Reflecting on a challenging year

blog | Words Sarah Gillinson | 22 Dec 2022

At Innovation Unit, our amazing partners in local authorities, the NHS and voluntary sector, prisons and probation have all been operating on empty, whilst dealing with a year of exceptional economic and political turmoil and increasing pressures on their support.

The same is true of Innovation Unit’s team of staff and associates. The temptation in these moments is to hunker down and focus on the immediate challenge in front of us. And yet, the past couple of years have shown us how desperately we need to look up and out to the future – to develop and embed new solutions to big social challenges that truly address persistent inequalities.

My end of year blog reflects on what we are learning at Innovation Unit about the possibilities and practice of building the future, whilst respecting and tackling the challenges of the present. It turns out that the power of connecting with colleagues, often in person, to work through knotty issues together, to reconnect to the purpose of our work and the lived experience of it, with people who share our values and passions can help us to manage the present whilst growing hope and solutions for the future. We greatly look forward to working with our existing partners and new ones in this way in 2023.

Reflecting on a challenging year

At the end of each year, Innovation Unit colleagues share their highlights and lowlights of the past 12 months with each other. Virtually now, of course, on a Miro board with visual clusters of individual and shared experiences, rather than the raucous post-it activity of old.

The picture of 2022 was striking. It was a hard year. Multiple global and national shocks, lots of personal hardship in our families, from ill-health to the cost of living crisis, and, on occasion, work that has felt difficult and slow as we grow and scale innovations with our amazing, ambitious partners.

No individual element of this picture was a surprise but its cumulative impact was. It also came as a strange sort of relief, a clear reason for our collective exhaustion.

Of course, this context has been so much harder for our partners leading and managing health systems, local authorities, children’s social care and prisons. They, too, have experienced the personal turmoil and difficulties of 2022 alongside ever-growing pressures in their communities, services, budgets and workforce. In their world, the risks are not ‘simply’ of burnout, or even balanced budgets, but of life and death.

This has made 2022 – and doubtless 2023 and beyond as well – a tightrope act for Innovation Unit. We exist to grow and scale innovations that create long term impact for people, address persistent inequalities and transform systems. The need for new solutions to major social challenges has never been greater. Yet the bandwidth, energy and resources in our partners have rarely been lower.

The aftermath of covid is proving, in many ways, to be harder than the eye of the storm. Like many others, we produced learning on the power of crisis-led innovation to create laser-like shared purpose in a place, to take down the existing rules of the game for a while, to forge new partnerships across sectors and services. The question was always going to be: what will it take to embed and develop the new ways of working that we want to keep, permanently? Particularly when the context for that is pent-up, rocketing demand for all public services, especially health and social care, inflation, and high levels of public debt following unavoidable covid spend.

What will it take to embed and develop new ways of working?

The high points of our working year at Innovation Unit – as well as the hardest emotional and intellectual work – have been all about helping our partners to try and answer this question, and to begin building new systems of support for the future. All, whilst honouring and respecting the unbelievably challenging context of the day to day challenges they face.

There are some big, recurring themes that emerge.

Place-based partnerships of communities, voluntary sector colleagues and statutory partners can really help people to stay well, safe and achieve their personal goals when they share purpose, power and practice. And when time is taken to build relationships and trust.

This was illustrated time and again for us this year from Manchester to Dorset, and from children’s social care to mental health.

One of our collective highlights of the year was the publication of the evaluation of Living Well, our four-year programme, funded by the National Lottery Community Fund, to take a powerful, community-based model of mental health support from Lambeth to four new places around the UK.

In short, it really works. The multi-disciplinary teams of Living Well, that serve people who are too unwell to go to their GP or access talking therapies alone (IAPT) – and not unwell enough to access specialist care – have over four years helped over 6,400 people to recover, stay well and achieve their personal goals. It takes a village. The combination of clinical expertise, debt and housing advice, peer support, and social work means that people accessing Living Well can be helped with the root causes of stress in their life. And this has only been possible by building these mixed teams around a shared understanding of the lived experience of the people they are there to support – and building and testing new solutions, whilst growing trust, together.

