Place based working – what have we learned so far?

7th November 2018, words by , Habiba Nabatu

Eighteen months ago we set out to work alongside a few partners in places to explore how we can support people and institutions nurture the conditions for change to flourish locally.  This followed 18 months of seeking advice and input from as many people as possible about the role a funder could most usefully play, and not play, in this respect. From the initial 18 months emerged 9 system behaviours that people felt were present when change was flourishing at an individual, organisational and place level. Behaviour such as people seeing themselves as part of an interconnected whole.

We had a learning partner, a group of Associates with a range of skills/expertise and a few partners in local places.  We didn’t have a definitive plan or process.  We knew the why. We knew the system behaviours.  We had an initial sense of the how – working with associates to start conversations – we didn’t have a sense of the where next.  We wanted to start with a range of options as we didn’t want to lock ourselves into one approach too quickly.  We wanted to experiment and try out different things – and for it to be responsive to what people locally said.

Our entry into places varied. The work in York, Barrow and Manchester emerged out of projects we were funding there already.  We were happy with this, because we knew we needed to start somewhere.

By the time we started conversations with Barking & Dagenham and Gateshead, we had become much more confident about our role, our approach to change and our comfort with not knowing where next. The conversations here started with local authorities and focused more on the systems behaviours.

When we brought together the associates, we brought together people who had a range of skills/expertise that people in places had asked for. Skills and expertise that complemented each other. Some we were working with already and others were new.  We envisaged a ‘core team’ of associates, talking to partners locally, holding up mirror to what is going on in places and supporting them to start seeing their local systems.  The brief for them was wide.  We imagined that they would call on each other and us as they grappled with the local issues.  We imagined that we would fade out once we had the associates in place.  We imagined that the people in places would make their decisions on the change needed. So what have we learned?

We poorly occupied our role

By asking the Associate to hold the relationships and create a process for bringing people together, we were asking them to hold difficult conversations, remain neutral in the face of conflict locally, challenge power dynamics and hold a process of working with emergence in places faced with austerity and pressure.

Two things happened – local partners wanted to keep in touch with us, to talk about the work and hear our views and at the same time we were trying not to tread on the Associates’ toes.

We have realised that we need to collectively hold the process and work alongside associates and local partners as co-inquirers.

A clear process to hold the uncertainty

We started with a wide approach, to experiment with different approaches.  We genuinely didn’t know the best approach and wanted to be open to an alternative view.

We’ve learnt that if you don’t know what to do and want to embrace uncertainty and remain open to what emerges, then clarity is needed elsewhere – for example about processes – structured support and reflection are also essential.

At the same time people are uncomfortable with people not knowing – we were continually asked us ‘What is Lankelly’s view?  What does Lankelly Chase want/expect?’

Spaces to bring people together make sense of their system(s) were the most promising

For us the Elephants work offered some of the most fruitful learning towards our approach as it created collaborative spaces for people to explore ways of building the health of systems, starting with dialogue to see how they can have a different kind of relationship.  It confronted the issues of power, history and voice.  It was an opportunity for two groups who rarely come together to collectively make sense of their systems, observing together and experimenting with ideas together.

Invest in collaborative leadership and relationships, not just projects

External funding can be seen as an opportunity to offload responsibility for complex and resource-intensive functions. It can mean that local partners see a particular project as the responsibility of one agency (say the police) and conclude that something is getting done, therefore they don’t have to do anything.

We want to support collaborative leadership, where the health of the systems is everyone’s responsibility.

Creating more powerful learning experiences

We have had to go on a journey with our learning partner.  Our original conversation was to create learning circles and support local actors to reflect on the decisions they are making. For a number of reasons this hasn’t yet been possible. We didn’t commission an evaluation, because we don’t know what success looks like yet, and we were worried that an evaluation looking at predetermined outcomes would drive behaviour to meet those rather than being open.  Instead they refocused to create spaces for all of us to reflect on our work through in time feedback (feedback in the moment) and through time (feedback to do better next time).  While this has been of value, it has also meant that people in places have not had guided the learning process. Therefore, we want to go back to our original aim of creating learning spaces to explore what’s emerging and what needs to happen next.

It’s been an amazing 18 months, full of rich learning, deepening partnerships, sparks of change. It’s taught us a lot about the role of a national funder working in place, supporting change to flourish at a systems level. Our biggest learning – money is incredibly important and as important are the other things that we don’t always give enough recognition to – support, processes, our relationships, learning and being responsive to feedback.

Learning Partner

Here’s a link to the most recent reflections from our Learning Partner on ‘Is our approach helpful?’

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