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Making innovation work for good. T:@inspirechilli

Wednesday 30 January 2013

Escaping the straight-jacket: thoughts on the progression whole

Today I went to an ‘expert seminar’ run by The Progression Trust, The Young Foundation, and Joseph Rowntree Foundation, called ‘Progression Whole’. We live in a world where too many young people are left to struggle through key transition points in their lives.  Policy and practice is often over focused on narrow, limited interventions and outcomes rather than the ‘whole person, whole journey’ of an individual. That, in my limited nutshell, is the mantra and message of The Progression Whole. So how do we go about changing things at a system level?

The day kicked off with the suggestion from the always insightful and provocative chair Matthew Taylor that we didn’t need to discuss what progression meant, but needed to get stuck into the nitty gritty of the associated practice, research and policy issues.  The rest of the morning was spent with a mix of presentations and facilitated groups sessions to begin to scratch the surface in those areas. What came through – which Matthew Taylor suggested was a long way from being granular enough - made me think back to the opening comment: maybe the issue we are all dealing with is that progression is not as well defined and understood as we’d like to think it is.

I believe we are in a policy and practice environment where there is a tussle going on between a full monty aspirational person-centred progression vision, and a series of false markers that appear to promise that but are in fact delivering something entirely different. Thus, one can find organisations commissioned to offer move on and resettlement services, under the banner of progressing independent lives, but within a framework and timescale which entirely limits what an individual can achieve.  Resettlement, move on, independent living, are all phrases which might form part of a whole progression but on their own often package up an individual into an outcome rather like one puts on a straight-jacket.  Sometimes, we get lost in the proxy rather than the reality of where someone is.  If we ask the question, what do we need to be able to do and be to make the transition at this point and what/where next, the answer is unlikely to be measured in an exit interview for a resettlement plan.   It is entirely possible at present to be responsible for services that deliver excellent outcomes in delivering very little at all that really helps an individual make a significant transition or transformation in their life journey. That is the bad faith that is the blindspot or hole in our current progression whole.  The difference between coping and thriving is an entirely different type of provision, not that young people are incapable of making the journey between the two stages.

There are a series of complex issues at play here.  One of them is certainly that, in some places, there is a poverty of aspiration for specific groups of young people.  As the recent Joseph Rowntree report on ‘Attitudes, aspirations and behaviours’ indicates, we are awash with language on the  lack of or achievement of aspiration. But little of that is directed at the poverty of aspiration inside the policy and decision making frameworks behind the shoddy deals offered to some young people at the local level.  Linked to this, is the behaviour by which even the sector itself fuels the poverty of aspiration in others by endlessly stereotyping young people in terms of the language that marks their challenges – disadvantaged, at risk, NEETS, vulnerable, etc.  It is yet another straight-jacket which, once we buckle young people into, entirely limits the way their progression is discussed, measured and invested in.  The other issue is the whole nature of complexity itself. Progression must be about embracing the concept of complexity theory; the need for very tailored, co-produced, personalised solutions that ensure the journey is real  and alive for someone.  Within the rigid silos of age-based policies, departmental budgets, specific funding programmes, and a host of other Kafkaesque hurdles, you need dynamite to keep the road of that vision open .

I left the building with a memorable quote from the day in mind: ‘let’s measure what we value and value what we measure’.   If you think about that for a moment, and go back to think about how progression is valued and measured in one’s own organisation, it’s a good starting point to escape the straight-jacket.

Friday 18 January 2013

People Powered Change: A game of shadows

Last night I attended an event by the Institute for Government (IfG) and the Big Lottery Fund (BIG), called ‘Connecting Policy with Practice: People Powered Change’.

It is a partnership designed to engage policy makers and commissioners with the insights of VCS leaders involved in the latest round of strategic investments from BIG expressing their new People Powered sision.  As the IfG website says, ‘It is increasingly clear that traditional delivery models, and silo working, will not be effective in addressing the most intractable social policy problems especially against a background of reducing resources.’

Of course we’ve heard the concepts of cross sector partnerships, new deals, learning from what works, etc etc, before.  But at the heart of this endeavour is something with potential: a desire to solve the intractable issues repeated through the poverty and exclusion engrained in our social order.  In Sherlock Holmes terms, it’s a return to the elementary business of hunting down the Moriarty behind the ‘Game of Shadows’ in our rather murky world of policy, funding and civil society delivery.

