Built to scale: the Family Independence Initiative – Jane Mansour

In this post our guest blogger Jane Mansour showcases the Family Independence Initiative in Boston, Massachusetts. The project is a good example of the principles of ‘guerilla policy’ in action. Jane is an expert and consultant in international welfare to work and the commissioning and funding of public services. She blogs regularly at Buying QP. Thanks to Jane for contributing the post, and we welcome your comments.

The argument for the benefits of user and staff involvement in policy making is considerably strengthened by numerous example of projects that have been successfully designed and delivered using this blueprint. These range from actual projects – of which FII discussed below is a great example – to the use of a crowdsourcing approach to gather solutions for identified and specific local needs. These raise questions about the extent to which this approach is scaleable, and how this can be done without losing what made them work in the first place.

This week I met Jésus Gerena, the Boston Director of the Family Independence Initiative (FII). FII families create support networks in their own communities rather than accessing help through a key-worker or institution. As an organisation it has impressive results – in the first six months of operation participating families in the Boston wing of the programme saw their incomes rise by an average of 13% and their savings by 22%.[1] These statistics and many others covering family finances, schooling (both adults and children) and health and activities are compiled monthly. The data is actively uploaded by the participating families themselves. They are paid for this, and for leading, counselling and facilitating the monthly groups they attend. These payments total in the region of $2000 a year per family.[2]

The FII was the brainchild of Maurice Lim Miller; he was honoured this week by the MacArthur Foundation with a ‘genius award’ which carries with it a grant for $500,000. It works by not helping people in poverty. No, that was not a typo. The FII do not help, staff can be (and have been) fired for doing so. What the FII does do is provide an environment in which people have opportunities to succeed. Families work together to problem solve, record their gains and losses and have access to resources should they need them.

There are the three fundamental values that underpin the organisation’s approach. Firstly, the families are in control. Secondly, there is a formal feedback loop consisting of monthly and quarterly meetings and data collecting providing peer accountability. The process of recording information in and of itself, impacts positively on behaviour. Lastly there is access to resources to move forward. These resources are often in the form of matching or doubling the contributions participants make towards education, housing or business goals, but they can also be used to meet urgent practical needs (eg. a car or dental work).

Listening to Gerena’s passion for the FII approach, it is difficult not to get excited about it, about the way that this organisation is not only challenging much of the way that social policy has been cast, but is succeeding in doing so. The scaleability of successful but reasonably small projects is fraught with difficulty. The world of public policy is littered with examples of innovative projects that are hailed, placed in the spotlight, enlarged and ‘replicated’, but that then fail to deliver on the bigger stage. This is then followed by a blame game that often focuses on delivery, sometimes on commissioning, occasionally on design.

In two years the Boston operation has grown from 35 to 200 families. Gerena thinks there is the potential to continue expanding to 1000 families but, and it is an important but, this expansion needs to happen organically through families introducing themselves and others – a combination of ‘core catalyst families’ and ‘ripple families’. Scaling up fails when the guiding values behind success are confused within the method in which they are delivered, when the ‘how’ is mistaken for the ‘why’.

There are broader public policy lessons to be learned from the work being done by FII. These are not that welfare savings can come from the wholesale removal of frontline staff, or that bids to deliver programmes should need to be scored on how often the words ‘family’ or ‘social capital’ occur, or that a new New Deal for Communities is the answer. The lessons are far more challenging than simply producing a shiny new programme.

Miller has written a brief paper identifying the changes he thinks necessary for substantial change in the outcomes for low-income families. It’s worth reading in full. His final call to action identifies four changes that need to happen:

“1. We need to more accurately communicate the resourcefulness, capacity, and caring that is the true picture of lower income families and communities

2. Funders must allow for program approaches that provide help based on family and community initiative and strengths

3. Policy makers, funders and leaders must seek direct feedback from the consumers of programs they create and respond to that feedback

4. The target families must self organize and advocate for themselves and their communities”

As I sat in the FII office, it was striking that there are clear echoes in the UK – in terms of approach, positive outcomes, frustrations with the system, but also in the difficulty in capturing the wins and replicating them either regionally or nationally. Successful, sustainable ideas are evident in individual programmes but somehow the key to why they work gets lost in translation when ‘reform’ or scaling up occurs. Why is it that successful local programmes so often fail on the big stage? To what degree would this failure be mitigated by taking a different approach to both entrenched social issues and institutional frameworks? What impact would the following considerations have on policy design?

Long vs short-term investment: FII is aimed at the working poor – those who are increasingly ineligible for state safety nets, face significant marginal tax rates on any additional earnings and are in real danger of sliding back into poverty (cycling between work and benefits). It relies on the safety nets being there, it is an extension of benefits rather than a replacement for them – any savings to the welfare budget will only be felt in the long-term as people move up the income ladder. When the focus is on cutting spending rather than raising revenue, and results are needed quickly the long-term nature of many interventions is overlooked.

Look for ‘A Duh’ rather than ‘A Ha’ moments (Gerena’s phrase). There is a tendency to look for exciting, new, revolutionary change but often small, practical, simple and obvious opportunities are overlooked. Users and staff are the key to understanding what these are.

