Some musings on Social Value

Originally from another blog of mine – wasn’t convinced of its resilience relevance but have been convinced otherwise….

I was at a public sector social value seminar this week and all I can say is that if any of you follow me on twitter, it’ll be painfully obvious how I felt about it

SV tweet

This is invariably my reaction to these sorts of events unfortunately and I while I accept my inherent grumpiness may provide an unfairly caustic hue to my criticism, I still think my point is probably valid – why is it that social value conversations tend to be so boring? I’m not certain of the answer, but I’ll pose a theory and as always I’m interested in your reflections.


A recurring question about social value is how does one define it? I wonder if this is where many of us start going wrong.

Value is in my mind inherently subjective. At times I’ve used the rather basic example of a glass of water. This glass has a multitude of values depending on the circumstance; if I’m thirsty and it is the only water for miles then it is hugely valuable to me. If I’m not thirsty, and I have access to a nice bottle of Malbec… well… not so much value. But if I’ve just downed that bottle and now I’m feeling a little woozy the water’s value shoots up again. So value isn’t just subjective, it’s constantly evolving. The challenge isn’t so much to define the value, but to be agile enough to keep up with its constantly developing status. Complex stuff eh, and that’s just for a glass of water!

When you apply this to wider social value, it’s pretty obvious why we keep tying ourselves up in knots. Not only is there a multitude of different things that are “valued” by society, or a local community, but said value is also constantly changing, sometimes within a few hours!

This isn’t an easy one to solve, but I wonder if we might all do ourselves a favour by building our public sector social value policies/guides/strategies etc around one question “If we could improve one thing in our local area/field of interest that would make a big difference to people’s lives, what would it be?”

Accept that society will also value other things to a greater or lesser degree, but move on from that quickly and focus on one area of value. This without doubt requires collaboration with local people or people with a vested interest, but it also requires trusted leadership to hear all the different suggestions but decide which one to focus on.


Ok, so we’ve take the bold decision to narrow down our value parameters to a single key issue, let’s say ensuring no resident in our local area feels isolated. What next? A toolkit? A guidance document? A public launch with appropriately relevant local dignitaries? Well, oddly I’ll not be too cynical about all that – they’re all useful parts of the bigger puzzle.

What I do think is missing from a lot of social value approaches I’ve seen is a big dollop of good old fashioned inspiration. There is usually a lot of guidance on how to do it, and quite a bit of narrative on why it is a good thing, but not so much on the potential of what can be achieved. I think this comes back to the first challenge around definition – when social value can be everything, it invariably feels like it will end up being nothing as it is incredibly difficult to visualise what can be achieved.

Would it be different if we built aims around very simple, but ambitious goals that put the scale of social value in its proper perspective? For example:

SuchnSuch Council spends £400m per annum in commissioning services from third parties. SuchnSuch Council is also committed to making sure no resident in the borough feels isolated, because we know isolation is a killer. For the next x years, every single commissioning exercise will have to demonstrate how it will contribute to achieving this goal and in turn improving the wellbeing and life chances of our residents”

Or in more simple language, for this period social value for our council means every single £ of our £400m annual commissioning spend will contribute to reducing isolation. From here you can do fancy calculations on the potential social return on investment to show how one’s spend is levering value, but I think the more powerful implication of this is the huge levels of new resource that can be levered around this issue, and the potential impact on what is normally seen as an intransigent issue. Just imagine the skills resources and expertise from the providers of every environment services contract, every schools contract, every culture/leisure contract, every regeneration contract (not to mention the adult social care budgets) all dedicated to one clear mission.

I’m not that naïve on this, I know it is more complicated than just pooling everything into one place and hoping it works itself out. There’d be a huge amount of hard work. But you know what, I’d feel confident knowing whether my local council had achieved additional social value from its expenditure in a scenario like this rather than piecemeal community contributions that might not actually have that much of an impact. And I’m willing to wager that a lot of those potential providers would also be excited about being part of that challenge (whether local social enterprises given a competitive edge or larger businesses levering their infrastructures), and hopefully solving it.

