#BuildBackBetter: You know it makes sense, but how do you do it?

Throughout the pandemic, lockdown and now an extended lockdown in our home city. Leicestershire cares staff have been working with a range of community, council, and business colleagues to ensure nobody is left behind. Much of this activity has been delivered by small groups which have formed in response to the pandemic. The lack of red tape, rules, working directives combined with enthusiasm, motivation and human connection all powered by the internet has driven much of this. In April we suggested:

“The reality is events like the pandemic require agile organisations, that are like “speedboats” which can react and manoeuvre quickly. Local authorities and bigger voluntary groups are often like “steamships”. Once they are set on a course they cannot change quickly.”

The recent launch of the #BuildBackBetter campaign, supported by 350 business leaders, community groups and politicians provides a great opportunity to reflect and learn from this experience. As we observed in “What’s so funny about peace love and understanding “

“When our politicians reach outside their sectarian interests and start to engage with people in a meaningful way they discover the public are a huge resource of ideas, expertise, skills and lived experience that can lead to far more effective decision-making. They find that people can hold mixed – sometimes contradictory – views that do not fit neatly into a manifesto but most are willing to reach a compromise. Which is why organisations such as Compass, the RSA and others talk of progressive alliances, building bridges between people and encouraging the growth of bottom up democracy.”

In many ways the lockdown has amplified issues we were already aware off. Inequality, child poverty, food poverty, in work poverty, insecure and in some cases illegal working conditions. Work life balance, environment, run down public services, lack of affordable housing, concerns about physical health and mental wellbeing have all come under the spotlight. Whilst emphasis might vary all the major political parties are talking about “green new deals”, government action to stimulate the economy, protect the poor and why we must create a kinder and more caring society.

The murder of George Floyd in late May and the resulting protest and debates triggered by #BlackLivesMatter fed into the feeling that we are at a critical juncture. Historic injustices had to be righted, the system we currently have is grossly unfair. It systemically discriminates against people of colour whilst evading or hiding how it has benefitted from slavery, colonialism, and racism.

Whilst many public figures got behind this and took a knee, others were more worried. Talk of white privilege and defunding the police was portrayed by some commentators as left wing extremism hiding behind BLM. As statues were torn down and demands grew for more to tumble, some saw this as an attack on the identity and history of the UK. As people marched to protect Winston Churchill statues and share Nazi salutes the one big inclusive community able to achieve consensus seemed like a distant dream.

Yet, polling found only 6% of the British public want to go back to the same economy from before the Covid-19 crisis. Instead people want to build back stronger, greener and fairer. There is significant support for BLM, if not for some of their methods. So, there are reasons to be cheerful and optimistic. I would suggest central to any change should be the “lived experience and voices” of local people shaping the agenda for how their communities develop. As we start to move forward it would be good to see a greater emphasis on:

Devolved decision making and giving more power to councils to decide how best their communities and local economies develop.

Creative forms of deliberative democracy that empower and enable local people to get involved, discuss, debate and reach consensus.

Local government, community, and business developing agile, creative teams and structures that can listen, learn, and adapt.

A nationally agreed index of happiness and wellbeing that is used alongside GDP to let us know how well we are doing.

Hard targets and KPI’s for eradicating poverty in its many forms.

There are of course many issues that need to be tackled but my strong belief is. If you can root decision making in a local context that people feel connection to and control over, you are far more likely to achieve change. Politicians, business, and community leaders need to see their shared purpose as building better communities. This is far more likely to happen if they work in open, transparent, and respectful partnerships. Where they accept, they all have much to learn from each other and the best way of knowing what the people want is by actively involving them in their decision making processes.

The pandemic has clearly shown the strengths and shortcomings of our economy and politics. We have much to be proud of but also much we can and must improve. So, lets empower communities, and use their creativity, kindness, and rooted local knowledge to #BuildBackBetter and ensure nobody is left behind.

Kieran Breen
CEO Leicestershire Cares
This blog was originally published at Vulnerability 360.

