3 Things We Should Learn From Benefits Street

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Apart from the unfortunate title, Benefits Street is pretty good.

Having seen the first two episodes I genuinely can’t understand what the fuss is about.

It’s a great piece of commercial television (think – My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding) that’s designed to shock.

And , boy , have we fallen for it.

Primetime TV + Benefits  =  Bang: The Twitter Liberal Left erupt in a perfectly predictable frenzy.

But by dismissing the show out of hand  (I reckon less than 10% of people tweeting about it have actually watched it) we miss vital opportunities.

  • We don’t learn from people who are superb storytellers and know how to construct a genuinely populist narrative. (Something the social housing sector has failed to do time after time)
  • We don’t learn lessons about the way our organisations have failed to connect with some communities, and have contributed to their social exclusion.
  • We get distracted and start indulging in petty campaigns (petitions to get it taken off air – for heaven’s sake!) rather than thinking big and innovating.

If we did more listening and a little less talking we would pick up three important lessons:

1 – You change hearts and minds with stories not statistics

The past couple of weeks have seen a number of infographics and articles that aim to challenge the actual size of the welfare problem or show that tax avoiders are the bigger issue.

All of which are very interesting and probably correct but serve no purpose whatsoever in moving the debate forward.

Does anybody think that someone with an entrenched belief that welfare is a lifestyle choice gets one of these things in their inbox and says  “Oh. I see. I was wrong all along. Apologies”.

Of course not. The producers of Benefits Street know that storytelling trumps statistics every time. As Thom Bartley points out in his latest post:

“The public doesn’t respond to blah blah million lost off a balance sheet, they respond to the story about a mother losing benefit because her disabled kid uses an extra room”

2 – Real people tell a better story than professionals

This is the master stroke of Benefits Street. They’ve allowed people to speak for themselves. The professionals who help and , sometimes,  hinder their lives are mercifully absent.

Here’s how we are referred to:

Letter from Work Programme provider: “What f*****g work programme? I’ve never worked in my life”

DWP changing payments: “There’s going to be riots soon unless people start getting paid”

Housing:  “These landlords think they are clever (chasing rent). They’ll have to pay to go court and it’ll take you about a year and a half”

So – not a great level of advocacy for the agencies who are paid millions to support them.

The residents come across as likeable , aware of their own shortcomings and display a deep sense of community.

It’s refreshing to hear the impact of reforms – positive and negative-  untainted by professional bias. We need more of this.

3 – The best ideas come from communities

The greatest thing about the programme are the many innovations that residents employ to get through their day to day lives.

These are not people without talent.

They are people who have existed in a system that has concentrated on what they can’t do rather than what they can.

I see more innovation on display on James Turner Street than I see across many organisations. Some examples:

  • Neighbourhood mouthpiece “White Dee” using a community favours scheme to get a guy to save money for clothes and not blow it on drink and drugs.
  • The “50p Man” who sells household essentials like washing powder in smaller affordable portions. He came up with the idea in prison and dreams of turning it into a national franchise.
  • The Romanians turning trash into cash – literally going through bins.

One of the problems across the social sector is there’s too much top down innovation and an over reliance on tech based solutions.

We need to listen to communities , seed fund some grass roots projects and get out of the way. 

The only real problem with Benefits Street , as Charlie Brooker has pointed out , is that title.

It’s designed to get your back up.

So let’s stop falling for it.

Now is the time for big transformational innovation.

Now is the time for our very best social innovators to work with the residents of James Turner Street and others like them.

  • We could fund the likes of White Dee to become a Community Connector.
  • We could try a localised approach to job creation and a resident led Work Programme.
  • We could create a new deal for tenants rather than just moving them in and leaving them to it.
  • We could have a social accelerator programme to scale up business ideas – like the 50p man.
  • We could attempt to pilot a whole new system of benefits and help the Government out rather than sitting around willing Universal Credit to fail (Matt Leach outlines just such an approach in his excellent post here)

Or we could just get angry on Twitter, do battle with Daily Mail readers and become ever more polarised in our views.

I know how I want to spend my time.

How about you?

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