And if it was successful, I don’t think we’d be talking so much about unlocking more social value, but rather how collectively we’d have started valuing the social to a much greater extent.

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What if communities were a little bit more like Batman?

I once heard someone ask a room full of aspiring “social innovators” to think about their greatest passion, then think about the social challenge they wanted to address, and then put them together and see what solutions started to present themselves. My passion, is Batman (yes Batman can be a passion), and as is evidenced through this blog, my challenge is how to strengthen individual and community resilience. And the more I’ve thought about it, the Batman universe is the perfect embodiment of the resilience thinking I’ve come across.

Not convinced? Through this post, I hope to change your mind!

“The only problem with being alone Master Bruce, is being alone” (Drawing strength from others)

These words were uttered by Batman’s faithful butler Alfred in the “Dark Victory” storyline. During this series, Batman increasingly isolates himself from his allies (Jim Gordon, Catwoman, Alfred) as he struggles with the guilt of his friend Harvey Dent being scarred for life and turning criminally insane. His rationale being that cleaning up Gotham City is his responsibility alone and deep down he doesn’t want anyone else to get hurt. This is a running theme across many Batman storylines, and it is interesting to see how in some ways Batman believes in his own stereotype – that he is a loner with no friends and that he doesn’t need anyone’s help. While I will come onto Batman’s individual resilience, I find it interesting that Batman’s success and resilience almost always comes from the wider “Bat-family”; his network of allies who have an unflinching loyalty and who bring different qualities and skills to bear on a situation.

In Dark Victory, by opening up to Alfred and building a bonding/bridging relationship with Dick Grayson (who becomes Robin), Batman rebuilds his trust with both Jim Gordon and Catwoman and soon begins to piece together the mystery he has been grappling with. In fact, Batman only just gets away with it in this story, as it is only due to Robin’s intervention that the BatCave is left undiscovered by his enemies and in truth many people die before the antagonist of the story is finally uncovered. That said, Batman ends the story stronger than he started (this is still relatively early in his crime-fighting career) and his new relationship with Robin, renewed relationships with Jim Gordon, Alfred and Catwoman set the tone for his more successful period.

Time and time again Batman finds himself in greatest peril when he is isolated. In the famous “Knightfall” story arc, Batman is defeated by Bane and has his back broken. This storyline is famous for this act and image is iconic. However, on further inspection, Bane has already defeated Batman by weakening and isolating him. As Batman struggles to keep up with a number of deadly challenges set up by Bane, he pushes his allies further and further away in an effort to protect them (in particular the new Robin Tim Drake, as he is still grappling with the emotional impact of the death of  the 2nd Robin, Jason Todd).

In a more recent story arc, “Death of the Family”, The Joker correctly identifies that to get to Batman he needs to target his wider network of allies. This story ends on quite a sombre note, as the Bat-Family comes to terms with being tested to its absolute limit and with relationships strained between all involved. There are two ways of looking at this – either that the Joker succeeded to a certain extent in getting to Batman, or that in spite of the Joker correctly identifying the source of Batman’s real strength (his network), that strength was still too great for one isolated individual to break. I’d choose the latter interpretation, particularly as it demonstrates that even if one’s network is hugely resilient, testing this resilience does come at a cost.

So for a loner, Batman has a huge amount of friends – Robin, Nightwing, Alfred, Commissioner Gordon, BatGirl/Oracle, Catwoman, The Justice League, Zatanna, Lucius Fox, Dr Leslie Thomson (I could go on). And it is arguable that for all the immense individual strength he fosters, his network is the greatest source of strength he ever gets to draw upon. Or in his own words “when it all ends, the mystery won’t be ‘who killed the Batman?’ but ‘who kept him alive all this time?'”

