Confessions of an elephant!

No more claims we’re about to master alchemy

The nine community collaborators who are working with us in Bury, aligned with the elephants project because of a desire to change a system which largely tried to do ‘to’ them or for them, including sometimes doing to them in oppressive and traumatic ways.

We spent a lot of time prior to recruitment looking at what ‘good’ or even ‘good enough’ place based funding looks like. One quote from David Ellerman’s 2001 article ‘Helping people help themselves’ (I know it’s an Ian Duncan Smith-esque title, but its actually a good article about using philanthropic giving/government aid in a way which helps people do what they really want to do) really resonated with me: “Incentives can buy “loving behavior,” “assertions of belief,” or “gestures of faith” — but not being in love or believing in a principle”.

This is what funding opportunities often do (buy assertions of belief and gestures of faith), were the huge private companies who won most of the business following the privatisation of probation ever going to “fall in love” with the idea of helping people with criminal convictions? Were they ever even going to believe in some of the principles that were supposedly guiding the desire to ‘transform rehabilitation’? Regardless of what I think about Jonathon Aitken on personal level, I believe much of what he said and wrote about mentoring people in the criminal justice system was sound. He influenced Grayling but had a much better understanding of what exactly this could involve and the required resources. Granted, there is a huge debate about whether CRC’s (Community Rehabilitation Companies) offering mentoring to resolve practical problems and help people find employment or other meaningful activity was ever financially viable given the financial envelope. But I believe my point holds true, senior managers in those private companies probably never bought in to the principle about people needing this kind of support much more than short, office based appointments focused on ‘management of risk’.

So what is the place-based alternative then? What protects you from being sold on a professional bid-writer’s ‘assertions of belief’? Here we talk about ‘getting a sense of the lie of the land’. Understanding the context of a place, finding out who really believes in changing the systems that perpetuate severe and multiple disadvantage. Ellerman talks here about the need to ‘start from the present situation of the doers’ and ‘seeing the situation through the eyes of the doers’. In practice this meant us going to listen both to the grassroots organisations and people with positional power who wanted to change systems.

An interesting conversation to have is what happens if your ‘doers’ have lost all trust and faith that systems change is possible? But I feel that is a separate blog to be written about place-based working in another area, as we’re fortunate enough to have found plenty of inspirational ‘doers’ in Bury.

The ‘doers’ we went and spoke to wanted to change the system for people facing a whole host of ‘disadvantages’ or reasons why people have their rights, resources and services removed or restricted. These include: being in the Criminal Justice System, being a survivor of abuse, being homeless, substance misuse, eating disorders, mental health, physical disabilities, having no recourse to public funds, being a victim of discrimination on grounds of race, religion or sexuality.

From going to listen to several grass roots groups and organisations we managed to recruit in a way which reflects a diversity of experiences (including many of the disadvantages identified above) of exclusion and disadvantage without using a ‘Noah’s ark’ approach where we specifically looked to bring people in two by two on the basis of the disadvantages or exclusions they faced. Our recruitment was more of a listening exercise, going out to grass roots community projects, listening to people’s stories and reflecting on the degree they felt aligned with the projects aims. The participants will be a consistent link to the communities affected by all the disadvantages identified earlier. They have chosen the name of community collaborators, as they are collaborating around how these communities can together change systems. Whilst we got the recruitment right in terms of the participants, I also think I made some mistakes which I’ll reflect on later.

In this week’s session we spent the morning discussing the Greater Manchester model (of unified public services) with them, the link to this is below to anyone who wants to read more about the model.

We discussed the degree to which people felt it was relevant to their lives and the grassroots work they are doing within their communities of place and identity. In the afternoon we used this discussion to start articulating all the parts of ‘the system’ we want to work on changing together (I’ll explore questions about ‘what system? later). There was a great deal of synergy with what people spoke about and Lankelly Chase’s 9 Systems behaviours. Again the link is below:

Afterwards there was some constructive challenge to our scheduling of activity, whilst everyone found the session really useful, was now the right time to be exploring the system in this amount of detail when people were yet to fully understand ‘the clear container’ in which they were operating in? People with existing positional power and resources had the time and space to unpick and explore the Greater Manchester model and the 9 systems behaviours and the reform work taking place around the ‘People Powered Bury’ steering group. In reflecting on this question as a group we have had so many helpful suggestions for how myself and Jacob from the elephants project can work continue to work alongside Claire from Collaborate Out Loud and Neil from the VCFA (Voluntary Community and Faith Alliance) to create this ‘clear container’. Things we can cover in the next session so the group feel they have their own identity and sense of purpose and their own understanding of how this can be aligned with the GM model, 9 systems behaviours and the People Powered Bury steering group.

