Our knowledge journey so far

Update on Thursday 21st June: Learning partners from the future

 I’ve (Cathy Stancer) just had something pointed out to me, which is that the brilliant (and friendly) people we call ‘learning partners’ (note – not evaluators) attached to the projects we are funding are actually an embodiment of the future we are seeking. They represent a rejection of a paradigm where knowledge is generated to service a machine that wants certainty where certainty is not possible. Instead, they are using knowledge as a reflective tool to help those doing the work to navigate their way. In some cases the organisations we are working with have rejected the machine entirely and will not collect what they consider to be meaningless data. They know it is actually impossible to prove their work has a direct linear effect on any particular outcome of interest to funders or public bodies – they won’t get involved in that dance of deceit. They realise that even having outcomes or targets in place risks skewing the relational, adaptive, human way they work. (The same person who made the observation above also reminded me of Campbell’s Law – the idea that the use of data in decision-making, especially in performance evaluation, can never be safe from corrupting influences because people know how they are being evaluated, and consciously or subconsciously change their activity as a result). These organisations are brave, because opting out of the game means many funding streams are off limits to them. They need to be extra confident, extra secure in themselves to be able to carry this off. Those who lack this confidence and security remain trapped.

We’re not anti-data or anti-rigour here. We just think there is a need for honesty with ourselves about the degree of control any of us have over where impact comes from. We should be thinking about the health of whole systems, not trying to measure whether one small organisation can really ‘reduce reoffending’ (for example).

Overview from April 2018:

Anyone who knows us at Lankelly Chase knows that we’ve been on a journey in the company of many wonderful partners and collaborators over the last few years. Our relationship with knowledge and evidence is one part of this.

We started in a pretty conventional place – we are a foundation concerned with severe and multiple disadvantage, therefore we defined what we meant by that and tried to quantify it.

The result of this approach was Hard Edges (2015) which is probably still our best known and most influential piece of work. It was welcomed as an important stake in the ground, solidly evidencing what most people working in front line organisations know, that problems don’t exist in isolation. There is a mutually reinforcing relationship between the domains we settled on – homelessness, contact with the criminal justice system and substance misuse.

So far, so good.

Of course there are other mutually reinforcing clusters of problems in people’s lives. We were critiqued about the relative absence of women in Hard Edges. Ok, there was work we could do here. A whole programme of work on women in fact, including helping to establish Agenda and commissioning a gendered statistical profile which is underway at Heriot-Watt University at the moment.

There’s a big ‘AND….’ caveat here though. These kinds of approaches are important and describing groups of people primarily in terms of their problems also risks increasing stigma. It risks individualising things, it downplays structural forces and it excludes anyone who doesn’t fit the categorisation in use.

So what to do? We need definitions don’t we? How do we describe the problem we are here to solve if we don’t use categories and definitions based on needs and problems.

Well, yes perhaps we do right now and (again), can we also think about what an alternative way of doing this might entail?

What if the most important things we valued and measured were relationships, what if we used the capabilities approach with its emphasis on people’s freedom to be and do the things they want to in the world? What if everything we did was intended to increase human interconnectedness and we stopped using stigmatising labels?

Now, we are engaged in an action inquiry to understand how knowledge and evidence relates to our mission. We are seeking views and ideas about this and we invite you to watch this space where we will be sharing our thoughts as we go.