On 14th February, in partnership with LBBD, we hosted our second relational councils convening. In this session, we asked: How could we see relationships as a solution to statutory duties, not as incompatible with them? 

Our next convening, taking place on 25th April, will focus on how we develop relational language within local authorities. 

When so much of a Local Authority is structured around a need to manage risk, statutory duty, assurance to leadership and politicians, how do you do these things in a more ‘relational way’ that does not reduce conversations to risk management approaches and relationships to transactions?

Session participant

Through the course of the conversation, we explored a series of shifts that need to take place to move us away from a transactional, process-led approach to managing statutory duties, towards a relational approach. 

From process-led to relationship-led

The relationship is the vehicle by which change will happen – the vehicle will not be court rooms or other processes – it’ll be relationships. Relationships are the catalysts by which change happens

Session participant

Gateshead have done a deep analysis of 100+ cases finding that 90% of steps are process steps, only 10% are value steps. We need processes, but when processes dominate over everything else, people feel ‘done unto’ rather than supported; the experience feels transactional rather than relational; space for understanding and empathy is crowded out. 

Our duties stay the same but what defines and leads our work changes – not process-led, not fear-led, but relationship-led

Session participant

From fear to courage

To shift from a reliance on process towards an emphasis on relationships requires deep and wide cultural change and brave leadership. 

[What gets in the way of a relational approach is] fear- fear of getting things wrong, fear of being hurt. We go back to process as the safe space

Session participant

No one ever got sacked for doing what the last guy did

Session participant

Do concerns about risk lead to over-specification and over-professionalisation of roles? When only a certain person [in level of authority/ power] can make this decision it leads to people being passed around the system, like in a game of pass the parcel, in assess-do-refer- repeat cycles

Session participant

Addressing and countering this sense of fear is vital in enabling and encouraging a shift towards a more relational approach. This needs to start from the top and be backed up by systems and processes that cultivate a sense of trust and safety. Such a shift is easier said than done, but we can look to initiatives such as Buurtzorg for inspiration. 

We can also look to the work of Fragments Studio who have worked with Essex County Council to look at risk in the community. This led to an art commission to question relationships between state and child. Read more here.

Upstream Collaborative of councils “Reframing Risk” report from Nesta and Collaborate here explores the culture of risk further.

From agents to humans

A shift away from process towards relationships also requires a fundamental shift in power. This starts with how ‘agents of the state’ are seen by the public. 

Social workers are seen as being on the moral high ground. If you had a social worker at your door, what would make you open that door? Their body language, the language they’re using. Just learning a few words of someone’s language, learning a recipe that resonates, something that helps build the relationship and gets that person to open the door.  We try to get social workers to show themselves as human – what makes them them?

Session participant

We heard from principal social worker Russ Bellinie at LBBD on their approach to values-led recruitment within children’s services. LBBD asks social workers to think about what is ‘innate to them’ and to use their lived experience, skills and assets to build relationships with young people and the system.

Finding small ways to connect on a human level helps to build trust and develop a relationship which ultimately enables greater collaboration between frontline workers and citizens. Many frontline workers do this incredibly well, whilst others can be further supported through training – such as trauma training, non-violent communication, collaborative communication, reflection and reflexivity. 

From forms to conversations

Curiosity and courageous conversations featured in our discussion about what a relational approach to statutory duties looks like, and how it is developed. We heard how curiosity creates the space for empathy and understanding, whilst slavishness to form-filling narrows the frame.

We need a confident and curious workforce that asks, ‘why?’... [A workforce that] has professional curiosity in conversations with parents, imagining what life is like with those parents

Session participant

And we talked about how open, courageous conversations in difficult circumstances are needed to establish the support that’s going to be most effective. 

[We need] more clarity of purpose – from the perspective of the people you’re there to serve or support. If you don’t have a clear purpose, then the statutory duty (often ‘meet the target’) becomes the purpose

Session participant

In the session, we talked about the power of language to humanise or dehumanise. Within our processes, we talk about ‘contact’ instead of ‘family time’ and we ‘handover’ children. We heard about the family law language project which is promoting less adversarial language in family court and discussed the need to evolve the language we use to encourage warmth and connection and recognise humanity. 

Language Matters

The next convening will focus on how we can develop a more relational language within local authorities. 

From data to stories

Statutory visits have timescales, and this often boils down to stats rather than quality. We are driven by timescales, management information and administration. Recording is incentivised to get ‘good numbers.’ The system is not designed for the case (person) but to log the case

Session participant

We discussed in the session how a shift from being process-led to relationship-led needs to be underpinned by a shift in how – and what – we measure. Whilst statistics have a role to play in tracking the scale and efficiency of statutory services, an overemphasis undermines the quality of those services.

In this conversation and others, we explored the potential of storytelling – done robustly and rigorously – to give a more complete account of the quality and impact of services. 

Sharing stories of residents has been the single most transformative thing for our council

Session participant

For more on shifting ways of working during Covid, take a look at The Relationships Observatory

From silos to collaboration

When things get hard, people retreat into silos 

Session participant

Whilst a lot of the conversation focused on the relationships between ‘agents of the state’ and people in communities, we also explored the importance of building stronger and closer relationships between statutory services to enable us to deliver more effective and joined-up support. 

Being able to have a coffee with another professional to share concerns and worries and to get support helps to alleviate that fear. How do we build those trusting relationships with each other, in a more sustainable way?

Session participant

We’d love you to join us in this conversation. The next session will be on 25th April where we will dig into the issue of language, exploring how we can develop a more relational lexicon. If you’d like to share some thoughts to get the conversation going, please let us know at immy@relationshipsproject.org