“Where does he get all those wonderful toys” (Drawing strength from the resources around you)

It probably seems a bit facile to talk about Batman’s economic resilience. He is a billionaire, which helps. But putting that to one side, it is Batman’s resourcefulness that enables him to be prepared for almost any eventuality and to deal with situations even when his mainstream resources are unavailable. In fact, one might say that in spite of the billions he can draw upon, it is his ability to invest in preparing for unexpected eventualities and diversify his resources that allows him to continually adapt to the challenges he faces.

The most famous resource that Batman has is no doubt his utility belt. This allows Batman to store numerous gadgets that can help him in his fight against crime, almost (oh go on then more than almost) to the point of parody (skip to 1m 20).

And there are of course, some rather funny/ridiculous examples of Batman’s preparedness when it comes to gadgets (Shark Repellent Bat Spray anyone?)

Targeting Batman’s utility belt is recurring tactic of many an enemy. But even then, Batman is a great example of someone who thinks about how to use the resources around him in a creative way. In the Batman The Animated Series episode “Almost Got’im”, Two-Face has taken Batman’s belt and tied him to a giant penny which will be launched in the air, either squashing him flat or breaking every bone in his body. In this situation he steals Two-Face’s lucky coin and uses it to cut his bonds and free himself from his predicament. This to me is a classic case of assets-based thinking – being creative with resources that are not necessarily yours or even look that useful, but quickly turning them to your advantage.

“Gotham City. From up here it almost looks clean. I should have come in by train” (Drawing strength from one’s surroundings)

Is Gotham City a resilient place? One could argue that the fact that it is still standing given the litany of catastrophes that regularly befall the city shows it has some degree of resilience, but the truth is that its lack resilience is usually the root cause for the many of the bad things that happen, even the creation of the Batman. The city infrastructure is depicted as riddled with corruption, something that Captain James Gordon is immediately faced with on his arrival in Gotham City in the storyline “Batman: Year One” where both his partner and the then commissioner Gil Loeb are in cahoots with the mob. This runs right through to the later years of Batman’s life in The Dark Knight Returns story-line where there are examples of the Mayor of Gotham more interested in political points, an inability to co-ordinate responses to rampant criminal gangs and a non-existent governmental response to the fallout from a nuclear explosion.

In the film The Dark Knight Rises, Gotham is quickly cut off and left to fend for itself against Bane’s takeover plot but the US Government, a scenario echoed in the story arc No Man’s Land where Gotham is almost destroyed by an earthquake and declared a quarantine zone. In all the situations above, while there are isolated examples of the city adapting to a crisis and retaining its ability to function, for the most part chaos is takes hold, society breaks down and criminality thrives. The importance of Batman and his allies tends to come to the fore in these situations, not only because of the resources that they can draw upon, but interestingly because of how Batman invests in his local environment to enable him to respond to crises. Sometimes this can be very simple. In The Dark Knight Returns, Wayne Manor is able to function after an electro-magnetic pulse is set of because of its backup generator. In the No Man’s Land story arc, Barbara Gordon (once BatGirl, now Oracle) is able to operate out of the Clocktower because it was one of the few buildings in Gotham that was designed to withstand significant shocks.

In other situations, Batman actively invests in his surroundings to ensure he is better able to draw upon resources in a crisis. While the Batcaver is his main base of operations, there are numerous examples of him creating alternative bases of operation for situations where he cannot access the main cave, such as a bespoke cave built on Arkham Island which come in handy during the story of the game Arkham Asylum, access to his suit and other gadgets in his penthouse as well as a dockyard base of operations in the film The Dark Knight.

As Bruce Wayne, there is also his investment in the infrastructure of the city, either through philanthropic work to try and address the gross inequality in the city, or through major infrastructure works. After foiling the Joker’s plan to poison Gotham’s reservoir in The Man Who Laughs, Bruce Wayne invests heavily in restoring the city’s water supply which no doubt avoids a different type of chaos that might have affected the city. A different type of example is highlighted in the film Batman Begins, where Bruce’s father invests in a low cost transit system to better connect the city. Sadly, many of the infrastructural  investments that Bruce Wayne makes have limited impact due to the wider corruption in the city, hence Batman is required to invest in a shadow infrastructure to mitigate this.

