Making a Deal: Unlocking Potential In Communities

 There is no power greater than a community discovering what it cares about.

 Ask “What’s possible?” not “What’s wrong?”

 Be brave enough to start a conversation that matters.

Margaret J Wheatley

One of the many challenges for the public sector is that it must start believing in people and communities again.

If you take the Social Housing sector as an example you’ll see it has spent a long time making life as easy as possible for people.

Free telephone calls , a 24 hours repairs service and if you’re on benefits you don’t even have to worry about the rent getting paid – we’ll sort it for you. Neighbour’s dog barking? Leave it with us. 

I exaggerate of course – but only slightly. Huge parts of the public sector have designed services around what people can’t do for themselves rather than nurturing what they can.

Now we have to reverse it.  Not because there’s a lack of money but because it fundamentally disempowers people. It was a lovely, thoughtful thing to do but it leaves people ill-equipped for life in the 21st Century.

And , worst of all, it massively under values the skills and passions that people have.

Last week I spent time with a great group of people from all sectors looking at adopting preventative approaches rather than being reactive.  It’s an initiative of the Wales Audit Office and their partner organisations.

What most impressed me? Here were people actually making change happen , rather than just talking about it.

This is by no means easy. Radically changing your service usually means you’ll encounter disappointment and failure at some point. It’s easier to stick to what you know.

I was asked along to talk about the Deal – which is the most significant and far reaching innovation I’ve worked on at Bromford. And like any innovation – it has its critics.

The Deal starts from the position of believing that people want to move forward in life. And Bromford have begun to reshape their entire service around that belief.

  • Residents complete an online assessment where they get to talk about their skills and hopes for the future. Many have said that it’s the first time they have ever been asked about aspirations.
  • Goals are being set around what they want to achieve , in their words. They are coached that they can do it , not expected to fail.
  • And the Bromford service is being gradually reshaped as something that propels people forward and builds on what they can do. Rather than keeping them locked in a moment in time.

And it’s not easy. Changing a service that’s been delivered the same way for years is really hard work.

The top messages I wanted to impart were:

Think Big. Start Small. The reason most public sector innovation stalls is people spend so much time thinking , talking and writing reports it becomes too big and scary to tackle. Start doing small stuff as quickly as you can. At the early stages of the Deal we were only offering it to 15 or 20 people a week – genuinely co-creating,  learning and adapting together.

You Will Fail At Some Point. So Fail Fast. Don’t start a really expensive IT project to replace your legacy systems when you haven’t even tested if the service works. Prototype. Test. Break. Rebuild. We developed a micro IT system for about £20,000 to kickstart the Deal. Losing £20,000 is bad. Losing £200,000 is bloody awful.

Take People With You. Involve them in the design. Let them try out new roles and play in a different position. Don’t go through restructures before you know what you’re doing. It kills momentum and by the time you’ve done it you probably need to do it again. But remember that not everyone will go with you. Radical change means some people will want to get off the bus at some point.

Keep The KPI Simple Stupid. Measuring what’s working is really important – but don’t obsess about performance management before you’ve started doing anything. Does if feel like the right thing to do for the customer? Is it hurting your business? If it’s not you’re probably safe to proceed.

The message I took away was the need for us all to be braver. To be unafraid of being laughed at.

Most of us work in sectors that are frighteningly risk averse – that fear the new and the different. That’s why many of us have the same structures, the same policies, the same job titles and even the same IT suppliers. And we go to the same conferences as there’s safety in numbers.

Believing in what people can do means being brave enough to admit that we won’t always be needed.

This is about us all being brave enough to start a conversation that really matters.


8 thoughts on “Making a Deal: Unlocking Potential In Communities

  1. Great blog Paul. Thanks so much for being part of our prevention seminar – the attendees and the Good Practice Team both learnt loads from your presentation. This blog is a handy resource for us to share with participants too!

    Thanks again,


    1. Thanks Dyfrig I enjoyed it and hope to similar developing this side of the border. Look forward to the next leg!

  2. Totally agree. The more you give the more people take/expect.

    I believe we’ve probably just hit the turning point and know first hand that the industry is (has) to toughen up. As the public sector is squeezed for every penny to demonstrate Value for Money you’ll find that more and more authorities will slim down on services. Initially this will cause distress but “Ying and Yang” or “rough with the smooth” and all that, if you know what I mean.

    1. Thanks Brett – I agree but it’s also wider than the housing sector. I was in Wales yesterday with the Welsh Audit Office and there was widespread acceptance of the need to have “well managed risk” rather than no risk.

      To quote the Minister for Local Government: “We cannot do the same things differently – we have to do different things”

  3. Paul – I so agree! The Public Sector- by asking the wrong question – are creating ‘a rod for their own back’ . They install in communities dependency and worse a sense of entitlement, which disempowers community creativity and ownership. When government suggests a shift to community involvement, it is not surprising that communities reacts with cynicism and feelings of betrayal. Any proposed change is perceived as abandonment and rejection.

    This gives an opportunity for social business to take the lead on building the bridge between communities, local businesses and local government.

    Thank you for a great blog!

  4. Thanks Heidi – the lack of innovation in community engagement can be a bit depressing in the UK. As you say – it’s huge opportunity

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