I want to pause for a moment to be mindful about what the BIG vision of People Powered Change means. The event at the Institute for Government included excellent insightful presentations from Peter Wanless, Chief Executive of BIG, and Dharmendra Kanani, BIG England Director. It is quite clear that BIG are beginning to occupy the territory of a thoughtful funder, trying to push the focus of investments away from just ‘random acts of kindness’ towards something more strategic, evidenced, and transformational. It is refreshing to hear BIG beginning to talk the same language of what we call at the Foyer Federation 'Open Talent': the theory of co-production, how the experiences of people can provide solutions to the problems they seem to pose, the importance of working with people based on what they can do rather than just supporting what they can’t.  The challenge for this progressive dialogue is whether it can deliver on the promise in People Powered Change. Can BIG help lead a change in the ‘power’ dynamics by which the VCS, policy makers, commissioners and funders perceive and act on ‘people’?

This question here is not just one of co-production, or representation. It is also about the language we use to identify and understand the people who are meant to be powering the change. Because one of the changes urgently required in the shadows is the way policy, funders, and the VCS perceive and diagnose people through a lexicon of needs, deficits, problems and vulnerabilities which often negatively directs what and how services get designed and funded.

There is a paradigm moment here: we are collectively stuck in a way of thinking – a form of ‘disadvantaged thinking’ -which labels people in ways that influences how society works with and misunderstands those people.  It is a vicious cycle that promotes the disadvantage we seek to address.   Moriarty is in our minds.

People Powered Change must be about people as they really are, not people as a set of entrenched stereotypes. Part of the power we must learn is the power of language itself.  What we choose to call people is key to what reality we create with and for people.  Whilst the Institute for Government and Big Lottery Fund partnership is refreshingly important, it is still in part thinking from and connecting within the shadows of language it must find the power to change. That is its starting point.  There are people who are experiencing the challenges of not being in education, but none of them exist as NEET, and not one of them deserves the type of services and policies we continue to clumsily shape to address the stereotype that they are not.  People Powered Change – really - yes please. 

Sunday 13 January 2013


Nagasaki. In the ruins of Japan’s oldest Christian cathedral, they found one remain: the burnt out face from a statue of the Virgin Mary. Her features ashen, eyes tortured into black pits, a medusa stare of horror within her peaceful transcendent gaze. Our death-mask of humanity.

One sinks into onsen, hidden in a forest watched by wild deer, listening to the wind rustle morning mist into glistening leaves.

 ‘Open to the talent of ancestors

Open to the talent of our selves

Open to the talents of others

Open to the talents of our world’

To replenish.

To see, refreshed, the focus  and purpose of charity.  The saving, the stabilising, the preventing;  where is the cause? We are an athlete becoming faster, no longer aware of what is the race. Lost in a net of our own keeping, origin is a distant mountain.  Fuji’s mysterious peek-a-boo.

Cogs of the universe turn at the Temple in perfected ritual. Sutra and incense to ease a soul sickened from the West’s gorging reason.  You impact by being the transformation you seek for others. Yet the systems we work within persist in such conflict. What structures has reason shaped in our hearts, to shift the paradigm of thinking we cherish but are not?

Disadvantage is our product. An ugly show-room car of the way we think, the values we feel.  Mass produced.  Branded.  Promoted.  Sold in an industry like a range of breakfast cereals offering both the sugary policies of poverty and the healthy options of charity. Eaten blindly.  Another New Year sale, another diet of good intentions failed.

Staring back into Yokohama sky, a cargo boat snails silver across the horizon, shifting heavy ripples of purpose to the shore.  The sands on the beach below me cannot contain all our suffering.  Opportunity lies, but not in the grains – it is the problems within us. We stand so shy in the mirror to ourselves.

Military helicopters hum overhead, spinning angrily towards an imaginary war of clouds. Breaking nature. And now I fly, over Murmansk, arms stretched to home. What is inside: what is outside.  We are the measure and impact; the story to sweep the beach and reveal our mountain; the catalyst of experience to collaborate us together again.
The airport luggage belt laden with shapes from many travels turns in an infinite Escher puzzle. Which one will you choose?  How? Who? To where? There are three cases to each item of luggage: our today is both what we solve from yesterday and create for tomorrow.  
I watch people push past with nothing to declare. They become invisible in the sterile glare of arrivals. Then I too follow, a different Humpty Dumpty.