In this case, we can see a counterpoint between Gotham City and Batman – Gotham has weak resilience because it doesn’t invest in preparing for the worst or better connecting the city, however Batman has greater resilience because he is constantly investing in his surroundings so that he can draw upon them in a crisis.

“You are a unique specimen” (Drawing strength from health and wellbeing)

Health and wellbeing is an interesting one for Batman. Largely because, whether he likes to admit it or not, he clearly suffers from mental distress. As Bruce Wayne himself notes in the film Batman Begins “I guy who dresses up as a bat clearly has issues”. Batman’s general mental wellbeing is something that is continually challenged, maybe never more so that in the wider Black Glove story arc culminating in the “Batman RIP” story line. As noted earlier in the blog, the Joker had some level of success when he attacked Batman’s network as a source of strength. In the RIP storyline, The Black Glove, led by Dr Hurt attacked Batman’s mental resilience by working on his own doubts about whether his role actually helps Gotham, his love and guilt over his parents death (going so far as to set up his parents as drug addled degenerates) and also playing on his clear desire for a loving relationship (“What can I say, chicks are my Kryptonite”). The Black Glove sets up hypnotic triggers that cause Batman to lose his mind, and mentally give up the Batman persona, and wander the streets of Gotham coming down from heroin injections.

There are plenty of studies on whether Batman is himself unhinged and as dangerous as the adversaries he battles against, but I pick out the Batman RIP series because it has a number of key moments that show Batman’s immense mental resilience. First off, in the attack upon his persona, it is revealed that Batman has programmed a back up personality, “the Batman of Zur-en-Ah”, to kick in should his mind come under attack. This is really interesting in terms of the resilience principle of diversifying roles – the ability to call upon different identities under pressure to unlock different strengths is key, and Batman clearly demonstrates this in this instance.

There is another really telling passage in this series. A flashback to a period when Batman subjects himself to a ritual called “Thogal” where death is simulated and he confronts the last vestiges of any fear within himself. This is a key moment in the storyline, and sums up for me mental resilience because it is clear that Batman has identified a weakness in his wellbeing (Batman strikes fear into his enemies because he himself carries fear), knowing himself to be under attack, and prepares himself mentally to undergo any onslaught and respond to it.

In terms of physicality Batman is without doubt formidable, and while it might seem appropriate to talk about his recovery from the many serious injuries he has incurred (Bane breaking his back, a severe neck injury during the Hush storyline), I am going to stick with Batman RIP for one of the most articulate descriptions of Batman’s physical resilience, namely his utter self-awareness. While buried alive by The Black Glove, there is a narration of how he has escaped countless booby traps, and memorised the finite ways that one can be hurt or killed. His assertion that bench pressing 100s if pounds of soil while it is filling his lungs is “difficult, but far from impossible” feels like a rallying call for any form of physical or mental disability (and I use the word disability in its fullest sense). It is not just about how strong one’s health and wellbeing is, but also about what limits one sets for oneself. To quote Batman in The Dark Knight “Batman has no limits”.

I could go on and on and quote numerous storylines and examples, but in exploring this subject I’ve been coming back to my original question “what if communities were a little bit more like Batman?” and I’ve realised a sad truth. That while Batman is a great role model for individual resilience, he is in fact a very poor model for investing in community resilience. As I’ve eluded to in this post, Gotham throughout its fictional history remains a very weak community and Batman is a counterpoint to this weakness.

In the film The Dark Knight Rises, Alfred chides Bruce Wayne that the police could do a lot more if he shared his knowledge and resources as Bruce Wayne rather than using them as Batman and he has a really valid point. I wonder if this is the danger of talking about resilience in public services. Do we end up creating interventions that are super-resilient and heroic at the expense of creating the conditions where anyone and everyone can step up to a crisis? This is the real opportunity for me and comes back to the little game at the start of this post. If my passion is Batman, and the challenge is more resilient communities, then in answer to the question “what if communities were a little bit more like Batman?” the answer is, there’d be no need for a Batman. Does that rationale extend to more traditional real world public services?

