Image courtesy of Toynbee Hall

Since 2017 Collaborate has been working closely with partners in Tower Hamlets to develop a place-based borough plan and support a new Strategic Partnership Group. The Plan, which was published in the summer of 2018, was the result of many conversations with the community and local stakeholders and partners, as well as a review of data about the borough. The Plan sets out four key priorities for the borough, and the ways that local partners want to work in order to achieve the changes in these areas, including support for active communities, stating: “We need to work alongside and with local people, both in the formal voluntary sector and more informally, to encourage and support the daily interactions and relationships that can make such a difference to people’s lives”. In this blog, Jim Minton, the Chief Executive of Toynbee Hall in Tower Hamlets, writes about his experience of working in partnership with the council on an innovative project aimed at better understanding the needs of older people in the borough. Jim Minton reflects on what the partnership uncovered and what they learned from the co-production process.

So what difference does it make?

It is a blustery winter morning and the older people in the Toynbee Hall community wellbeing centre in East London are doing their weekly Tai Chi session. Some of them have bought in snacks to share amongst the group and in the afternoon they have decided that they will be making woollen baubles to decorate the centre for Christmas.

Quietly, and in many ways unconsciously, these people are challenging some of the things that make their lives difficult: looking after their mental and physical health; making sure they and their friends have enough to eat; and just keeping connections with each other in a friendly and sociable way. These are things which affect older people everywhere, but in Tower Hamlets we have pensioner poverty levels around three times higher than the national average — so in 2017 we approached the local authority with an idea to see if we could work together to find new solutions to these challenges across the borough.

Our council colleagues were receptive, and supported us to design an exciting, experimental project genuinely led by people within the community. As a result, some of the group who regularly use our wellbeing centre, alongside others drawn from the wider community, spent the ensuing months asking 500 older people in Tower Hamlets how their lives could be made better and then analysing their findings to make recommendations for service providers and public policy makers.

The project generated a real feeling of energy and optimism and a belief amongst the older people, their friends and neighbours that they could change things. And the findings were enthusiastically announced and welcomed in early September 2018.

But with a bit of time having elapsed since the launch, now might be a good time to reflect on what is the wider legacy of the work, on the lessons we learned and on how we ensure that the insights which this kind of work can generate might lead to tangible change.

So how did we do?

We started with the assumption that involving local people more closely in shaping the priorities for local public services was a good thing. As Collaborate CIC’s The State of Collaboration report, published in July 2018, asserts ‘collaborative models of commissioning and delivery offer a better chance to improve outcomes for society — particularly when this collaboration involves the public.’ This is of course easy to say — but in an era where prolonged austerity has not only greatly limited funding, but also fuelled deep cynicism with the ability of institutions to change things — it was unclear where it might lead to.

Read the report

On some measures, against this principle our work has led to some positive change:

– The researchers themselves have blossomed. Some were clearly articulate and engaged in social activities. But others were not — some had health problems, exacerbated by isolation; a lack of confidence; and were poor communicators. Now very many more of them are socially active, and say they feel healthier and more ready to take on the challenges they face.

– Of the wider community, the process of reaching out to engage them has meant that more than 160 of those who were interviewed or surveyed have been referred to local support services for further help or opportunities — opening up pathways that may have previously been closed.

– And in terms of service development, a couple of very practical pilots are now already underway: a buddy scheme for isolated older people; and an app for professionals allowing fast track referrals to social services to be made when an urgent need is uncovered.

But while there is a great sense that some people’s lives have been improved, there is still a question of what tangible difference more widely can be made. This feels like it is a particular challenge in terms of larger scale responses, which need to be driven by the local authority or the NHS.

This is perhaps inevitable: even if people can be trained to be great researchers, it is another thing for them to develop into planners and designers of public services. But — maybe not surprisingly — some of the best examples that the research uncovered were simply of people making change using their own initiative, and not presenting it as a programme, nor feeling pressure to evaluate it. The pub landlady in Poplar who helps the older customers use the internet to keep in touch with friends and family; or the small self organising group who meet on a Tuesday evening to read stories to each other; or neighbourhood tidying or gardening groups.

Maybe the challenge is to create a climate where these things — and many other small scale ideas, driven by ordinary people — can flourish. For organisations like Toynbee Hall, we should seek to ensure that as well delivering legal advice and debt and money management support at scale, we are also a space for, or facilitator of, this kind of micro-innovation. We need to be a truly communal space; foster an emphasis on fun and sociability; a lack of formality (you come if you want — and aren’t required to turn up); and perhaps most of all, a sense of visible genuine achievement, rather than the need for long term or complex impact measurement. And if we are engaging in this type of research, then let’s seek actively to uncover things that work, and not just end up articulating a general sense of needing more or better services.

There is no doubting the commitment of our local authority to try and make change. As the recently published Tower Hamlets Community Strategy points out: ‘In a time of austerity and uncertainty, ‘less of the same’ will not be enough.’ And indeed, Tower Hamlets has, since our research, released a local innovation funding stream specifically for small scale innovation. There is a risk, of course, that things that are so small scale and ‘unbranded’ do not lead to the Local Authority getting the credit it might deserve for facilitating the change. But if we genuinely care about what works, this becomes a secondary consideration — and one which over time will surely be less of a problem.

So let’s keep listening — but even more, let’s simply help more people to try things within their local places: and if something feels like a common sense idea — well maybe we should try it out.