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What’s so funny about peace, love and understanding?

It is easy to be cynical but the Covid-19 crisis has shown that generally we are not cynics. Kieran Breen FRSA argues that people’s kindness could be harnessed to drive agile, creative and deliberative democracy.

When I worked in Tanzania, I often came across tourists in Zanzibar who had been advised by their expensive hotels that for safety reasons they should not venture from the hotel beach area and never use private taxis. So scared tourists would pay five or 10 times the going price to go on excursions via the hotel in the mistaken belief they were protected from hidden danger. Most of these hotels were foreign owned and little of the huge profits they made went back into the local economy. In short, the hotels were scaring their guests and then ripping them off and giving no real benefit to local people.

I was reminded of this when I heard the Dutch historian and writer, Rutger Bregman, discussing his latest book Humankind as part of the RSA’s Bridges to the Future series of podcasts. He argues we have been misled into believing that beneath the veneer of civilisation, people are individualistic, selfish and cruel, and that we need a strong and controlling state to keep us all in order. As the seventeenth century philosopher Thomas Hobbes famously wrote, life without the state would be “nasty, brutish and short”.

Bregman disagrees and argues most people are kind and cooperative and it is this ability to cooperate that gives humankind its added advantage. The widespread community-led response to the Covid-19 pandemic suggests he is right. Across our cities and towns people have been looking after one and other through organic social action groups. As I have argued elsewhere, the lack of red tape, rules, working directives combined with enthusiasm, motivation and human connection all powered by the internet made this happen. It has been living proof that those best able to cooperate survive. Ingenuity, collaboration and a sense of community have been at the heart of it.

As we start to consider life after the pandemic there does seem to be a real desire to think about new ways of doing politics and of addressing the inequalities that the pandemic has thrown a harsh light on. Recent ONS data (from the 22 May) shows that people are expecting a kinder and more united and equal society to grow out of the pandemic. Boris Johnson, the UK’s Prime Minister, has made it clear that “the coronavirus crisis has already proved … there really is such a thing as society.” This all seems a long way from the neoliberal rhetoric that has dominated political discourse for the last 40 years and seen a huge rise in inequality. For me, the question now is how, at a practical level, we turn these good intentions into positive actions that reduce inequalities and improve people’s lives?

It has also made me think that what I saw in Zanzibar could be a metaphor for the way people are encouraged to view politics and the world. Viewed through the lens of social and much mainstream media, politics is not the place for faint-hearted liberals who wish to gather facts, discuss, and reach consensus for the good of all. As James Williams of the Oxford Internet Institute shows in his award winning Stand Out of Our Light: Freedom and Resistance in the Attention Economy, ‘clickbait’ algorithm-driven attention grabbing headlines are the currency that funds social media. The Facebook/Cambridge Analytica data scandal seemed to show that small groups of very rich and powerful people use social media to manipulate and divide people and to create fear and a desire for ‘strong man’ government. It is little wonder that, post-Brexit, many commentators talk of a UK divided between young and old, graduate and non-graduate and city and town.

Yet, we know that experiments with citizens’ juries and deliberative democracy have shown that when given the facts and space to discuss, people often change opinions and consensus is reached. This does make me wonder – if rather like the rich hotel owners in Zanzibar – there are vested interests who do not want empowered citizens involved in decision-making and coming to a consensus. Might it be this type of deliberative democracy is viewed by them as a threat that could lead to them losing power and control?

Sadly, it is not only the stereotypical tax-evading super rich who are against power sharing.  As Isabel Hardmen’s 2018 book, Why We Get the Wrong Politicians argues, our current political system is often run by cliques in parties. MP’s – or perhaps more importantly the party managers – see their role as delivering their manifesto commitments; even if often they fail to do this. Within this set up deliberative democracy is seen as a time-consuming fudge.    