Now that is a question!

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Alex’s Random Resilience Round-up – some links I’ve found to be quite interesting #5

It’s been a little while since I’ve posted one of my “world famous” resilience round-ups, so just in case you were all in need of a fix, here’s a few examples that I’ve come across which demonstrate the advantages of taking a resilience approach as an individual, a community or a public service. Oh and since moving to my new role, I’ve tried to give this a bit of a south London flavour as well.

Innovation in Social Care – Without Walls (link)

So my new employer won an award last week. Which is great, but the really important thing is what they won it for, a project called Without Walls, which supports adults with learning disabilities. I love this project. As it says on the “tin” this is a project that takes adults with learning difficulties outside of the daycare setting and places them in more day to day/community settings to better understand what conditions improve their wellbeing. Not only does this take a great assets-based approach to working with this group, by being out and about in the community they’ve created a space for more bridging opportunities to help tackle the fear that many communities can have of this cohort. Do click on the link above and read about the great case studies and impact they’ve had.

Southwark Smart Saver Scheme (link)

This is the kind of thing that really challenges the role and remit of public services in strengthening people’s resilience. The Smart Saver Scheme involves providing young peple in Southwark who turn 11 years old between 1 September 2013 and 31 August 2015, with a Credit Mutual account and £10 to start that account. “What’s £10?” I hear some of you say. Well it may not be much, but investing in young people’s financial inclusion and encouraging familiarisation with these sorts of products can have a massive impact on future opportunities and there has been research to suggest that even having a small amount of savings can influence the aspirations of young people at key decision making stages. And as an infrastructure to build on for other resilience investment initiatives (maybe even  networks of young savers?) this is a tremendous start.

App matching CPR trained volunteers with cardiac arrest incidents (link)

A bit further afield now, but this caught my eye following numerous conversations about things like defibrillators in community settings. This app allows people who have been trained up in CPR to be directed to cardiac arrest emergencies. Very much in the research stage, early indications are that amongst the test group survival rates are almost doubled through the early intervention. This is another interesting example where technology can actively make a connection between someone who can help and someone who needs help, and the researchers themselves have been challenging whether mass training campaigns are too passive and that to make this sort of community intervention effective, you need to be actively brokering connections. I’d keep an eye on this one for the learning as much as the impact.

When nursery meets nursing home (link)

You know, I can’t tell you the amount of times I’ve heard people put forward the idea of merging children’s centres and daycare centres (or variations of the young people/old people building based services). Most of the time this comes from a cost benefit point of view and about using building space more efficiently. What I love about this example in Seattle (which the article expands upon) is the much richer brokering and exchange of strengths that goes on between young people and older people when brought into the same space, and how both sets of people go into “sharing” mode – rather than being passive recipients of a service. Check out the video in the link – both fascinating and moving.

And finally…

I may have shared this before. If I have, apologies, but I’m sharing it again as this evening I’m off to see the Central St Martins degree show, and the first time I went I came across this awesome project by one of the students:

This has stuck with me because it completely took the idea of re-thinking resources in a different way to solve a problem. The guy behind this noticed that the people taking part in music therapy sessions often withdrew to familiar items (in particular walking aids) rather than using the instruments provided. So what did he do – he turned the walking aids into musical instruments! If you only check out one of his designs, check out the Piano Zimmer Frame – I had a play on it and oh my gosh it blew me away! But more importantly this is exactly the sort of things that is more likely to build resilience amongst the users of the service, challenging their own perceptions of what they are capable of.

So what do you think? Do you agree with the things I’ve picked out? Have you come across other examples that might be of interest? Feel free to leave a comment and I promise I’ll get back to you.

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Prevention versus preparedness, or what public services could learn from the Terminator franchise

Note: this is a light-hearted critique of prevention meant to stimulate a bit of debate. It’s not an in depth analysis of either prevention, or Terminator movies!