There is no standard operating procedure for this kind of work, we have the Elephants Trail ‘Core Group’ to reflect, unpick and learn. In addition to this I managed to find another model to appraise myself with. In ‘Leadership characteristics that shape the leadership style of leaders of financially sustainable social innovation projects’ (2014) Diaz and Mazuera identify the following as the key characteristics:

Ability to build and maintain relationships

Idealised Influence (I’m changing this to embodies the vision and values)



Delegation (I’m changing this to provides group members with ‘freedom to act’)

Individualised consideration

Motivated by emotional reward

It feels like there is a plethora of information already out there on building and maintaining relationships in social innovation/coproduction/place-based projects. I don’t know how much that is new that I could add to this discussion. It’s not a characteristic I feel the need to critically reflect on personally, I know I’m pretty good at it on the whole.

Embodies vision and values is perhaps the most difficult characteristic to get right. I listened to a TED talk once which featured the quote “Martin Luther King had a dream, he didn’t have a plan”. It’s true that dreams are the things we emotionally connect with. The emotional connection to the ideals (the vision and values) inspires us to take action. Plans are dry, planning is a task to carry out when we’ve all bought in to the dream and need to start taking the action to achieve it.

The danger of conveying a vision for changing systems which perpetuate severe and multiple disadvantage is that you can easily veer in to the ‘false promises’ territory. Throughout our time working on the Elephants project we’ve been reminded of people’s frustrations at being ‘wheeled in and out’ at different stages of decision-making processes. Recently we’ve been reflecting on the false promises people make to motivate people to participate. Members of a grassroots mental health charity tell us they are repeatedly told “You tell us what you need from services and we’ll go away and create the perfect model”. People selling a perfect model is akin to telling them we are about to master alchemy. There is a lot of clunky lead in the structures that make up our systems, we’ll never be able to turn it in to a perfect model made of gold.

What we aim to do with the Elephants trail is create a ‘better’ or ‘good enough’ system together. No wheeling in and out at different stages, no more over-promising to and under-delivering, open and trusting relationships throughout. But we are human beings who don’t always get this 100% right, the term ‘parameters’ has been raised several times. Have we given people enough information to understand the parameters? To an extent we can and do unpick the parameters of the work together, but it is more difficult to this in relation to the budget we have between now and September. Was it clear enough that no-one envisaged pumping lots of project funding in to try and create quick fixes? On reflection, probably not. Do the participants wish we would do this? Probably some do.

Self-awareness is something we can’t escape, it goes with the territory when you are part of the elephants core-group. At times I’ve commented participating in the core-group has given me too much self-awareness. Before I ever met anyone from Lankelly Chase I had more of a belief I had the answers, that I knew how to ‘do coproduction’ and fix the system. Over the five years since then I’ve had many a realisation that what I knew how to do relatively well was relationship building and participation. But many revelations would come to me over the coming months and years about my role in the wider system. I use the term ‘moving from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence’ a lot to describe this. Its not incompetence in relation to a lack of skills I’m referring to. It’s more ability to affect things on a macro level.

Flexibility is something which traditional models of funding and commissioning don’t really allow for. Some say commissioning is the enemy of coproduction. Much of what will emerge is unforeseeable, the way we currently do project planning and devise budgets isn’t aligned with flexibility and responsiveness. So in terms of your own role, you can be flexible, but trying to get the system to flex with you is often more challenging.

The term delegation suggests a power imbalance, I much prefer the concept of all members of the group having the freedom to act rather than a leader delegating tasks. There is a debate about whether leadership is even the right word for an elephants space facilitator, but maybe that debate is for another blog as well. Creating an environment where there is ‘freedom to act’ for everyone, regardless of position isn’t easy. But we want one where all of our collaborators feel able to get a meeting with the chief executive of the council. One of them has done this, it’s something he has done in his role within his community group and isn’t directly related to the project. But it provides a good example of what we want to promote. No more ‘gatekeeper’ roles.

Individualised consideration is like building and maintaining relationships in that it isn’t something I feel I can offer any new insight or reflection on.

Motivated by emotional reward is worthy of further discussion. It is much easier to be motivated by emotional reward once you have already reached a point where you don’t have to panic about the extent to which you are financially rewarded. There is a strong argument that it is counter-intuitive for the same person whose livelihood depends on being able to being involved in such projects to also play a pivotal role in setting the budget for that project. We need to find a way of creating a clearer separation of the two functions than current funding models allow for.

Finally, I promised to reflect on the question of ‘what system’ we are operating in. I think there are at least four different ‘systems’ in terms of delivery of public services which the Elephants work has had interaction with: Homelessness and Housing, Health and Social Care, Criminal Justice, Children, young people and families. I think with each of these there are Greater Manchester wide ‘actors’ (people whose role spans the whole of Greater Manchester) and those whose role is focussed on their locality (i.e. whichever of the 10 GM boroughs they work in). To complicate things further, within individual boroughs there will be people whose roles span the boundaries of these 4 systems and those who don’t. Going back to Ellerman’s concept of ‘starting with the doers’ it feels like the system most relevant to the lives of our doers is the health and social care system, although this overlaps with a wider system of public service reform.




I work alongside communities on their own terms and try to help them bring about systemic change. I'm both inspired and frustrated on a daily basis.str

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Matthew Kidd

Matthew Kidd

I work alongside communities on their own terms and try to help them bring about systemic change. I'm both inspired and frustrated on a daily basis.str

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