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Hilary Cottam: To tackle our challenges, start with people's lives

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On a chilly morning last month, I squeezed into a small and crowded meeting room. A senior manager from children’s services had promised to meet those working locally with children, to share service improvement plans.

Hilary Cottam

She arrived and over an expectant buzz circulated a sheaf of case studies. She asked us to rank in importance which cases should be referred to social services.

A hush ensued. There’s a 14-year-old girl who has not returned to school, a six-month-old baby who has been badly shaken by her teenage mother, a disabled boy who is bruised, unkempt and smelly.

I am not a professional and to me every case offers a glimpse into a life where help is needed. How can these cases be ranked and compared?

Everyone present works with families and children in desperate circumstances. They worry constantly about the responsibility, the lack of support, the waiting lists.

And their anger spills over. “We haven’t come for this,” someone shouts from the back. “We need help but we can’t get to you.” The manager retains her poise. And she promises a new advice line: “Your call will be answered by a trained, experienced social worker.”

Why, I wonder, do some persist in rearranging the queue whilst others in the same circumstances start to create radical alternatives? I have been to many similar meetings around the country but places from Wigan to Leeds, Morecambe Bay to East Ayrshire demonstrate the very different things we can make happen.

Take young people – the focus that morning. Too many young people are not making it. In recent years youth services have been decimated while indices of mental illness, knife crime and more have rocketed. It is about investment and it is about something more: the tools, frameworks and systems we inherited from the last century are proving unfit for purpose.

Adolescence is a concept that did not exist when the welfare state was designed yet today we know these in-between years are a vital time of development. Crucially, if things went wrong in the early years, adolescence is a second chance. We can reset. That’s if the help is there.

Ten years ago, I rented a bus, stacked up with pizza and parked at night on London estates and seaside towns. I hung out on rough ground and when it rained I fled with my new friends to the youth centre. I know the answers to our challenges do not start from within the institutions, asking how existing services can be improved.

They start in people’s lives, sharing the everyday and listening. What I heard again and again was a hunger for connections, for the relationships needed to get on. Ben wanted to be a chef, Amelia to write, Mo needed encouragement to escape the gang he was part of.

They knew they had little chance and they didn’t want better youth services. They felt imprisoned in youthonly spaces. They wanted to get out.

We started an experiment. Could you offer a young person an opportunity and some time – for free – we asked those within the wider neighbourhoods where these young people lived. We knocked on doors of art centres, offices, hotels and more. “Yes!” came the almost universal reply. “Thank you for asking – we would love to be involved.”

And with simple technology we invented something new: a way to knit young people back into the community. It was cheap so we could include everyone – those who were thriving, those who had the connections and those who needed help and encouragement. Demeanours changed, possibilities opened up and those who grew came back to help others.

What I am describing is not the work of a focus group or consultation. It is not about service improvement. It is about a shift in power and mindset. We start not by asking as public servants how we can fix this or that. There is no talk of “residents like this…”. Rather I ask about your life: what do you do, care about, want and how can we collaborate to make that happen.

The British welfare state was perhaps the biggest social revolution the world has ever seen. Our life chances were transformed.

But today this once great system is out of kilter. The mismatch between the services on offer and the challenges of today goes well beyond adolescence. Those of us with chronic illness, with bad or no work, who feel alone or who need help in our family lives can find no answers. Our once brilliant welfare state can still (sometimes) help us in an emergency but it cannot support us to flourish.

In Radical Help I argue that we need our own revolution – to reinvent this vision. One place to start is with the flaws inherent in the original design. Beveridge, the architect of the welfare state, came himself to realise he had made an error. He had left out our relationships with one another and he had ignored the local: the community spaces and places where we connect, imagine and re-invent.

Today when our challenges – from growing up well to finding good work, from good care to good neighbourhoods – rely on the horizontal networks between us, we must ditch our vertical models of command and control.

What unites the experiments I describe in Radical Help and the new practice I see are three factors: a focus on possibility (as opposed to the management of risk); a mindset that seeks to grow capability rather than meet service targets; and a determination to take care of everyone – those who need help and those who are providing the help. Good people can only work within good systems.

I work across Britain with social workers, local politicians and policy makers, housing officers, police officers and many more. We have the skills and the commitment.

What is required is a new framework that liberates us – the framework I describe in Radical Help. And something else too: stability in our teams and in our leadership. The change we require must be grown and nurtured: it is tender at first and this requires trust and strong relationships within local government – a professional mindset that thinks in terms of decades of commitment.

Hilary Cottam, author and social entrepreneur

Radical Help: how we can remake the relationships between us and revolutionise the welfare state is published by Little Brown and out in paperback on 2 May


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