Last week, we put out a discussion paper describing our revised approach, Grounded Change. We wanted to signal a shift in emphasis. From ideation to implementation. We’d like to lead on the interventions we make. Rather than lead on the process we use. Because we see our process (ethnography, prototyping, and immersive learning) as the means to a bigger end: improving life outcomes with and for people living on the margins.

People like Tess - who lives on the streets with 1 locker to her name.

Increasingly, we’re finding the ends are obscured by a lot of fuzzy rhetoric about the means. The conversation seems to be about setting-up change labs, innovation teams, public sector design studios, and social finance funds. Without also articulating what these labs, teams, studios, and funds are really for. Goals like “solving wicked social problems” or “creating better public services” tell us so very little about what constitutes a good solution or a better public service, for whom. We can up-skill public servants in user-centered design and they can still produce policy and procure services that do little to change things for folks most on the margins.

That's why we like to start at the margins. After 10 years co-designing new kinds of social services & neighborhood networks, we think we know something about what ‘good’ and ‘better’ looks like. We’re inviting policymakers, funders, commissioners, chief executives, and frontline deliverers to join the discussion with us. Let’s compare notes about what ‘good’ and ‘better’ is so that we’re clear about the purpose of new structures (e.g the funds, the labs) and new processes (e.g human-centered design).

We kicked off discussions last week. In Toronto. With social service funders (like United Way). With progressive foundations (like Atkinson Foundation and Metcalf Foundation). And with trusted project partners (like West Neighborhood House). We asked for critique, and for alternative ways of thinking about what is good. Not surprisingly, we got both. Here’s three perspectives we want to integrate into our work going forward…

(1) Big 'S' Systems change

We’ve been describing ‘good’ services and neighborhood networks as those which transform inputs (e.g people’s time, money, know-how) into outcomes (e.g well-being, interdependence, etc.) by enabling 7 kinds of interactions. For example, by increasing bridging social capital to widen possibilities and deepen support. ‘Good’ policies and systems, then, are those which directly enable these 7 kinds of interactions. So hiring policies, training practices, metrics and procurement frameworks that activate local resources.

But, as Ruth Crammond from United Way Toronto rightly pointed out, this is little ’s’ change. This is transforming organizational systems. What about Big ’S’ change? What about the broader economic and political systems? Better programs and services wouldn’t have been sufficient to change the course of Beaker’s life. He is the product of family systems, neighborhood systems, school systems, employment systems, health systems, and cultural systems that have long clashed. To disastrous effect.

Beaker showing his injuries from being run over by a street car

We very much want to shift big Systems too. We just don’t think that the ‘how’ is all that different from little systems change. We think it’s about the people who make up those systems feeling other points of view, and rehearsing new ways of interacting. Not just with each other, but with people like Beaker.

This is my take-away from 5 years of PhD research in the UK, US, and NZ. I studied collaborative Systems change initiatives. Between multiple government ministries, social sector organizations, academic institutions, big businesses, etc. Around youth policy issues like teenage pregnancy, illicit drug use, school dropouts, and juvenile offending. 17 out of 20 initiatives spawned policy recommendations that were continuations of the same-old assumptions, and same-old practices. These collaborations were often a race to the lowest common denominator: to statements that would get easy sign-off. 3 out of 20 initiatives were different. They were game changers. That were altering how people in Systems conceptualized their work, and the ways in which they interacted with one another. What made these 3 initiatives different? They shared a very clear user group. They accessed local data. They spent time out of the meeting room, and in the field. Policymaking wasn’t an abstracted exercise. It was very concrete.

That’s why we believe big Systems changes starts with small interventions. With bringing people from multiple systems together around a common user group. To rehearse new ways of interacting. Indeed, to get to large-scale change, a lot of people have to change their behaviors. And we’d say the same 7 mechanisms of change apply - whether you are a parent, a teacher, a police officer, a mid-level manager, or a politician.

(2) Decent work

A totally different way to frame what we do came from Pat Thompson and Colette Murphy at the Atkinson Foundation. Instead of leading on the social services and neighborhood networks we make, what if we led on the new forms of work we created?

When we talk about making new social services and neighborhood networks, what we’re really talking about is crafting new roles, new tasks, and new ways of organizing work. Over the past 10 years, we’ve created a lot of new jobs (e.g youth researchers, reflectors, catalysts, family coaches, learning guides) and tweaked a lot of existing jobs (e.g aged care workers, youth workers). So that they are more developmental, and less transactional. More about tapping into and building people’s passions and talents - and less about performing repetitive administrative tasks. We want work to function as a source of meaning and purpose. Not merely as a depressing dead-end.

Tweaking the aged care worker role as part of Care Reflect (TACSI, 2012).

What we're also learning is that to spark change, we need to constantly revisit how we conceptualize and organize our own project work. We need to work in small, interdisciplinary teams with very porous boundaries. We need to work in unconventional contexts, at unconventional times of the day. We need to structure projects episodically, to balance immersion in other’s lives with immersion in our own lives. We need to (somehow) tread between autonomy and stability.

Perhaps a ‘work lens’ can helpfully stitch together our process, our outputs, and our desired outcomes?

(3) Historical roots

Maureen Fair, Executive Director of West Neighborhood House, reminded us that we’re not the first to try and create some coherence between how we work and what our work seeks to achieve. That was the whole idea of the Settlement House, the forefather (or mother) to today’s Neighborhood House. Where kids take music classes alongside refugees learning English alongside families receiving counseling services. The Settlement House was, first and foremost, a house. Where ‘university graduates’ literally lived alongside the ‘working classes’ to share the culture of education.

Jane Addams, one of the pioneers of the Settlement House movement in the USA

As historian Jeffrey Scheuer highlights:

“The idea of a settlement—as a colony of learning and fellowship in the industrial slums—was first conceived in the 1860s by a group of prominent British reformers and the so-called Christian socialists. They were alarmed by a number of aspects of industrial capitalism: the growing gulf between the classes; the materialist ethos of the Industrial Revolution, and the emphasis on self-interest in classical economics; the terrible poverty of the average factory worker, and the brutal routinization of work, as the factory system replaced the individual craftsperson."

The same critique might be applied to social sector work today. With its tedious administrative tasks, and strict professional-client boundaries, too often obscuring change craft.

Perhaps, then, our approach isn’t best understood within an innovation frame. But within a historical one. Minus the middle-class paternalism and Christian gospel?

(4) Other perspectives?

We're seeking out diverse perspectives. Have one to share? Get in touch!