I was watching the trailer for the new film Terminator Genisys (sic) film and a thought crossed my mind “why do thy bother?” Not the filmmakers – I know why they bother, the films keep making money! No, I was wondering about both the protagonists (humans) and antagonists (machines) in these films, and why they continue to persist with a plan that has largely failed them both over soon to be five films.

For those who’ve not seen them, the Terminator films are based on the premise that in the future mankind is at war with sentient machines and as a pre-emptive strike the machines send a “terminator” back in time to kill the mother of the leader of the human resistance, erasing his existence and thereby ending the war. Humanity sends back a warrior to stop this happening (spoilers: they succeed) and what ensues is a tit of tat narrative where both sides try and pre-win the war by stopping the other side existing in the first place.

In spite of all their efforts, neither side ever succeeds in this goal. The war always starts.

The more I’ve thought about this, the more I see parallels with a lot of public service expenditure. Essentially the different sides in the Terminator series are investing in preventative measures, and the rationale is sound – if you’ve identified what causes a crisis, focusing on stopping that crisis happening will save you cost (economic/social/environmental) in the future. This is exactly the same rationale we use when we commission or deliver preventative services to stop individuals falling into crisis.

And as with those in the Terminator films, too often we find that our efforts are thwarted, or at the very least the “prevention debate” rages on – the theory is sound but too little evidence to demonstrate that the practice consistently works.

I’m not entirely sure why this is, but if I were to hazard a guess, if you’re trying to prevent a complex challenge from happening, it’s naïve to think that one targeted act of prevention could stop this. I’d even argue that it’s naïve to think that a suite of preventative activity could stop this from happening, largely because there are so many variables at stake. In the Terminator films, actions at best delay the war from happening. In real life, much can be said for a lot of public service prevention investment.

But what if the films had taken a different approach? What if it had been one less about prevention and more about preparedness and resilience? What if they had accepted that a war was inevitable, but the real issue was that their side wasn’t prepared to cope with that eventuality? Instead, when sending people back in time they didn’t try to stop the war, but made their side as ready as possible to win it when it arrived.

Now apply this to public services and what one might call social challenges – it’s an uncomfortable situation but what if instead of trying to prevent certain challenges, we made it explicit to people that something bad was almost inevitably going to happen, but that when it does, they will have the tools to deal with this on their own terms. When I think about resilience, this is usually what’s in my mind – people have the individual and community strengths to respond to the inevitable challenges that come from living, rather than believing one can control a situation to such an extent as to stop bad things happening.

After all, the one inevitable bad thing that happens to all of us is death. We can’t prevent that, but we can be much better prepared for it.

So maybe humans, machines and public servants should stop trying to solve people’s problems before they happen, and spend more time building their capacity to respond when they arrive. That might even make a better movie somewhere along the line….

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Could local authorites be the key to creating social infrastructures to rival themselves?

This week is my last week at Camden. I’ll be continuing this blog, because I find the subject of community resilience really interesting, but it might take on a different colour going forward. This is no bad thing. To mark my last week, here is a self-indulgent post essentially explaining why I persevere with this blog. As always I welcome all thoughts and comments.

When I think about my work on “more resilient and trusting communities who do more for themselves” (yep, that’s the official title in my organisation’s strategic document), I often wonder if the question I’m trying to answer is the one I’ve used to title this post. Not “how do we get people to do more things?” but “how do we make social activity more attractive than public activity?” (and yes I do believe there is a difference).

I think what I’ve learned from my experience to date is that if your goal is to try and make people more resilient, you’re probably wasting your efforts, if for no other reason than people are naturally doing this all the time. Sometimes through informal personal networks and self-development, sometimes through interesting projects, the likes of which I enjoy sharing through this blog. It’s probably the reason we have and accept a society – it just makes sense to find ways to get along and work with each other.

There is a challenge though as to whether we, as individuals, have outsourced the responsibility for connecting and building relationships a little too far. This to my mind is what government (both central and local) is essentially; everyday civil action outsourced to a structure that can do it at scale. First off, I’m not 100% against this – in fact it makes a huge amount of sense given the scale of how our society works. I enjoy being part of something much bigger, be it at a national or international scale, and I also enjoy that we reap the benefits of nice civic stuff, like the NHS.