In the end, Living Well helps with those immediate pressures, too – the people accessing Living Well are those who would otherwise bounce around other services, regularly turning up at A&E or at their GP, or even ending up homeless on the streets. This new offer is about a better future and alleviating pressures on the present, too.

These insights have been reinforced by our learning and support partnership with the National Lottery Community Fund to help them understand the lessons from their health inequalities programme. There, the experience of 14 local partnerships between voluntary sector organisations and their statutory, health partners yielded powerful, practical tips on what it takes to build high functioning, place-based partnerships – amongst these were spending time getting to know each other, building mutual understanding, respecting each other’s contexts, managing risk together. One fantastic partnership brought together Tower Hamlets CVS, a social enterprise and Primary Care Networks to co-design solutions to tackle barriers faced by local Somali women when accessing health services. Their work was powerful on a variety of levels: increased trust in the system and improved health-seeking for women involved; training and recruitment of participants as interpreters and frontline staff resulting in increased visibility and voice. Improving health inequalities in the present and for the future.

Our work to establish and facilitate the Health Anchors Learning Network (HALN) has reinforced this learning, built on it, and begun to take it to new audiences. We are thrilled that HALN now has more than 1,400 members actively engaging with learning about what it takes to become conscious, and make the most of the opportunities to be a local anchor organisation concerned with the broader wellbeing of a place, and not just what happens within your four walls.

Finally, mutual understanding, a focus on human beings and what it will take for them to recover, stay well and contribute to the world around them has been at the heart of our work in violence reduction, too. Always Hope has been working in the West Midlands with young adults with experience of care and custody to improve their chances of rehabilitation and a positive future.

This year and next we are working with an increasing number of young men, alongside their probation officers, prisons, social workers, families and friends to help them plan for life outside prison, and manage it successfully when they get there. One of our high points of the year has been bringing these groups together to refine their plans, processes and practices for working together successfully. Building trust, relationships, agreement and action together has taken time, empathy and creativity from all involved during a hugely pressured period. So far, we’ve taken 105 referrals of whom 54 are eligible for Always Hope – and 37 of these young men are currently receiving or being offered support.

The hope, motivating everyone’s participation, is of much better outcomes for the young people involved, and reduced pressures on each of these individual services and professions over time as a result.

The central importance of values-based leadership in embedding and spreading new approaches that improve outcomes, and disrupt existing systems, has also been reinforced this year through our long term partnership with DfE, Mutual Ventures, SCIE and pioneering innovators in Hertfordshire, North Yorkshire and Leeds.

Values – owned, lived and shared by senior leaders in children’s social care and reflected in their every interaction with their teams, and communities – were at the heart of embedding new practices, and spreading them to partners.

This is personal, emotional work. Values have to be deeply held to withstand the pull back to existing ways of doing things. Leaders of powerful innovations like No Wrong Door, and Family Safeguarding that put the strengths of families, and best interests of the child first, are often motivated by their personal dissatisfaction with the status quo, and by thoughts of their own children. The same is true of leaders in Living Well – and it has helped them to stick the course.

This is personal, emotional work

None of this is easy. All of it takes time. It is personal, emotional work. All of which is such a big ask in our current context. Of our partners, and of our own team.

This is where the tightrope comes in. The biggest, most recurring highlights in our Innovation Unit review of the year were about the power of connecting with colleagues, often in person, to work through knotty issues together, to reconnect to the purpose of our work and the lived experience of it, to hang out with people who share our values and passions, to have hope for the future.

This is what we hear from our partners, too, amongst the fire-fighting. Like us, they need hope for the future, to be engaged in work that tackles the root causes of the challenges they face in mental health, justice or children’s social care, to be working with people who have new and different perspectives to them, along with shared values about the potential and equal value of the human beings they encounter. Building powerful new place-based partnerships, grounded in values-based leadership is working to tackle big, social challenges, and it is motivating for the people involved in it.

The challenge in 2022 has been helping to make the space for this work whilst ambulances queue outside A&E, waiting lists for treatments of all kinds grow, and the number of children in care expands.

We will keep doing it in 2023 because it is the route to a more sustainable and equitable future, and because it is also the way to stay sane, hopeful and motivated in the present.