Tactics for practitioners

Better Way roundtable, 4 April 2019


Caroline Slocock introduced the roundtable, which is intended to identify tactics so that people and communities can thrive, not just cope.  We’ve already started to explore how to do so through a number of essays in Insights for A Better Way, and blogs on the Better Way website, which included contributions from:

  • Edel Harris, who says that Local Cornerstone is ‘throwing away the rulebook’ and empowering front-line staff so they have space to make time for people.

  • Matt Kepple, who says we should create a network of ‘curious’ people and challenges us to create our own version of Wikipedia so that we can share what works and become a collective force for good. 

  • Colin Falconer, who explains how the Foyer Federation established Advantaged Thinking for practitioners to ‘build on strengths’ and avoid ‘the branding of disadvantage’.

  • Richard Wilson, who explains that good relationships between practitioners and those they work with are key to ‘Good’ and ‘Bad Help’.

  • Graeme Duncan, who identifies principles that are more likely to lead to better education than damaging high-stakes targets. 

  • David Robinson, who advocates putting ‘relationships, rather than transactions’ into practice and also writes movingly about the importance of the exercise of humanity in services.

  • Steven Platts, who shows how at Groundswell the ‘Give a lot, Get a lot’ ethos works, bringing in experts in lived experience to support people facing homelessness.

Advantaged thinking

Colin Falconer pointed out that attempts to redress the balance between meeting the needs of people and developing their strengths has a long history which can be traced back to Aristotle’s notions of a ‘good life’ and in recent years has found expression in Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) and in other strengths-based approaches.

Advantaged Thinking was developed at the Foyer Federation as an alternative narrative about young people designed to inspire rather that to focus on the negative.  Seven tests were developed:

 ·        How we talk about people (without stigmatising)

·        How we understand people (potential, not just problems)

·        How we work with people (encouraging risk taking and trust)

·        How we invest in people (beyond surviving and c0ping)

·        What we expect for people (for them to thrive)

·        How we involve people as their own solutions (so they are agents of change)

·        How we act to find, develop, support and challenge thinking in others (to make all of the above more widely possible)

 Colin encouraged us to consider how we behave as parents, when a child is still crawling. A disadvantaged-thinking parent would assume the child will never walk, and tell the child that they will always have to crawl, and they would put in place crawl-related therapy and similar measures. An advantaged thinking parent would encourage the child to learn to walk, based on a belief that they will walk.

 A social Wiki

 Matt Kepple described his work to establish the Makerble platform to make it easier for organisations to track impact.  The wider challenge he said is how to make best practice more discoverable.  The problem we face in the social sector is that the pace of iteration is too slow.  James Dyson produced 5,126 versions of his vacuum cleaner that hat failed before he made one that worked. We do produce changes and improvements, but if evaluation and dissemination only happens at the end of a programme we are held back. We can de-risk and accelerate iteration by sharing and  building a community of practice, but our primary methods, conferences and training events, only reach senior staff, not front-line workers.  Can we learn from the extraordinary success of Wikipedia and Spotify, for example, to create an on-line library of best practice targeted to outcomes and beneficiary groups, and personalised so that the people using the library get what they need?

Much of the work of the social sector is about helping people and communities progress from a negative position (‘minus one’) to a just about tolerable position (‘zero’), whereas the real prize is to move further, to a positive position (‘plus one’):

Plus one.png


 In the discussion, the following points were made: 

  • An open-source approach to intellectual property is essential to achieve rapid progress in the social sector. The late Jane Slowey, who led the Foyer Federation as Advantaged Thinking was being developed, was always willing to share with anyone interested.

  • Models similar to the seven tests of advantaged thinking have been developed in other sectors.  For example the five features of health creating practices developed by the New NHS Alliance: listening and responding, truth-telling, strengths-focus, self-organising and power-shifting.

  • There have been examples of successful on-line social sector sharing platforms. One is the Rightsnet system, developed by LASA, which is a platform for thousands of advisers across the UK to stay up to date with the latest social welfare law news and case law developments, to get casework support, to test their ideas and share their experience, and to network with other advice workers. Similary there is a Refugee Legal Group online network.  These have been developed as voluntary communities, where any investment of time is amply rewarded. They require good administration and scale, so that information is constantly refreshed.  

  • It is very difficult for new entrants to gain critical mass, and activities such as a festival of ideas may be needed to generate initial content on a particular cause. A feedback loop, even a rating system, can help to build trust and confidence in the platform. But if possible it would be best to use an existing platform rather than invent a new one.

  • Do these platforms reinforce a tendency to apply models which do things ‘for ‘and ‘to’ people, rather than to help them to do things for themselves?  Not necessarily, and Colin described how communities of practice have developed in Australia to explore advantaged thinking techniques together and to involve the whole organisation.

  • In places, we need better platforms which can help people and organisations to come together to consider what matters and to measure impact.  But we should be wary on imposing systems.

  • Sharing platforms can operate best whether there is also an intention to change from above. For example, in Wigan the local authority leadership has decided that asset based community development approaches should be applied to every aspect of the council’s work, and all staff are required to have basic training in the principles. Strategic determination of this kind can create the conditions for a learning community to flourish.

  • Social sector organisations tend to hoard their own resources. They are very reluctant to give money to people directly, to investment in them so that they can make change on their own terms. But perhaps much more of this would be a good thing, to build agency and self-determination. A recent book, Utopia for Realists, identifies examples (including work with long term rough sleepers in London) where providing people with money was more effective that providing them with conventional services.

  • It is wrong to assume that all social interventions are designed to support people and to help them flourish in their lives. This is not always the case.  As has been revealed recently, the immigration services were designed to create a hostile environment. Much of the benefit system seems designed to control rather than support people. We have set up a childcare system which privileges those in high-income work and disadvantages those on benefits. 

  • In such cases it is not enough to introduce better practice (eg asset based models of working). The systems themselves need to be challenged and dismantled. It is sometimes possible to appeal to notions of ‘fair play’, and to build a coalition capable of achieving a change to a national system which is treating people unjustly or holding them back.  In other cases it is possible to find some common ground even where there are significant policy or cultural differences, and make some gains.

  • Wherever there are opportunities to build better systems, models like Advantaged Thinking will be needed, and effective communities of practice that can share learning and that can engage users and frontline staff in design.

 There is an excitement about technology-enabled, not technology-led solutions. Tactics so that people and communities can thrive, not just cope, need to be both top-down as well as bottom-up. Our efforts need to build critical mass, and become viral.  In that process we not only move towards ‘plus one’ practice, but also start to change the national story.