Yet, when our politicians reach outside their sectarian interests and start to engage with people in a meaningful way they discover the public are a huge resource of ideas, expertise, skills and lived experience that can lead to far more effective decision-making. They find that people can hold mixed – sometimes contradictory – views that do not fit neatly into a manifesto but most are willing to reach a compromise. Which is why organisations such as Compass, the RSA and others talk of progressive alliances, building bridges between people and encouraging the growth of bottom up democracy.

Organisations like Shared Future have an impressive track record of facilitating deliberative processes across the UK on issues such as community orientated primary care, mental health, fracking and shared decision-making. This feedback captures the spirit of the work they do: “Being a member of the Central Blackpool Health and Wellbeing Inquiry has been nothing short of inspirational. Working together with the residents has broken down so many personal and system driven barriers that have stifled change in the past. Now we see residents filled with confidence and recognising the power they have to influence change and how I as a commissioner can and have contributed to these positive changes.”

As we come out of the immediate shockwave of the pandemic we will have to make tough choices about squaring action on climate change with economic growth, tax rates and social care. I would like to see government and local councils doing three things. First, pulling on the expertise of the many community groups that have sprang up and seeking to work with and learn from them. Second, setting up networks of citizens’ juries to look at the impact of the pandemic on the local economy and community and to advise on the priorities and actions that need to be taken. And third, proactively encouraging community, business, and local authorities to work together on regeneration plans.

We know vested interest and organisational inertia can lead to resistance. Which is why it is up to civil society organisations such as those mentioned above to promote new approaches, engaging with political parties, business, trade unions, government and local authorities. We also need to look at how we can further use the internet and new technology to connect people and to drive the demand for a more deliberative and participatory democracy in a bottom up way.

Generally, people’s kindness and sense of fairness means they will help strangers, share their food, do that shopping run and stand in the street clapping our NHS heroes and key workers. Our greatest asset is our people and we need to find ways to nurture and encourage their good will and common decency so we can build a better and fairer society for all. Deliberative democracy seems a very good starting point to me.

Kieran is the CEO of Leicestershire Cares and lectures in global issues and young people at De Montfort University, he is writing here in personal capacity  

This post was originally hosted on the RSA.org website.

Nobody left behind: Leicestershire Cares’ response to COVID-19 pandemic

Twelve weeks into the Covid 19 pandemic, we continue to operate in an agile, creative, and adaptive way. From day one we have focussed on supporting isolated and vulnerable young people and job seekers as well as strengthening the capacity of key community by:

  • Delivering essential items and food to people in need and food banks.
  • Providing a wide range practical and fun remote sessions for isolated people.
  • Providing one to one support both remotely and through safe distance catch ups.
  • Providing specialised wellbeing support groups.
  • Tackling issues of domestic abuse.
  • Linking business with community groups so they can offer practical and skills based support.
  • Supporting young people to share their voice and lived experience with local decision makers.
  • Providing on ongoing employability support for job seekers, be it mock interviews or virtual work tours.
  • Supporting young people to find housing.
  • Supporting young people and community groups to develop their IT/Online skills.
  • Playing an active role in local and national Covid 19 networks.
  • Sharing our learning with a wide range of policy forums.

Sadly, over the last two weeks many of the people we work with have been alarmed and shocked by the vicious killing of George Floyd. We have responded by pledging to step up or efforts to understand and tackle systemic racism. Alongside Covid 19, the rise of the #BlackLivesMatter movement has thrown light on the many inequalities that divide our communities but also inspired people to bring about change. [Read our: #BlackLivesMatter a time for reflection and action statement.]

Through all the above we have seen an outpouring of positive community action. Whilst times are tough, we remain optimistic that we will emerge from the pandemic a more united community. As an organisation we will do all we can to broker partnerships between business, community, and local government so nobody is left behind.

This blog was originally hosted on the Leicestershire Cares newsletter.

