What a difference a year makes

Mary Stevens, On Purpose London April 2017 Associate and currently in her placement with Collaborate, writes about how she made her way to the On Purpose Associate Programme and about a year full of change, exploration and reflection.

Shhh… I don’t want to make a fuss, but it’s my birthday tomorrow. Birthdays are always a good time for looking back and forwards, but this year seems to merit that treatment more than most.

This time last year I was a Defra civil servant, trying to negotiate the infamous Whitehall ‘grid’ to get a long-term plan for flood-affected communities in Cumbria published by the end of June, as the chaos of the Referendum result whirled around me. Somehow we managed it, and I’m still immensely proud of the work that we did. But by that stage I’d also handed in my notice, and when the Referendum result was announced and shell-schocked colleagues scrabbled to come to terms with what this might mean for projects that in some cases had been the product of their entire careers I knew I’d made the right decision.

I didn’t know then what I wanted to do, exactly, but a few things were clear to me. Central government might hold lots of power — of sorts — but (at least under a Conservative government) there was no scope or resources for shaping the agenda. I would be always on the back foot, fighting against the changes we urgently need until the last possible moment. A small example that crystalised this for me from within Defra was the blank refusal to consider a charge on disposal coffee cups (and coming on the back of the protracted and still-insufficient compromise on plastic bags). Air quality and energy efficiency policy — or rather, the complete lack thereof —are more examples.

My instinct was that if I wanted to follow the energy for change I would have to look elsewhere, probably in the messy but productive space between the public, private and voluntary sectors. In general, central government shies away from the mess that is the inevitable and productive consequence of real people getting involved in shaping their futures; I loved the Cumbria project because it was about building relationships on the ground between public services, community groups, experts and NGOs, but as soon as it threatened to get interesting my role required me to step out of the way.

I also knew that I wanted some time and space to reflect on my practice as a policy-maker and to understand better the politics of how we manage finite resources in a shared planet.

Over the last year I’ve done lots of those things. I’ve completed the first module of an Open University MSc (or more likely PGDip) in Environmental Management. The module topic was Environmental Decision-Making, but the approach was strongly systems based, and it could also count towards a qualification in systems thinking. I’ve run two woodland conservation weekends, joined the Impact Hub as a host and co-curated their first event on the ‘future of work’, curated a public screening of the film ‘Tomorrow’, raised over £2,500 for refugees by cycling across France, stripped down and rebuilt a bicycle, supported the wonderful primary school in Finsbury Park where I am a governor through an Ofsted inspection, applied my new-found systems knowledge to a short project for the RSA, joined the Green Party and campaigned (a bit) in the election, provided policy advice on the Islington Local Plan and the Local Flood Risk Strategy, volunteered at 19 Princelet Street, led a refugee history cycle tour round north London, cycled to Oxford and Cambridge (twice), trained as a basic first aider and read some great books (not enough). I’ve also acquired more job application and interview practice than I initially bargained for.

In April this year I joined the On Purpose programme, a mid-career leadership programme in social enterprise that should help me find ways to start making sense of the messy space I wrote about above. I’m currently working at Collaborate, a social sector consultancy which works right in this space. In keeping with this year’s theme I’m learning every day. Today, for example, included a phone interview about finance for community renewables and an inspiring presentation on how public services in Devon are being transfored from within by a few committed individuals with bold vision.

Of course, there are many ways in which the world around me has changed too. Brexit, Trump, a racist terror attack on my doorstep, all against the (often forgotten) backdrop of a warming world (2016 was the warmest year on record). But tomorrow is a small-scale human milestone, so for now I’m focusing on that. This next revolution round the sun may bring more chaos, but I hope also as much variety, if maybe tempered by a little more personal clarity.

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