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Getting out of the way whilst still being in it whole-heartedly

Derbyshire County Council are one of the pioneering local authorities taking part in the Upstream Collaborative - an active learning network of 20 places working at the messy edge of public service reform/local government transformation. Every month we invite members of the Collaborative to share reflections on their work. Here, Becky Lomas from Derbyshire CC shares how the People’s Centre in Cotmanhay exemplifies their Thriving Communities approach.

Without fail, every time I go to the People’s Centre (formerly the Children’s Centre) in Cotmanhay I smile. And on two occasions in particular, I’ve paused and enjoyed a silent reverence at what’s going on there. A warm glow bursting in my heart. People. Connecting, caring and creating. Growing something. Together. This is Thriving Communities.

Last week my moment was caused by a simple wooden A-Frame advertising cooked breakfast. In all its glorious simplicity it stood outside the building, a shining symbol of hope. Not a council poster. Not a council service. Eggs and bacon. “Come on in” it said (without having to say that at all)… and people were doing just that. It might not seem like much but it represented more progress in shifting the relationship between public services and communities than I can explain. And that’s what the Thriving Communities approach in Derbyshire is all about. The basic act of folk connecting, creating stuff in their community, in the ways they choose, at their pace, for the good of the place where they live. And public services being a genuine part of it, not getting in the way. I left the centre’s reception / café / bingo hall / local service hub (as the space was being used that morning), saw that sign and was reassured that, despite the often seemingly insurmountable task of transforming public services, we must keep our faith in the power of people to create the most simple yet profound magic.

Breakfast A Frame

Within that building, the pieces of a puzzle that the public sector continually over-complicates and wastes its time trying to fix from afar, can be witnessed daily operating in perfect, imperfect motion. My other moment of awe was the day I first witnessed it in action, after a number of years in the making. It actually felt like time stood still, as I breathed it all in. “It’s happening!” my insides screamed with joy! A busy community café, local people eating lunch, folk and staff cooking and serving the food together, professionals meeting with clients over a coffee, and an informal chat going on between local councillors (of different political parties) and a local chap planning community activities. A palpable buzz of genuine warmth and energy. The thing you can’t put your finger on or measure but that you can feel. The juice that fuels this work.

Developing a structure without structure

How did it happen? How did this microcosm of a bigger and extraordinarily complex ecosystem organise itself this way and what part did we play in helping it do that? Finding the ways to create the juice (or the base sauce, the bisque, as we sometimes refer to it) is what we’ve been trying to unpick through the Thriving Communities approach in Derbyshire. On purpose, it continues to learn and adapt in each moment, as we discover more and more about ourselves and the complex worlds in which we operate. We’ve built a structure but not one which will provide any blueprints or answers. That’s not how Thriving Communities works. There are no specific answers. There are people… who are yet to discover creative solutions to problems which have mystified strategy and policy makers alike for generations.

There are no specific answers. There are people… who are yet to discover creative solutions to problems which have mystified strategy and policy makers alike for generations.

It is exciting for this reason… and difficult. Because it doesn’t fit into the current modes of operation within public services. We commission services in boxes which we plan, deliver, monitor and evaluate neatly. But people’s lives don’t fit into these boxes. We set targets, work diligently and proudly to deliver these and track our progress but are we actually investing in what’s genuinely needed? Do we even know what that is? There’s a moral, rational and financial imperative right now to stand back, ‘see’ differently and to collectively ask ourselves some tricky questions about the future role of public services.

The Thriving Communities approach encourages a sort of orderly disorder through a model that brings together the system and communities to mobilise them simultaneously, using a set of ten ways of working. These are not prescribed methods, rather they outline the conditions needed at all levels of the system to enable true creativity. People have been trying this so far in five communities in Derbyshire, and it’s not easy because we are always getting in our own way. This is no-one’s fault. Every part of this system can rightly justify why it operates the way it does. But these reasons are all at odds with each other. We can’t go on letting this be the case. It wastes resources and energy and prevents our workforce from being able to do what they know is needed. The hope is that this approach will provide a vehicle by which the system can dynamically understand the nature of these competing ‘worlds’ via real life ‘doing’ in communities. It is strategy making rooted deeply in the wondrous messiness of the real world.

Stepping in and stepping away… at the same time

Thriving Communities is not a policy, transformation service, local service or community based approach. Yet it contains also all of those things. It’s a contradiction in itself and that’s why it is great… and hard! The work boldly embraces complexity. You can’t regulate the creation of the juice. However, completely stepping away from it isn’t the solution either. We need to be present and play our part in the process rather than asserting protection rights over its ingredients or how it should be made. Someone might want to add pineapple. It might taste great. It might taste awful. Take some managed risks, in controlled settings. Co-design. Prototype. We don’t know until we try and through the process everything and everybody learns and grows.

Thriving Communities transforms and I’m convinced it will continue to do so, because it is bigger than us. It is the right thing to do and it is for that reason that it continues to hang on, despite all the challenges thrown at it during its seven years in existence. The work is wholly values and principles driven, based on a deep, ongoing journey of discovery with people and communities, which is where it differs from being a community based service or traditional transformation project. There’s some misunderstanding and scepticism about that but we’ll continue to ride the waves. It has no fixed definition, agenda or destination and we’d like to keep it that way, otherwise how can we ever hope to imagine something new?

The people who have made it what it is are amazing. They are passionate about what they do... whether they’re local people, folk who own shops and businesses, deliver a local service, manage a space, run local groups, commission a service, run a department, represent or lead public sector organisations or work as consultants. They are extraordinary, ordinary people with big hearts and a ‘can-do’ attitude and they create a kind of gravity that’s contagious. They care, they’re doing something about it and there are many, many more of them out there ready to change the world.

Big, brave choices for the system to make

There is no statutory duty to invest time in growing trust and making the sort of relationships that naturally lead people to want to do things together to bring about change for themselves and their community. It’s no-one’s job to facilitate this, so it doesn’t get prioritised but it is absolutely vital to mobilising the untapped potential of our workforce and communities.

However we mustn’t fall into the usual trap of piling more services on top of a system which is wobbling on unstable ground, and operating on borrowed time. Yes budgets are shrinking at an alarming rate but there is still plenty of resource. We can do this with less. If we all give a little, it adds up to a lot. We’ve seen how great things can be achieved locally, without any need for costly service restructures. It just requires the bravery to take a leap of faith and equip our amazing workforce with greater freedoms, flexibility and trust to do what they know is right.

Which leads me to my ending… for now. There’s a Thriving Communities playlist on Spotify. I don’t know for sure but I’m thinking there probably isn’t another public sector system transformation programme with a soundtrack. I laughed out loud when it was shared with me this week. In my kitchen. With Phil. Phil Collins.

“You can’t hurry love…no you’ll just have to wait. She said love don’t come easy… it’s a game of give and take”

If you want to feel what it’s like to be on this journey... tune in! The songs convey far more than my efforts here ever could. And if you’re working on something similar and want to add a track that sums up your experience of changing the world with our greatest weapon… ourselves! Then feel free to add to it!

Namaste fellow change makers

Author

Becky Lomas

Becky Lomas is the Principal Policy Officer for Commissioning, Communities and Policy at Derbyshire County Council.