#Reimagining – A Social Media Campaign

On Friday 21 February – #CareDay20 Leicester Cares ran a social media campaign #Reimagining asking for responses to the questions “I want a care system that…” and “I’m different because…” to highlight the issues care experienced young people face, but also the aspirations they have for the care system and their lives. These were the responses from young people:

Kieran Breen
Leicestershire Cares

Birthday cakes, rockets and washing machines: How Fuzzy logic can empower young people

Imagine you gathered a group of people together and gave them the ingredients and instructions to bake a cake. If they followed the instructions eventually, they should all be able to bake a cake. At a much bigger level if you gathered your top scientists and gave them the resources and instructions to make a rocket, they should eventually be able to make it. However, if you gave parents a set of instructions as to how bring their child up and applied this to all children, you would not only expect this to fail, you might well anticipate the children involved being unhappy and troubled by such a linear and rigid approach.

Which is where washing machines comes in. A while ago I purchased a washing machine that operated on fuzzy logic principles. This basically meant you set the washing cycle, but it could adjust how it washed clothes if the selected cycle was not working. Of course you can stretch a metaphor too far and get lost in lots of philosophical debates about who determines outcome and who defines success; but there is I believe, a lot we can from fuzzy logic and the need to work with young people in an adaptive and agile manner, where they are empowered to set the agenda, determine the outcomes and become the author of their own story.

Sadly, it is increasingly the case that provision for young people especially those who are disadvantaged is very much linked to a pre-determined linear agenda. This agenda may well go something like; “the NEET young people will participate within the skills scheme and three months later have entered employment and hold this down for at least 13 weeks”. Of course it is good to have goals and it is good to be able to tell people, especially when you are being funded by public or charitable funds ,what you are trying to achieve but as anyone who has spent time working with disadvantaged young people will know life is often more complex than this.

There are often young people who have a whole range of complex and often overlapping needs and who do not fit easily into anyone tick box. For example, it might be “a young man, who has mental health issues, is living in temporary accommodation, has a criminal record, is in debt, has drug and alcohol issues and has a daughter by an estranged partner who is in care”. I could go on and on but many workers who work in youth projects targeting disadvantaged young people will know the picture. If you add in variables based on identify, disability, sexuality, race, class, culture and educational attainment the various intersections and diversity of young people we work with becomes immense and means that one size fits all solutions are at best meaningless at worst harmful and a waste of limited resources.

As government is now looking to review how it funds youth services and what youth services should look like now might be a good time to embrace a more “agile and adaptive approach”. To accept that for many of the most disadvantaged young people we are often talking about long term support and encouragement as they “yoyo” their way towards finding the spark, self-belief and support structures that will enable them to live their life to the best of their ability. We also need to move on from highly individualised approaches to facilitating young people working in groups where they are encouraged to build links, discuss the world as they see and live it and identify their own narratives.

Of course, they should be challenged, and different perspective included but at the heart of this approach is a belief that young people are often best placed to define who they are, what their issues are and what support they might need to move on. As they develop this may well change and they may well go through a prolonged period of try, give up, drop out but a relationship with a skilled worker can often turn that experience into learning that enables them to better identify how they might change their life situation. The process of working with a group with whom they feel a common bond can also help them place their life situation in a context, help them offer and receive support, develop support networks and to think more holistically about what change is needed for them to live fulfilling lives.

It may well be that not all this change is centred on them but might see them asking questions about the way their local community is organised and run, whose agenda is running it and how much does it relate to their lived experience. In short this approach can start the process of young people developing into engaged citizens who are “creators” not just “consumers” and surely that is the bedrock of a successful and cohesive community?

This blog was originally posted by Vulnerability 360.

We care so why can we not deliver?

Over the last 30 years there have been numerous laws, policy reviews, enquiries and working groups all designed to improve the care and transitional support offered to care experienced young people (throughout the rest of this article I will use the term young people). Yet despite an awful lot of policy and legislative attention and a fair amount of investment many of the issues faced by young people remain unchanged. They often find themselves on the receiving end of a patchy and inconsistent service, exacerbated by the rapid turnover of staff and what can appear to be a lack of oversight and coordination. The statistics and data on the issues faced by young people make for a depressing read. Yet we also know there are lots of organisations who are strongly committed to working with young people, have developed good practice and want to make a positive change. So, given the amount of space and resources given to this issue and working on the assumption lots of key people do care, why, are we still failing to deliver a high quality, joined up approach to supporting young people in their journey through care?

