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Putting people at the heart of services and systems

Last week, I was in a room full of social pioneers. At times, it felt like they were voices crying in the wilderness. I found this odd, as everything they did and said showed that they were part of something bigger, a movement. Even if it was a movement that wasn’t always as joined up as it could be.

I was at the launch of a joint Nesta/OSCA report 'Good and Bad Help', ‘riffing' on stage with Julia Unwin (a first for both of us!). The phrase 'Good and Bad Help' is quite a binary framing for an issue that is fluid and organic. The thesis is that, while the human has been taken out of many of our systems and processes (I blame Taylorism), there is another path that is widely and joyously practised. I can certainly attest to this: the thousands of projects the Big Lottery Fund supports up and down the country are built on generosity of spirit and great emotional intelligence.

Some there last week, like Mark Johnson, CEO and Founder of User Voice, or Claire Wightman, CEO of Grapevine, I first met many years ago. Others, like the Mayday Trust, I know of and admire from a distance. All put people and relationships at the heart of their practice. And their stories tell us how demanding, complex, and challenging this is. They demonstrate the expert knowledge, experience and attention to detail needed to succeed, and the unique reward success brings.

As the Good Help report makes clear, there are hundreds of organisations around the UK whose work is putting people at the heart of services and systems, allowing them to take control of their lives and have a meaningful stake in their communities. Take the Transforming Ageing programme run by the Design Council and Unltd in the South West of England, bringing together older folk, public agencies, and social enterprises to collectively develop services built on user-centred design.

This may be a fashionable phrase but it does what it says on the tin. People sit at the heart – they are the wheel and the system is the cog, not vice versa

There are so many other examples across the UK of this people-led approach taking root, while organisations like the Public Service Transformation Agency or the New Local Government Network are helping to champion and codify best practice. There is a growing evidential basis that shows a cost benefit to organisations and the wider economy, alongside the benefit to the person.

My New Year’s resolution back at the (Big Lottery) ranch? Make sure that I share the myriad examples I come across, and feed them into a wider Community of Practice. This is where my grain of optimism comes from. Even though they may not know it, all these people and organisations have a lot in common and are part of a growing movement. The ‘Good Help’ report is a fantastic contribution to that conversation, providing clear, practical examples of these diverse and pioneering approaches to social challenges.

What all of these organisations and programmes have in common is that they are putting the human back into the heart of services, creating ‘relationships between services and people that nourish and enable both parties’.

The night before last I was at the Young Vic watching The Brothers Size. A play about siblings set in the Southern USA where one brother has recently been released from prison. There is a moment where the two sing and dance to Otis Redding’s ‘Try a Little Tenderness’. Towards the end of the song they embrace; despite the corrosive brutality of their situation they can find tenderness. If we all moved a step toward tenderness, it would be a step in the right direction.

Dawn Austwick is Chief Executive of Big Lottery Fund

Part of
Good Help