming’ (where people meet over a drink to chew over an issue, originating from the Caribbean), and ‘home groups’ (where people share personal issues with each other and provide mutual learning and support). 
  • At the same time we can and should continue to learn from each other about ‘how’ to do things, but also recognise that stronger relationships would facilitate this and build trust.
  • One area we could work on the ‘how’ is Advantaged Thinking, which is a strong concept but where we could learn and communicate better how to do it.

Principles are better than targets/local is better than national (led by Bethia McNeil, Graham Duncan):

  • We need to work on language, paring it back so it feels more authentic.
  • We should focus more on the process (the ‘how’) and less on the outcome (the ‘what’).  
  • And move away from high-stakes to low-stakes accountability, recognising uncertainty rather than pretending that there is certainty.
  • There is a failure to learn because we do not focus on the right things.

Changing ourselves/mass participation (led by Sona Mahtani and So Jung Rim):

  • We need to create physical spaces to bring people together – eg community land, ‘commons Treasury’. 
  • The Mayor of Seoul had a ‘mobile office’ so that he was genuinely out listening to people.
  • Community GPs have proved a powerful concept.  Rhys Davies gave the example of a retired nurse who acted in a ‘connector’ role, linking up 300 people who would not have done so otherwise.

Amongst the wider reflections on this feedback:

  • Time is a barrier and we need to be aware of this.  We need time to reflect and invent and space to do something new.
  • The hospice movement is one example of where it is recognised that it is the process that matters – death is the outcome but this is not the objective of care.
  • Relationships are a key asset for the social sector but are undervalued.  We need to build that asset and our network is part of this.

Our priorities for the year ahead

Steve Wyler introduced this part of the discussion by raising the following questions:

  • What are we doing right and what needs to change?
  • Should our priorities stay the same as this year or shift?
  • How can we develop our overall story of change?
  • Where should we put our efforts in recruiting more people to join us?
  • How can we develop cross-cell working and spread knowledge across the network?

In response, the points made included:

  • An endorsement of the value of relationships in the network and a recognition of the different ways of developing them, including ‘liming’.
  • Dinners don’t work for everyone but there was also a strong feeling amongst some that they are still valuable – some members really like the discussions, and the ideas that come out of them are the biggest value for some. 
  • There were therefore potentially ‘horses for courses’.
  • We could do more of bringing individual challenges into the group to ‘chew things through’, with individuals leading discussions.  Specific topics of wide interest could be broadcast across the network asking for people to volunteer to take part.
  • Sharing email addresses (GDPR permitting) would be very useful.
  • There was some interest in buddying/mentoring but this might perhaps happen spontaneously if we did more signposting through a register of particular interests.
  • Was this a leadership development network, someone asked– no!  We are all social activists, not just the nominal leaders of organisations, and we are all leaders.
  • The call to action we have promised for the end of our third year could be a manifesto.  It is important for us to think about the political dimension of what we are calling for and there was a strong call from some to move in this direction to influence the wider political narrative. ‘I am dying for policies’, someone said.
  • We need to be clear about what we stand for and believe in (our values and propositions). One suggestion for this was: ‘people who care about people’.
  • The process matters – the ‘how’.  Sharing on how to put the propositions into action might be useful eg to enable greater collaboration and experimentation in a place.
  • This could include ways of challenging power, not just about delivery of services.  We tend to focus on being constructive but also should be disruptive.
  • We could be testing and developing ideas over the next year.
  • There was a call for more cells in different places and more travelling to other cells and cross-fertilisation.
  • And perhaps some bigger events, joining up with other movements (eg movement for health creation).

It was agreed Steve Wyler and Caroline Slocock would use this steer to work up future priorities and working methods.


  • Lynne Berry, Civil Exchange**
  • Julie Bishop, Law Centres Federation
  • Geraldine Blake, London Funders
  • Richard Bridge, Corndel
  • Paul Buddery, Volunteering Matters
  • Nicola Butler, Hackney Play Association**
  • Rhys Davies, Community Catalysts
  • Frances Duncan, Clock Tower Sanctuary
  • Graeme Duncan, Right to Succeed**
  • Kathy Evans, Children England
  • Martyn  Evans, Carnegie UK Trust
  • Colin Falconer, Inspire Chilli
  • Andy Gregg, Race on the Agenda
  • Athol Halle, Trust for Developing Communities
  • Richard Harries, Power to Change
  • Sarah Hughes,Centre for Mental Health
  • So Jung Rim, Social Innovation Exchange**
  • Matt Kepple, Makerble
  • Kate Kewley, Social Finance**
  • Danny Kruger, West London Zone, Only Connect*
  • Toby Lowe, Newcastle University Business School
  • Sona Mahtani, Selby Centre
  • Bethia   McNeil, Centre for Youth Impact**
  • Vincent Neate, Relationship Capital Strategies*
  • Cate Newnes-Smith, Surrey Youth Focus
  • Helen Rice, Advising Communities
  • Simon Shaw, Sustain**
  • Duncan Shrubsole, Lloyds Bank Foundation**
  • Merron Simpson, New NHS Alliance
  • Caroline Slocock, Civil Exchange
  • Jess Steele, Jericho Road*
  • Sujutha  Thaladi, The Mentor Ring
  • Audrey  Thompson, Bentley Area Community Library
  • Sue Tibballs, Sheila McKechnie Foundation
  • Clare Wightman, Coventry Grapevine
  • Richard Wilson,  OSCA
  • Karin Woodley, Cambridge House
  • Steve Wyler, Independent
  • Sally Young, Newcastle CVS

*Dinner only

**Workshop only