This week, Mark Smith, Director of Public Service Reform at Gateshead Council, shares his reflections on the early stages of a pilot that is looking at how public services can respond in more relational and integrated ways to the real causes of people’s needs, testing the extent to which Council Tax arrears can be interpreted as a signifier of other issues. Collaborate, with support from Lankelly Chase, is supporting Gateshead Council and partners to understand the learning from this work, including: the implications for the ways public services are designed; the roles and behaviours of frontline staff; the culture change required in public sector organisations and the opportunities to create greater community resilience in Gateshead.

No 1 — The Tangled and the Trapped

Juliet* was behind with her Council Tax. The Council Tax Recovery section were well into their stride. The carefully procured software spotted and automated the first letter when the payments started to falter. Same with the next letter which moved from ‘reminder’ to ‘notice’. It was only a matter of time until the bailiff called (and the £275 charge for this was added to the bill). The Council has a right and responsibility to collect this money. (*Not her real name)

Juliet also owed a lot of rent. She also had store cards and payday loans. She’d had bad luck, made some bad choices (as she will tell you) and ended up in a tight spot. She’s a single mum with two jobs. Her mum helps out so Juliet can get to work. She has two zero hours contracts. Without her mum helping out, she can’t work enough hours to make ends meet. Ends were meeting, but suddenly they were not.

Juliet has a poor relationship with the neighbours. She’s frightened of them. So is Nanna who doesn’t want to babysit at night any longer. So Juliet reduces her hours and the financial problems begin.

She wants to move, but the Housing Company initially say she can’t as she has rent arrears as is their policy. She says she can try and pay them off if she can move….a catch 22.

The debts grow, the kids’ behaviour gets worse as they resent being kept in and the increasing poverty that was previously being so narrowly averted. Eviction and court action for the Council Tax debts follows and her mental health declines. Social Services are pulled in as the children are disruptive at school. Juliet can’t cope and the discussions turn to the children being removed and also towards homelessness…

A spark flashes in the mind of Jim*, a (wonderful) soul in the Council Tax Recovery section. He rang Juliet and just said, “Hi, I’m from the Council, I’m not chasing you for the money, I just wondered what we could do to help?”. (*Not his real name)

She wept. No-one had asked her this. He listened, got to know her, talked about his own life a little in a natural in totally instinctive, uncalculated way. He learned quickly that if she could move, she had a chance….more hours, more money, a new start….

I got a call. Jim asked me if I could help unblock some things. I went to see the Housing Company Director and proposed we move this lady and prevent potential homelessness, care, school exclusion, loan sharks, bailiffs, court and the way it was going, mental health even suicide.

Let’s do a deal with her, move her, help manage her debts and give her chance. It’s against the rules but totally congruent with our purpose. They were nervous. ‘On my head be it’ I said. So she moved. She’s not out of the woods but has a chance. Then Jim got his first piece of fan-mail. It will not be his last…

From tiny acorns…

This confirmed many things we we already knew as people. Context is everything. The context of Juliet’s Council Tax debt was hugely instrumental in figuring out how to deal with it. If this was a wilful non-payer, enforcement seems much more proportionate and reasonable. Even a hard-nosed economist could see the virtue in our eventual approach.

So now, we’re doing this more and more. We have a prototype which intervenes at the point the bailiff is due to visit and just helps people. DWP and CAB are helping us and we have suspended all the rules — just go and help people and spend what you need to (the watchwords are Proportionate, Legal, Auditable, Necessary).

I think this is the beginning of the road to reform. Building services based upon networks of helpful people that can make things happen. This blog will pick up themes around commissioning, service design, motivation, measures, money and the national context of services to the public. We’ll tell more stories about people that have and have not been helped because this is what matters.

Trapped and Tangled

We’re about 30 cases into our first prototype that picks Council Tax as a signal and works holistically from there. We’re learned so much already. Two archetypes are emerging — the Trapped and the Tangled.

The most common one is Tangled. Their forward progress is being halted by the cumulative effect of a number of problems or threads. None of them on their own are sufficient to restrain but in combination they are totally debilitating.

The prototype team have learned to see these threads by understanding rather than assessing people. They don’t ask “How much of what I do can I do to you?” but instead ask, “What does a good life for you look like?”. This helps to identify and pick away at the threads, in whatever order seems right for them. Once one thread is ‘loose’ it becomes easier to pick at others and after a little while, the citizen joins in, loosening the threads and breaking free.

About 15% are ‘Trapped’. They have lots of tangled threads, but there is one dominant issue chaining them to their current situation and dragging them downwards. No amount of untangling of the smaller threads makes much difference.

These issues include mental illness, sexual and/or financial exploitation and profound learning difficulties. Here, we need the experts to help alongside our teams’ understanding of debts, benefits, housing issues etc. Juliet was trapped by the neighbours. Move her and we could work on the tangles.

More blog entries will pick this up but it’s emerging that trapped people need both intervention and support in similar measure. Tangled people mostly need support and maybe a little bit of intervention. The point here is that the current system of assess-do-refer seeks to primarily transact. Juliet was being transacted through court, bailiff and eviction. Expensive, ineffective and just plain wrong.

Whoever thought that transacting was a means to efficiency was probably a maker of widgets rather than a helper of people. The reality that leaders in public service of any kind must learn to embrace is that the yearned for efficiencies seen in the repeatable processes of manufacturing do not work for people and their inevitable variation. Mimic this and you get desperate Juliets and pissed off Jims.

We have already learned that we can do much much better. Jim is my hero and we have buildings full of Jims that we must set free before they give up, leave and take up less stressful and frustrating careers.

“Thank you…you have made my family happy again”. — Juliet

This was originally published here. Click on the link to find more of Mark’s blogs about this work.

Click here to watch a recent talk Mark gave at the Collaborate and Newcastle University Business School event on Funding and Commissioning in Complexity: