We need more people solving problems – not professionals.

Everyone has a story to tell, everyone has strengths beneath the conceptions that you have of them. But if you’re curious enough, you may just find that the answers you’ve always been looking for are there, often right beside you. – William Lilley


Everywhere you look at the beginning of 2015 you will see a crisis.

In case you missed it there is currently a crisis in Accident and Emergency Units which is part of the wider health crisis. There’s a housing crisis as well. And a crisis in social care , unemployment , education and policing. Not forgetting the welfare crisis which is wreaking havoc on millions.

There’s crisis everywhere.

The current trend in mainstream politics , and on social media , is to talk of Britain as broken.  And then we act all surprised and outraged when people turn to parties like UKIP who hark back to a golden age that never truly existed.

People are so sick of hearing about crisis they lose faith and begin searching for someone who appears to offer a more compelling vision. Who can blame them?

Except if you scratch the service on any of those things you’ll find the crisis label to be untrue, or misleading at the very least.

What we have is an excess of demand over supply and deeply dysfunctional systems.

Most of our public services were designed pre-decimal never mind pre-digital.

We really shouldn’t be surprised they aren’t fit for purpose.

The problem lies with the people who created those systems and who work within them. Us.

Over new year I had a break at one of the Red Sea resorts seeking a bit of winter sun along with scores of pasty faced Europeans.

One of the benefits of being locked into an all-inclusive euro-mashup is you have some very random conversations with people we are told are hugely different to us , but are of course not.

The best conversation I had was with an Italian guy and one of our Egyptian hosts.

We were talking about the various crises our countries are experiencing and the role of communities.

Sal was telling us of the boom in the ‘suspended coffee’ movement in Italy.  The concept is pretty simple: You walk into a coffee shop, and instead of buying just one cup of coffee you also buy one (or more) for someone in need. Your get yours and the second coffee is “suspended”. It can be claimed or given out by the barista to people they think deserving. I always believed that the movement was a modern viral phenomenon but Sal told us it was a Neapolitan tradition that originated in World War II. The principle is that in a time of hardship, Italians can lack many things, but not coffee!

Ahmad told us about the rise of the “Town Helper” in parts of Cairo and Alexandria. Because of the huge drain of young men to work in the Red Sea resorts many of the families left behind face a significant skills gap. These guys work incredibly long hours with hardly anytime off. When they do  get a few days off – every few weeks – they return to their families for precious time with loved ones. To make sure they spend the maximum time with their families they fund , largely through tips from tourists , a number of people to do tasks whilst they are away from home. Each Helper , is shared between a number of families , to plug the gaps that have been left in communities.

I talked of the growth of Food Banks in the UK which we largely view as a sign of failure but actually speak of tremendous generosity – of communities looking after their own. I don’t pretend to give lots, I just throw a few things in the collection on every visit to the supermarket – to the extent that I’ve actually stopped thinking about it. It’s just a little pay it forward gesture that millions of us are doing without prompting. I also told them of the Bromford Deal and how we are embarking on a huge cultural shift to unlock potential in people rather than seeing ourselves as professional rescuers.

I talked of how the Deal is – at its essence – a belief that people don’t exist in a state of need and can do amazing things if we empower them and step out of the way.

Due to excess brandy the conversation veered off in all sorts of directions: but the important thing is we all agreed that some of the best initiatives don’t come from Government. None of the above did.

For many years we’ve built infrastructure and services that people neither need or want. We make interventions without outcomes. We produce reports that have no readers. 

We must ask ourselves how we became so removed from the people we were set up to serve. 

Our communities are not in crisis.

There is a massive untapped reservoir of skill and talent that we chose to ignore because we thought we could do it better as professionals.

We couldn’t.

Let’s put it right.


7 thoughts on “We need more people solving problems – not professionals.

  1. Reblogged this on tommurtha and commented:
    Of course we need to innovate and change the way we work and there is always more we can do to develop the talents that we all have. However I think you underestimate the extent of the crisis some people face and exaggerate what individuals and communities alone can do to overcome it. Before the welfare state was established many charities and other groups provided many of the things that have benefitted our lives in recent years. Health housing social care education etc. Despite their best efforts many still went without and died. Charitable philanthropic and individual effort alone no matter how well meaning failed and millions suffered. Self help and development was at its height and still it wasn’t enough. Hence the state became involved and my generation and yours prospered and survived. Yes we need to find new ways of working but unless this is linked to proper funding from the public purse we will return to the suffering my parents knew. Where we have gone wrong is to accept the current Neo Liberal economic arguments and philosophy when there is an alternative which says the state could and should invest in these areas.

    1. Thanks Tom – I don’t think we fundamentally disagree on the point of state investment, I’m all for it. And I take your point about underestimating challenge.

      However I do think there are huge inefficiencies in our current public service provision. Anthony Painter has written this brilliant piece on the NHS which is worth a read http://www.rsablogs.org.uk/2015/enterprise/blame-nhs-overload/#more-24018. You could almost rewrite that about housing.

      The other inefficiency, and point of this post, is that by us constantly assuming people can’t do things and in perpetual need we waste their talents. I reckon most employers squander 80% of their employee talent – and I reckon HAs and other public services do the same with service users/customers/tenants. (Got to come up with a better catch all descriptor)

  2. I agree – public services need to move away from “doing to” towards “doing with”. Government needs to work hand in hand with citizens to collaborate and co-produce services which satisfy the needs of the users.

    Interesting stories from across Europe – thanks for the insight!

    1. Thanks Jo. I agree and it’s important to acknowledge this is not about doing it as a result of cuts. “Doing with” might take more effort but actually leads to better outcomes (the right one for the user!).

      Looking forward to catching up IRL!

  3. I really like the idea of “suspended coffee”, what an excellent approach. Made me think of how Timpsons are all over social media at the moment because of their superb offer for anyone unemployed with an interview to get their suit cleaned for free. More and more companies do seem to realise that (no doubt alongside positive publicity and warm feelings from customers) they should be supporting society as well as their bottom line. The two are far from mutually exclusive, I think.

    As someone who works in charity but used to work for local government, I think working ‘with’ people is essential for so many reasons. Most importantly, because its the right thing to do. Patients have a right to have say in their care and deserve to have non-technical explanations of what options there are so the decision is not just taken by their doctor or consultant but is a joint decision. Similarly, as a charity, we benefit hugely from involving our beneficiaries in decisions, not just because we are here to help them, but also because their insight will flag up things that we will not have thought of as we are not living with the health condition that they are coping with daily.

    Partnership is the way forward on so many fronts!!

  4. Thanks Nick – Timpsons are a great example of a customer centric organisation – I really like the 5 principles of what they call “upside down management”:

    All colleagues have the freedom to do their jobs they way they choose;
    Every boss’s job it to help his or her team;
    No KPI’s, no boxes to tick;
    Bosses don’t issue orders;
    Head Office is a helpline – it does not run the day to day business.

    Pretty refreshing!

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