Insights for A Better Way: improving services and building strong communities

What do these insights tell us about A Better Way? Introduction by Caroline Slocock

Caroline Slocock

Caroline Slocock

Communities could be so much stronger, services so much better and this collection of insights lights the way. Individually, the contributions flesh out our Better Way propositions. Collectively, they develop the four themes identified at last year’s national Gathering and take us a further step toward our ultimate ‘call to action’.

First, we’ve started to demonstrate the value of stories that move hearts as well as minds, bringing the propositions alive and giving ‘ideas friends’.

‘Personal stories give ideas friends’

Julia Unwin and David Robinson write movingly about the deep value of kindness and humanity in public services in moments of personal crisis. Alicia Moore’s poem captures how the education system is failing to recognise individuality and is causing stress. Clare Wightman and Steve Wyler demonstrate vividly that people in the community can sometimes provide better support than public services. Mark Johnson tells how he’s challenged the deep-seated bias against experts in lived experience in the criminal justice system and built a movement. Liz Richardson takes the potentially dry subject of how top down measures impede learning and makes it fun. Mark Gamsu’s story brings home that targets fail to do justice to the impact on people’s lives.

The personal brings a fresh perspective. It is often hard to demonstrate that prevention is better than cure, but in our own lives it’s much easier to see, Jenny Brotchie finds. Sarah Hughes takes the recipe for prevention in her professional world and applies it at home - and it works. Kate Welch looks reflectively at herself and shows why it’s important to make space for others to have their say. Listen to your heart, not the head, Kathy Evans explains, if you want to follow a Better Way.

Second, these essays tell us what we mean by ‘shared leadership’.

A powerful case is made for what we call ‘collaboration, not competition’. Complex social issues are often caused by complex systems. Co-ordinated action not only better addresses structural causes, it also matches the complexity of individual lives, says Toby Lowe, arguing for commissioning and funding to support this. Cate Newnes-Smith would like to see more ‘holistic systems leaders’ who understand the real issues in people’s lives and work across organisations and sectors to deliver shared goals. ‘Social connectors’ can also empower and link up individuals, as Audrey Thompson’s own experience illustrates. Big companies are increasingly reaching out and working innovatively with charities toward shared goals, says Tom Levitt, with compelling case studies.

‘Practise radical listening’

‘Changing ourselves is better than seeking change in others,’ we say. ‘Be the change you want to see in the world’ writes Sue Tibballs, asking people to make more use of the immense latent ‘social power’ of civil society. True leadership means influencing and empowering others to make change happen; and we should create organisations ‘without walls’, we’ve concluded in Better Way discussions. Keep our organisations ‘personal’, reminds Karin Woodley, and practise ‘radical listening’: communities should be seen as partners, not consumers. Chris Wright tells us how Catch22 is developing new models of practice and creating momentum to shift wider public sector practice, modelling organisational leadership.

Let’s create a network of ‘curious’ people who seek to understand how to change systems, some members have said. Matt Kepple challenges us to create our own version of Wikepedia so that we can share what works and become a collective force for good.

Third, the rich potential of communities, people and organisations is brought home here.

‘Every person matters and brings their strengths to the table’

Colin Falconer - in memory of Jane Slowey – explains how the Foyer Federation established Advantaged Thinking to ‘build on strengths’ and avoid ‘the branding of disadvantage’. A food co-op in Gateshead, started as an alternative to a foodbank, creates a community ‘where every person matters and brings their own strengths and qualities to the table,’ Ollie Batchelor says. At Groundswell, Steven Platt shows how the ‘Give a lot, Get a lot’ ethos works.

So Jung Rim tells how the Social Innovation Exchange creates platforms for diverse voices – an example of ‘mass participation’. ‘Bringing people together unleashes creativity, opportunity and energy people create themselves,’ writes Sona Mahtani about the Selby Centre in Tottenham, another example. Simon Shaw explains how Food Power is creating opportunities for people experiencing food poverty to set the agenda.

How to support the ‘local’ is also explored here. Richard Bridge argues that local authorities need to distribute power more equally. We should be ‘spreading rather than scaling up’, we’ve concluded in Better Way discussions. National organisations should no longer compete with local ones, Polly Neate advocates. Nicola Butler illustrates the value of genuine local and national partnership working – local is often best for services and communities but both are needed.

Finally, there’s ideas and experience in this volume for putting the Better Way propositions into practice, avoiding lip-service.

In addition to the insights already mentioned, Richard Wilson explains that good relationships are key to ‘Good’ and ‘Bad Help’; and David Robinson gives us principles for developing a ‘warm web’ in communities – putting ‘relationships, rather than transactions’ into practice.

Rick Henderson identifies that treating homeless people as people is the key to ‘prevention rather than cure’. Caroline Slocock says we should recognise and strengthen the preventative role of social infrastructure. A New Direction is helping young people to realise their cultural capital and escape increasingly restricted and unhealthy lives, Laurence Walker explains.

On ‘principles rather than targets’, high-stakes accountability is distorting practice and undermining learning, writes Bethia McNeil. Matt Leach shows that the Local Trust has been able to ‘let go’, entrusting local communities to establish their own goals. Local Cornerstone is ‘throwing away the rulebook’ and empowering front-line staff, says Edel Harris. Graeme Duncan identifies principles that are more likely to lead to better education than damaging high-stakes targets.

They are showing ‘it can be done’ and point to how to do it. As Steve Wyler, reflecting on the Better Way network, quotes optimistically: ‘never doubt that a group of committed individuals can change the world.’


Caroline Slocock is a co-convenor of the network and the editor of Insights for A Better Way.