What frontline workers think should change, and what they need to change it

Although our final cohort was fairly small, we had about 70 applications from frontline workers to the Systems Changers programme. Sophia Parker and Jennie Winhall, two other Point People, spent some time analysing all of the application data. This post summarises what they found.

Looking at the data from the applications, including those from people who weren’t ultimately selected for the programme, was useful to make some assumptions more generally about what frontline workers are thinking and what they need. If you’re designing for frontline workers, or if they’re part of any work you’re doing, these insights may be helpful for you too.

What needs to change

We asked frontline workers to tell us about what they saw as the challenges within services for people facing severe and multiple disadvantage.

Let people be square pegs!

This was a key theme across applications. Not all human beings comply with societal ‘rules’, and not all of them can or are in a position to do so. You can’t expect people in crisis to follow mainstream rules, so any effective system needs to be designed to enable frontline workers to go to them (the people in crisis). Another element of this is seeing people’s “squareness” as an asset, rather than as a problem. Doing so will require true listening, rather than tokenistic consultation or tick box questioning.

Rebalance power

Under the current system, some people’s voices are heard more than others. (For example, the DWP view counts for more than the view of the people attending work fitness tests, or their social workers). We saw a frequent assertion that ‘client’ voices are the least heard, and a desire to work to mobilise those voices collectively, as a means of redressing power imbalances.

Consider the speed of change

Policy development moves faster than change on the ground, which can lead to turmoil — in people’s lives, in an organisational capacity, and in the ability to share information across organisations and sectors.

Respect incentives — and offer the right ones

Our applicants felt a clear impact from secondary goals taking precedence. (For example, austerity has put money saving over life saving and as a result money is being saved but people’s lives are suffering. Austerity has also led to more funding chasing, which again skews incentives.) At the level of people’s lives, policy design is very bad at understanding what will incentivise the goals they are seeking to achieve — for example, sanctions aren’t proving an effective way of getting people back into work.

Create simpler systems that waste less time

The need for simpler systems was highlighted both across services and sectors, and downwards from the hierarchy (e.g., policy direction, funding streams). The most compelling example that was given is the lack of any kind of common assessment framework for adults, which leads to lots of information being gathered that doesn’t necessarily add up to more than the sum of its parts.

Remember that humans in distress need relationships

There are no incentives in place to encourage the emergence of long-standing supportive relationships. These relationships are becoming all the more important in the context of cuts, where organisations that haven’t gone under are now dealing with greater demand than ever, forcing them to take a ‘light touch’ approach with individuals who need so much more than this. Not only is the power of relationships overlooked, it’s often designed out of existing systems.

Give more feedback, and at the right times

There’s not currently enough clear information about what’s working and what isn’t — and where there is any information, it can take too long to filter through. That leads to poor awareness of unintended consequences, and thus more unintended consequences overall.

Take responsibility

This includes steering groups, partnership working, etc., but also the fact that responsibility for people’s lives is often passed around between professionals and sectors.

‘Prevention’ is hard and means different things

Especially in the context of multiple and severe disadvantage, there’s no universal definition of ‘prevention’ and no easy way to ensure it.

See the family

Many people are part of a wider family, and unless this wider family is supported too, there’s a risk of a negative network effect of disadvantage.

2016 Systems Changers cohort.

How to make change happen

We also looked through the application data to understand how frontline workers believe change can happen.

Give people power

Simple but effective: through knowledge, information, confidence.

Mobilise people

Many applicants talked about mobilising clients or coalitions across services, professionals, volunteers and clients. These things won’t just happen — they need to be organised.

Offer hope and a sense of possibility

Without hope, life is very grey. Hope and possibility are vital to helping people feel like agents of their own destiny.

Shift perceptions

This means both in general public culture and also with professionals who still are too quick to write off people in desperate circumstances as beyond help. (It’s important to note that these two audiences are connected — professionals are influenced by wider public culture.)

Ensure everyone’s aligned

Another simple but vital one. You need your service deliverers, commissioners, funders, and policy makers to all be on the same page.

Strengthen feedback loops

This is connected with the previous point about alignment, and is especially important when it comes to policy makers and users.

Take some risks

Risk management is entirely dominated by the desire to mitigate risk. Nothing will change unless this shifts.

Learn

From clients themselves, from other organisations, from reflection on practice.

The 3 Lens’s we used when designing the programme.

How to get started

We used the data to help inform us about what kind of content to design into the Systems Changers programme. Many of the applications we received were from people who were skilled at listening, advocacy, problem solving, and making things work. But using those insights to bring about change requires more than those skills alone. It also needs analytical capacity, influencing, communicating, mobilising and political savvy.

Below are a few insights from the applications and ways they may be able to inform your programme design. These could be used as fundamental underpinnings of a programme, or simply as good ideas for one-off sessions.

Talk about what change really matters to people

Many of the applicants were deeply motivated by making change in one person’s life. Is this more important than systems change to them?

Challenge assumptions

Many of the applicants dismissed other professionals as writing their clients off in a way that they don’t. But we are all shaped by the cultures around us, and a conversation that acknowledged this somehow might be very powerful (as well as uncomfortable).

Separate insight from noise

Frontline staff are experts in why user insight matters; their main challenge is that they may not be very discerning about which insights are most useful. Make sure to have conversations that don’t start and finish with a sentiment like ‘Isn’t all user insight just great! If only we could have some more of it!’

Explore other people’s motivations

Many of the people applying had a vision, but they just can’t work out why other people don’t ‘get it’. Helping people to understand what they need to do to bring people with them would be great — perhaps via a session on understanding why some people resist change and developing strategies to get them on board.

Teach policy making

Many of the applicants felt that policy making is a real blind spot for them. It may be valuable to spend some time busting some policy making myths, and perhaps to bring policy people in from different levels of government to talk about the process.

Gauge impact

A critical look at impact is a key part of building the skills for successful systems change, and it’s one that’s absent too often. A session encouraging challenge and reflection on impact might be powerful — especially one that asked organisations to truly examine whether they are making all the difference they could.