ARTICLES Back to the future: how can we help people change the system?

Back to the future: how can we help people change the system?

So many organisations are seeking to make a difference to people’s lives today. But how can we involve the communities we work with in shaping the policies and systems that will change their tomorrows too?

Christine told of how she had lost her confidence before she got involved. But that she was so glad that she had been encouraged to put herself forward. The experience had really changed her as a person as well as helping her to help others.

Christine and Marwa are recent graduates of Money Mentors. The project is a partnership between Toynbee Hall and a wide range of community organisations, supporting participants to develop the skills to help people they care about to manage their money better. Money Mentor participants need no qualifications or previous experience to access the course, and the project’s focus on passing on learning informally to others has enabled it to make a real difference to people who might not feel confident accessing a formal financial health service.

This project is just one example of how jointly led social action can tackle the urgent and growing problem of financial exclusion within informal networks of people. And as the Money Mentors have been through their own journeys, many of them have understandably begun to question the fairness of the world around them.

And so for us and for civil society more generally, the constant question is how can we turn the powerful and responsive answers we help people and communities find every day into policy and system change across public services?

It starts here

Civil society organisations have an enormous history of driving social change. At Toynbee Hall we take pride in the part we’ve played in this: Clement Attlee and William Beveridge had their ideas shaped by their work here in East London, and many other innovators, from within the diverse communities around us have also made huge contributions. More recently we’ve influenced policy and practice around lending, debt and financial health, and are determined to build upon this, and continue to work to make London, and the country a fairer place.

The challenges facing people and the communities they live in today demand equally ambitious solutions.  Locality’s new Future of Localism report called for ‘radical action to devolve power to communities’; and the emerging wider narrative – of ‘place based partnerships’, engagement and collaborative working across sectors – should open up opportunities for all of us.

To make the most of the opportunities for change, I suggest we must make four things happen:

Develop a new approach to local funding: the collapse of Carillion has led to an important debate about how public services are delivered. This should be a spark to a better conversation with commissioners about the role of civil society. Too many smaller local groups will still talk of the hurdles that commissioning creates for them, and the default positions that favour bigger providers, with deeper pockets and economies of scale – but without necessarily the knowledge of or roots within the community. Funders need to support partnership based approaches and bids; and to commit resources to local organisations not just to do ‘delivery’ but to find out what people want and need, engage them in it, and take local leadership roles in shaping opportunities.

Get the right people round the table for a dialogue of equals: there is no shortage of ‘engagement events’ where civil society groups come together, and talk about how they can be part of a bigger conversation. Despite best intentions these can sometimes be frustrating. At one such local forum recently, a recurring theme was that charities often identified systemic problems, but those who could potentially fix them – local authority commissioners, housing providers, the NHS and others – were so rarely in the same rooms as each other, never mind alongside us.

As the Future of Localism report says, we need ‘a strengthened partnership between local government and local people.’ In London there are some good examples of civil society leading a real dialogue of equals to galvanise change across sectors (Islington Giving and West London Zones are among them). But still many civil society colleagues feel we spend significant time joining up different bits of public services which don’t appear to communicate effectively with each other. If we are going to do this, we need all to commit to working together, developing solutions collaboratively, rather than in our narrow silos.

Actively listen, put people’s views front and centre: civil society’s unique role is as the ‘eyes and ears’, closest to the ground in understanding the challenges faced by communities. At Toynbee Hall we are currently training older people to talk to their peers and research the priorities for – and gaps in – local services. The local authority are backing and part funding the project which is aimed at creating genuine space for co-production.

It is an exciting project. But we are seeing already that some of the priorities that people are articulating are not those that we might have assumed. ‘The community’ is not homogenous, and there are many diverse views. Hard though it may sometimes be, we need to ensure that all of the things we do are co-produced with the people and families who they are aimed at; and we should seek to really understand and amplify their voices.

A commitment from civil society to be bold: finally, we need to take advantage of the emerging narrative on ‘place’ and make the case clearly for a broader role. Our experience is that even the biggest players – from the banking and insurance industries to housing providers to local authority leaders to government ministers – can be open to new thinking and bold ideas, particularly in regard to local challenges. They just don’t know where to turn. We need to put ourselves forward as champions of these ideas, collaborate effectively with local partners, and turn the engagement narrative round so that it is us drawing the public sector in to hear about what might be possible.

We are all rightly proud when people like Marwa and Christine gain the skills and confidence they need to be able to work out solutions for themselves, and to strengthen their communities. We need to take this to the next level: collectively building resilience, articulating our vital role and value in providing essential support, building community assets and the leading and shaping of real positive system change.