What constitutes ‘good help’ and, once identified, how can it be applied at scale in mainstream services? A report launched last week at a well attended event at the London HQ of UK charity, Nesta, seeks to answer these questions. In fact, the definition is probably the easy bit. There were plenty of examples at the launch and in the report of initiatives that most people would recognise as ‘good’. It is the scale/mainstream question that is much trickier.

The premise is that many social programmes reduce people’s ability to help themselves. Insensitive, transactional approaches, such as around welfare, can undermine people’s confidence and make it hard for them to break out of negative cycles. There is plenty of evidence and acceptance that this is the case, even at central government level, but the situation is often exacerbated by funding pressures, which increase staff workloads and reduce the time they can spend with people.

Rebuilding secondary education for refugees

Source: Prison charity, User Voice

Showcases of ‘good help’

Much of the ‘good’ type of help is highly personalised. It is great for an individual if their aspirations to act or drive a Ferrari are supported (there were case studies of each of these at the launch), which then gives them the confidence and motivation to break negative cycles, but that’s not a model that will reach hundreds or thousands.

It is probably more realistic for the ethos of listening, not telling, and then being able to respond flexibly to be built into much larger social programmes and organisations than it is to imagine that the likes of Grapevine or Mayday Trust (the charities involved with the two aforementioned individuals) can reach much greater numbers.

Chairing the launch, Nesta’s health lab executive director, Halima Khan, admitted Nesta has been talking about ‘People Powered Public Services’ for ten years but the report was an attempt to ‘unpick’ what this means. Richard Wilson, director at ‘social impact lab’, OSCA, which co-authored the report with Nesta, observed: “There are 100s of incredible projects out there but they are very much in the minority.”

Rebuilding secondary education for refugees

So what is needed?

The way that success is measured is a common issue. Clare Wightman, CEO of Grapevine, pointed out that success it is often seen as how many people go through a service, “as though it is a manufacturing process”. The service providers are typically seeking to do their best, she felt, but with a limited menu. Grapevine seeks to listen to the person, through their words and actions, and to then build a network of support to help them move towards this. People often don’t really need a service, she said, they need people around them.

However, how do you measure the depth of a person’s network or their confidence if you are trying to gauge the success or otherwise of a service?

There are times when it should be possible to change the metrics. Mark Johnson is an ex-offender who has suffered drug addiction and homelessness. He now leads a charity called User Voice which employs ex-offenders to work in prisons to cut repeat offending (they are in 30 of the UK’s 120 prisons at present).

He asked a simple question: How are the 120 prison governors measured? Probably based on prisoners not breaking out, rather than on how many reoffend after release. If the latter was adopted as a measure, it is likely much more consideration would be given to prisoner rehabilitation.

Working with people is a ‘craft’, said Johnson, emphasising the issues of measuring people-centric provision. “There are 85,000 people in prisons and 85,000 different reasons why they are there.”

The report notes that people are leaving prison without the basics needed to start a new life, including a home and bank account. “They often leave without a sense of hope for an alternative future or support to achieve it.” It quotes the HM Inspectorate of Prisons that new rehabilitation arrangements are “making little difference to [prisoners’] prospects on release” and that the “[new] contracts incentivise the completion of resettlement plans, not the improvement of prisoners’ situations”.

Small islands with big ambitions

Halima Khan, Nesta

Grapevine’s Clare Wightman felt another problem is that public services often also have enforcement powers, “so there is a sense of threat to the person you are helping”. “When it is people and relationships, it doesn’t work.”

The personalised approach “seems to be a lot easier outside of public services”, concluded OSCA’s Wilson. Summing up, Dawn Austwick, chief executive of the Big Lottery Fund, asked why this was all proving so hard. There are difficult questions about what needs to change and about our approach to risk, she said. Service providers themselves are trapped in their own crisis of confidence.

Nesta and OSCA are doing follow-up work to look at some of the obstacles and funding issues, while Nesta used the event to announce a ‘good help award’, with a deadline for applications of 30th April – details here www.goodhelp.challenges.org. There may be too few answers at present, but at least ever more people seem to be asking the right questions.