Firstly, it is easy to lump young people together but they are a very diverse group, the reasons why you entered care, the age at which you entered care, your gender, sexuality, contact you may or may not have with your family, asylum seeking status, if you have a disability and the type of care you are in will all impact on you and the type of support you need. There are no “one size fits all” solutions and we have to be very wary about making assumptions. Often the people best placed to guide us on what works best are the young people themselves but still it can all too often be the case that “participation” and “coproduction” are one offs rather than embedded systematic approaches. So young people are often seen through a “stereotypical” if well intentioned lens that may well not connect with the young people’s own identity, perceptions and understanding of the situation they are in.

Local authorities are increasingly juggling cuts, dealing with a vast array of demands and many struggle to hold on to staff. Outsourcing of children’s services is far more common and various reports have questioned if those winning contracts care about the children or making a profit. There are more and more stories emerging in the press of young people being put in unsuitable housing, in unsuitable areas with little or no back up. It is also not uncommon for young people to find they have had four or five different staff acting as their key worker over a period of two years.

So clearly, the way we run, commission and deliver our children services is flawed. I personally have experience across a number of authorities of working with well intentioned staff who feel they are sinking and not on top of their brief. It is not uncommon to find that the reporting and red tape demands of frontline children’s workers jobs take up eighty percent of their time. Workers find they do not have the time to build relationships with young people, become disillusioned with their work and leave. So young people develop scepticism about the merry go round of busy distracted workers who flit in and out of their life and are often reluctant to engage with social services. This in turn means these young people can find it difficult to “trust” people as they have been brought up expecting to be let down. For all the talk of child centred services it is simply far too often the case that young people are not central in a meaningful way to the development, delivery and evaluation of the services set up to support them. So, perhaps it is little wonder that the services often fail and young people do not trust those who say they want to improve them.

In the early 90’s I attended a meeting between young people and a junior minister, in the middle of the meeting, one of the young people told the minister they wanted to be loved not cared for. This issue is still very live and still causes a huge amount of discussion, debate and controversy. Most people would agree that we all need love. Yet for young people especially those in residential care it can be the case they are brought up by committees and memorandum, administered at best by well intentioned, committed and approachable staff and at worse by ever changing, disinterested staff.

This lack of love might explain why so many young people find it difficult to build relationships and too often describe themselves as feeling different. A letter from a social worker confirming you can have an allowance to purchase an item is very different to a trip to the shops with people who love you.

Linked to this is what I have always thought is the absurd focus on “independence”. The idea that any young person will suddenly become independent at 16, 18 or 21 seems to fly in the face of all the evidence we know both through growing up ourselves or bringing our own children up. Surely, the key life skill for people, young or old is to learn how to be interdependent and to know how best to build relationships, work with people and to seek, offer and give help?

The vast majority of looked after children will now be “fostered” and there are increasing efforts to encourage kinship care. However, all too often foster carers are not included in a meaningful way when care issues are being discussed. There are also concerns about agencies who see foster care as a business rather than an attempt to offer a child a warm and loving family.

Social work like so many other institutions reflects the times we live in. The focus on individuality, running through our politics alongside an increased interest in individual therapeutic approaches has meant the young people are forced into thinking they must be independent by an arbitrary given age. They and they alone will be responsible for the successes or failures they experience in life. Increasingly much youth provision is very much targeted at helping individuals within a specific timeframe to find work, education or training. There is little or no space for sharing experiences with people in a similar situation, questioning how and why things are ordered or challenging what you see as an unfair and unjust system. In many ways, young people become units on a production line being processed by stripped back social service departments and the organisations they contract resources out to.

