Sunderland City Council is working towards reducing the amount of decent furniture going to waste, while at the same time reducing furniture poverty for the city’s most vulnerable residents.
Earlier this year we announced the latest group of projects to be awarded grants from the ShareLab fund. In this round we were seeking ideas that used collaborative (or marketplace) platforms to address the theme of ‘prevention’ - tackling a social problem at the root before it escalates into something much bigger, more complex, and expensive to resolve.
Waste management is a hugely important part of a local authority’s responsibilities - although not one of the most glamorous. Sunderland CC’s project was selected as part of our second cohort as it showed a council taking a strategic view of two separate challenges - and proposing a joined up, entrepreneurial solution.
Challenge 1: Reducing bulky waste ending up in landfill
Challenge 2: Supporting the city’s most vulnerable residents.
Local authorities are often accused of working in silos - this project seemed to be very different in that it was dependent on active partnerships, both externally and internally and on co-creation and shared value across all the participants.
Below is an update on progress so far from Nicol Trueman, the project manager responsible for delivering the project for Sunderland CC.
I work for the council as an Area Community Development Lead, which involves supporting local councillors, voluntary and community groups and other public sector partners, such as Northumbria Police to work collectively to improve the East area of Sunderland. This is achieved by identifying local area priorities, then setting up Task Groups to investigate the scope of the priority and present solutions or actions to address the priority at Area Committee.
I got involved in this pilot after Sunderland City Council’s East Area Committee funded a 12 month pilot project in December 2016, encouraging people to reuse pre-loved furniture. During the project it was discovered that more than 6,500 pieces of furniture end up being destroyed or fly-tipped every year just in Sunderland. Running alongside this Sunderland has high levels of child poverty, low income families and households in crisis who cannot afford to purchase furniture. Obviously something had to be done.
In December 2017 the council submitted a funding bid to Nesta’s ShareLab, who confirmed in March 2018 it was successful. This is when the work really started, involving the council’s Customer Service Network, Waste Management and Welfare Rights Team, local reuse charities, St Oswald’s Hospice, Make Your Way, The Box Youth Project and Community Sustainable Services, a local technology business partner Consult and Design. A cross sector Steering Group was established in April 2018 with the council acting as the project executive, Consult and Design the digital designers and the reuse charities the customer, who influenced and shaped the functions of website.
Through April 2018 to September 2018 numerous meetings, idea generation sessions, workshops, and discussions took place. Nesta encouraged us to take a service design approach, which involved us working with a specialist service designer to identify where the gaps were and then adding in more human centred design activities into our process. This included my first blueprinting exercise.
To be honest I had really negative feelings towards blueprinting because it seemed embarrassingly basic - who cares about the lifecycle of a sofa… and what’s that got to do with IT?
I’d invited executive officers (the big bosses) from the council along to the workshop, as well as local reuse charities whose time is precious. We also had the funders, Nesta in attendance, just to add to the pressure. I was worried because I thought that the discussion would have to be more strategic than operational… oh how wrong I was (thankfully). Blueprinting the service from end to end allowed all the partners to build relationships, understand and acknowledge everyone’s perspectives and the challenges involved in implementing the idea, but all from a customer’s view point. It wasn’t driven by budgets, it was driven by a real optimism in the room to make it work. It’s fair to say it lead to more unanswered questions than ever but this was great because it strengthened the whole process, allowing us to design an online marketplace (and all the real life processes behind it) which allows two primary functions:
It’s worth noting there are two ‘doorways’ into the shop. The first is for the general public, the second allows partners (e.g. foodbanks, refuges) to gain priority access to the ‘discounted store’.
The level to which items should be discounted was heavily debated. It was suggested we put a cap on prices for specific items - for instance, no charity could sell a double wardrobe for more than £40 but unfortunately due to different policies, resources and governance arrangements it was too difficult to introduce for a pilot. We discussed a standard % rate to apply. Such as, 50% mark down price, but again each item is different. Some pieces of furniture mightn’t need any repairs carried out, whilst other items will. The more work involved to bring the item back into use would naturally increase the cost, impacting the percentage rate offered. At the end of the day the charities need to sustain themselves, not run at a loss. Therefore it was agreed that charities would set a discounted rate which they felt reflected an affordable price for the advertised item.
That’s why this website is slightly different from Facebook, Gumtree, or other online marketplaces and also improves on the council’s current crisis support scheme. Currently, individuals in need are interviewed in person, and have to fit means tested criteria. Furniture can be purchased only if the person or family fits all the criteria. The new Reuse platform removes the barriers of office location, opening times, red tape etc and supports the Service Providers to effectively and efficiently provide help to the people who need it.
In October 2018, the donations element of the site was launched. The Steering Group decided to do a ‘soft’ launch, to break us in gently and allow everyone involved to test systems and processes before setting off the fireworks and announcing it to the whole city.
This involved council call centre staff promoting the reuse site to customers who had rung up for a bulky waste collection service, as well as, advertising the scheme via the council’s website. During October we received 15 donations which identified bugs in the system which were fixed quickly.
If I could turn back the clock to April I think I’d carry out 1:1 interviews with the reuse charities to start with, not wait until July. That way the Steering Group would have understood from the beginning their expectations, must haves (or nots), priorities, resources and existing IT resources. Also, I would have liked to have asked the public for their views maybe via a Facebook poll. I’ve only spoken to organisations really, not ‘joe public’ so it would have been good to know what they think of the concept.
At the end of November 2018 we are planning to open the online shop. The scary thing is the shop will only be as good as the donations, so encouraging the public to get on board is going to be the next big challenge for the Steering Group. In addition, this element of the delivery plan will open up new unanswered questions on how the payments, multi furniture delivery packages and testing analytical reporting tools work in practice - hopefully seamlessly :-)Soon we’ll be carrying out the big public launch so watch this space for further news.
Area Community Development Lead, Sunderland City Council