But I also think that we collectively find it difficult reconciling being part of what is often a global social network, and being part of something very localised (be it a geographical area or an interest/theme). It can sometimes feel like we have to choose between global and local, and I’m fairly certain I’m not the only one who finds that choice frustrating.

However, what if we could make that choice a bit less frustrating? What if we could use the same infrastructure we use to help us connect the big stuff, also help us to connect the smaller stuff? What if the relationship wasn’t “one-way” and our governments could give something back to us? What do I mean by that? (ok enough with the questions!)

I think this what people are talking about when they use the term “government as a platform” where everyday citizens can directly tap into the infrastructure our hard-earned trust and taxes go into each month. That said, it’s probably a bit much to ask people to engage with this cold, so it’d be nice if governments were a bit more imaginative in showcasing to people what is possible. I’m a great believer that local government is best placed to do this. In my mind, this looks a bit like councils connecting citizens to new and interesting ways of connecting with each other. When I think of Camden, it looks a little bit like this…

The local council understanding what residents, workers and visitors are interested in doing and how they define themselves. The council using this understanding and its own infrastructure and resources to put people in touch with ways of connecting with each other and showcasing the possibilities – a local social network for people interested in sustainable living to find out about loca projects and source help, like Project Dirt; a way for people to share resources, items and expertise with their neighbours to reduce cost and waste, like Streetbank; a way for people who like running to better connect with their local area, not just other runners, like GoodGym; places for people who like making things and want to meet other people, like The Camden Town Shed; a way for people who like cooking to share their food with people who struggle to feed themselves, like Casserole Club or FoodCycle; a way for groups of people to come together and finance local initiatives that mean something to their area, like SpaceHive; people who enjoy Camden’s music scene but have difficulties accessing it finding people who can go with them through Gig Buddies; people from all walks for life coming together in tenants’ halls to connect around movies through OpenCinema

I could go on and on. The exciting thing about this picture is that to a certain extent, it already exists, but often in a very disconnected way. Truth is, unless you’re a social innovation geek, you’re likely not to hear about these sorts of things. But it doesn’t have to be that way. A local authority’s greatest asset is its address book – we know everyone! I wonder what could be achieved if we started putting that address book to more creative use, actively brokering connections between people and platforms. Would some of our more traditional public services start looking a bit out of date?

I don’t know the answer, but I do know that every time I make a very small connection (in my own limited way) between local people and platforms like these, good things happen. Those good things might not grow exponentially if they happened at a larger scale, but I think it’d be worth a go and finding out if by spending less time delivering services, and more time connecting people, we’d be living in a much more resilient society.

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(Potentially) the greatest underutilised resource…and a nice feel-good film

I’ve blogged on here before about the Resilience workshops I put on for colleagues to think more about what resilience might mean for their services and how we, as public servants, can better support the strengths of individuals. Last Friday was my last ever workshop at Camden(!) but that didn’t stop it being a fascinating session.

Below are some thoughts from my colleague Katy who came along and brought a work challenge with her to boot!

Hopefully by now many of you will have heard about Project Dirt – a great online social network that we’ve been using in Sustainability & Open Spaces to encourage individuals, communities and businesses to share knowledge, advice, skills, best practice and resources. Our work with Project Dirt has hit a lot of resilience outcomes (befriending, bonding, bridging etc) but don’t just take my word for it – you can see Project Dirt in action in this short (Camden-based) film.

I recently brought a Project Dirt challenge to the latest resilience meeting and got lots of great feedback from colleagues, with some especially enlightening thoughts and comments coming from one of our housing apprentices who is also a Camden resident. I was able to ask him why he hadn’t heard of Project Dirt, and what steps I could take to get this information out to him, his family and peers.  It was this conversation that really got us thinking – why do we not speak to our resident-colleagues more when we’re designing services and projects? They are a somewhat underutilised resource right on our doorstep, perhaps we even have a ‘resident’ in every team? This really has given me some food for thought – in fact I’m off now to ask my Kentish-Town-colleague what he thinks of all this…

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Sharing is daring – resilience in failure?