Despite all the above many young people do find pathways into rewarding careers, lifestyles and opportunities, but sadly far too many still face many challenges and issues and are being left behind. We also know that there are lots of very good projects offering support, encouraging young people to work together to identify and act on issues of concern. Where they work well these projects often have a strong emphasis on the lived experience and voices of young people leading and developing the work. The projects are flexible can respond to the needs of the young people and staff have jobs that allow them the time to build relationships with young people where the young people identify key issues and the worker supports them in a manner and style appropriate to the young people. These projects are also often well networked, good at working in partnership and work closely, even when they disagree with the local authority. In addition other projects like the one I work with increasingly seek to build links with the private sector as a way of encouraging young people to build relationships with a wide variety of people within their community who might be able to offer them help and support on subjects as diverse as baking a cake, playing sport or learning more about the world of work.

Given we know all of the above, how might we ensure that the care, concern and resources that are there for young people are turned into effective actions and projects that support young people. I would suggest the following:

Voice and co-production. “Nothing about us without us” should be the mantra that ensures young people are “creating” and not just “consuming” services. There is never any magic bullet but ideas and projects that have actively involved young people in their development, implementation and evaluation are far more likely to succeed, as well as offering young people a range of opportunities to develop their soft and hard skills through their involvement in co-producing the project.

One size does not fit all. Young people are a diverse group with many needs and many talents. We have to avoid square pegs and round holes and accept the key to developing effective services is ensuring they are flexible and adaptive so they can respond to the needs of young people as articulated by them.

Contracting. We need to seriously look at the contracting out of children’s services, involve young people in the commissioning of services and in inspecting services. We cannot allow “bogus” get rich quick type organisations to set up poor provision, with poorly qualified, unsupported staff in inappropriate settings. Central to all decisions about service provision should be the best interests of the child not saving money. Money spent “now” may well save millions later if we can support young people to become confident, empowered young people who can interact with life and the issues it throws up in a purposeful way.

Staffing. We need to look at the training and background workers need to support young people and how we can best ensure staff stick around, so that young people get a consistent and reliable service from staff they know and trust. We also need to look at the contribution older care experienced people can make and explore how we might attract care experienced people into social/community work.

Foster care. Resources and space need to be made available so that foster carers can share their vast knowledge of working with young people. Efforts should also be made to explore and support kinship care, not as a cheap option but as a fully funded means of providing care. There should also be a concerted effort to ensure that agencies supporting and providing foster carers have best interests of child at the heart of all they do.

Private sector. The private sector has a huge amount of resources and is staffed by people who live in the local community. There is much work to be done to encourage local businesses to support care experienced young people and the care leaver covenant is a good starting place.

Love. We need to move away from a system that tries to bring young people up in a bureaucratic way and think creatively, with due regard to safeguarding as to how we can let young people feel loved.

Social action. We need to move away from the absurd obsession with independence and towards a vision and model where young people are encouraged and supported to be interdependent. We need to encourage and support young people to identify “what” the issues are for them, “why” they occur and facilitate them working together to bring about change. In turn this process enables them to develop the soft and hard skills that will help them to build relationships, work with others, seek, ask for and offer help

Enough is enough. We do need to be angry about the way the most vulnerable children in our society are so often let down by their corporate parents. We can and must ensure that people fully understand the scale of the issues and we hold people accountable for the failure of the state to deliver their statutory duties. I would want to see our PM, taking a lead on ensuring “our children” are cared for and ensuring that our government does not let the issues drop off the radar and to lead a campaign to encourage the state, private and third sector to work together to ensure we deliver for “our children”.

We live in a society where we can send probes deep into outer space, we can find billions to develop new technology, and where a young lad who is good at kicking a ball around can earn half a million per week. We clearly have the ability, knowledge and resources if we choose to get hold of this issue and to ensure that every young person is offered the support and opportunities, we would offer our own children. It is not much to ask, will not cost the earth, but for these children it will make a world of difference. Together we can make this happen.

Kieran Breen*

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*Kieran Breen is CEO Leicestershire Cares but is writing here in a personal capacity and the views expressed should not be taken as representing Leicestershire Cares