I put forward  a post for an internal blog about service transformation in my organisation. I wanted to talk about failure (which I’ve already garbled about here). On reflection I think it had some resonance with the resilience musings I post on this blog. So here it is for your debate and comment.

A few weeks ago I went to see Francis Maude MP speak about transformation in public services (with an emphasis on central government). I’ll leave the political discussion for a more appropriate forum, but one thing that struck me from his speech was the introduction of a “Failure Award” that he had overseen – essentially a competition where the criteria was that you tried something and it had failed spectacularly! I really like the idea of this because it reminds us of something that we often try to hide – failure happens. All the time. Especially if you’re trying something new. It is simply unavoidable.

But what is avoidable, and completely in our gift, is sharing and learning from our failures so that we can come back stronger. I’d really emphasise the sharing and learning bit, because the other thing about failing is, it is really tough. Physically, emotionally, or intellectually, bouncing back from getting something wrong is hard. No-one likes getting stuff wrong and it is easy for doubt and self-criticism to sink in. Ironically, while it often feels that in the public sector external judgement is the most important thing to manage, I’d argue that our own personal demons are much more likely to stifle future success. Our friends forgive us far quicker than we forgive ourselves. Sharing our experiences usually puts failure in its proper context and allows us to identify and take value from it.

So I thought I’d share a failure that has been nagging at me. A couple of years ago I had a great idea to start an online book-sharing club in my local neighbourhood. My concept was “what if we turned our homes in to a collective library?” where we could share resources that are often NOT being read, as well as build new relationships around a shared love for books. EVERYONE told me it was a great idea.

And it failed. Miserably. While it was easy to load books to the website, few people could find books they were willing to share. Those who did have books to share didn’t want them back! But most of all I couldn’t get enough people to sign up. After two years, and after much soul-searching, I closed the site. On reflection there were a few factors that I think drove that failure:

  • Community engagement is hard work, and I’m lazy – I overestimated the level of community cohesion in my area, and more importantly my reputational value in that community. People had no reason to trust me, or the site I had created, and I didn’t work hard enough to win that trust. I assumed the local society I joined had a thriving network, but in reality it was very passive.
  • Sharing is much more personal than giving – I’d only partially understood this. My theory was that by encouraging sharing, which is more of an investment (I trust you with something I want back as opposed to I give you something I never expect back), I could build great cohesion in my neighbourhood. I misunderstood the flip side of this; that I need to trust who I am sharing with otherwise I won’t. I couldn’t overcome the trust deficit because my neighbours place too high a value on the books they loved.
  • Wrong solution looking for wrong problem – I live in a pretty nice area where people tend to have plenty of money. They don’t need to share books, they buy them all the time. At best they just want to clear out their houses. Those neighbours who might want to share books to meet new people tended to be elderly and didn’t have internet access, so my platform was useless to them. I was trying to sell something to my community that not only did they not really want, but they didn’t need either!

I’ll admit I was pretty down about messing this up, particularly when I saw how obvious some of my challenges were in hindsight. However in talking about my failure with others, I have gained insight in to what I would do differently next time and even gained enthusiasm for trying something similar again in the future. My failure has transformed into just another experience I can draw strength from.

As the public sector goes on its journey of transformation, I believe that there’ll be more stories like this than there will be stories where people had a great idea that got implemented perfectly. Our challenge as a professional community is how we respond to that, create spaces where we can share and celebrate the bad as well as the good, and most importantly learn to do things better next time.

Each one of us is probably going to have to find our own examples where we can take this rhetoric and make it real for ourselves and our colleagues. And, if I’m honest, it can be easier said than done, but in these times where the context is shifting so dramatically we have to be prepared to try different things, even if it is tough.

Or in the ever credible words of Albert Einstein:

“a person who never made a mistake, never tried anything new”

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