It requires a significant power shift to trust in people to make decisions about their own lives, find their own support network and provide the resource to enable them to make positive changes. What could this look like and how can it be supported by the state?

The need to end funding silos for people with multiple needs has been much discussed. The introduction of the Universal Credit in the UK aims to streamline benefits. The focus is on simplifying the benefits people receive rather than on the way they live and how services they interact with are funded and delivered. Bringing funds for the latter into one pot (universal support?) would have a very different impact.

What and how do incentives work for middle and high earners? Can the rewards for initiative they receive be extended to benefit claimants and those on low incomes? Skills policy and funding is an area that immediately springs to mind.

Feedback and data are both vitally important and often overlooked. This involves a change in perspective, from the compilation of simplistic league tables of outcomes towards rich seam data mining of the information gathered on the journeys of individuals as they bounce around the system.

There has been a tendency in policy design in the UK and elsewhere to believe that successful programmes will only come from providing more intensive external support. The experience of FII is that the ongoing cycling between work and benefits can be prevented through the creation of long-lasting social structures and support networks, underpinned by feedback and resources. The challenge is in reproducing co-operative policy making and delivery on a regional or national stage.


[1] These outcomes have improved over time and the experience of the two Californian programmes is of an income increase of 20%.

[2] These sums are not included in the increased income calculations


Making open policy a reality (part 2)

A couple of weeks ago the Government announced its plans for ‘open policy’. In this post and the previous post we suggest how it can make open policy a reality.

As part of its recently published civil service reform plan, the Government has committed itself to ‘open policymaking’. It has announced a new “presumption in favour of open policy making, with policy developed on the basis of the widest possible engagement with external experts and those who will have the task of delivering the policy”. This post and the previous post set out how Government can make open policy a reality – staring with a few things that Government should avoid doing.

6. Don’t focus only on generating new policy – improve existing policy

One of the problems with the ‘policy industry’ of think tanks, charities, campaigns and commentators is the restless hunt for and promotion of ‘new ideas’ (what David Walker calls ‘neophilia‘). This competition distracts from a more considered approach to improving policy and public services which focuses on how policies and approaches can be steadily improved and refined, better implemented, delivered and administered – in other words, sufficient time to research, think, reflect, plan and review. Openness should enrich existing policy, not serve only to add more ‘noise’.

7. Don’t focus on new technology – use what we’ve already got (used to)

This project, Guerilla Policy, is about how policymaking can be (and needs to be) re-thought for the age of mass participation, social networking and media, and open online collaboration – in particular, how these offer the possibility of getting more frontline voices into policymaking. But just as neophilism often results in costly, unnecessary and untested new policy, so technologism tends to assume that new ways of working always require new technologies. They don’t. Wherever possible, Government should use existing technology and platforms. Don’t fall for the tech hucksters, keep it simple (even if it’s not perfect), and focus on the content instead.

8. Don’t listen to the loudest – openness is about hearing quieter voices

Government has said that the open policy agenda is about widening access to policy to individuals and organisations not normally involved. Fairly or unfairly, a certain type of personality comes to mind when you think about the policy industry. But if open policy really is going to reach out, it needs to include the people and organisations who aren’t always so confident in their own perspicacity but have relevant evidence and insights to contribute. Open policy should carve out spaces for the people we don’t usually hear from – especially those marginalised and vulnerable users and communities who rely on public and voluntary services.

9. Support lots of experiments – and do it openly

Like anything new, parts of the open policy agenda won’t work, and the critics and cynics will do what they do best (sneering). But the best way to discover what works is to invest in a diversity of projects so that we find out and learn. The scale of projects is then important. What will kill open policy is ‘too big to fail’ pilot initiatives. What will allow it to grow and thrive are lots of little experiments – and a commitment to keep testing and keep learning.

10. Stimulate a new ‘market’ – then step back

Government should be congratulated for its public commitment to the open policy agenda, but this doesn’t mean it has deliver it all on its own. In part, this agenda reflects what entrepreneurs and organisations outside of government have already demonstrated is possible – from Change.org and 38 Degrees, Mumsnet to the Spartacus Report. There is already an emerging ‘market’ in open policy, one which Government can play a useful role in helping to legitimize, but not one it has to direct itself. If some or most of the platforms and places where open policy gets done are independent from Government, this will also be an advantage – for the integrity, transparency and credibility of open policy, and also for the specific policies it produces.

To some, the open policy agenda might be a gimmick. But we’re confident that in the (hopefully not-too-distant) future we’ll look back and wonder why the way we currently create policy was ever considered ‘normal’, and why we ever thought it was credible that policy was developed largely behind closed doors, by a relatively narrow group of people, many of whom lack direct practical experience of the issues they were creating policy for. These two posts have been about how we can bring forward this future and make open policy a reality sooner – let us know what you think and what we’ve missed.


Making open policy a reality (part 1)

A couple of weeks ago the Government announced its plans for ‘open policy’. In this post and the following post we suggest how it can make open policy a reality.

As part of its recently published civil service reform plan, the Government has committed itself to promote ‘open policymaking’. This includes:

  • commissioning policy development from outside organisations such as think tanks;
  • crowdsourcing questions to shape the definition of the problem (not just consulting on solutions);
  • using ‘Policy Labs’ to draw in expertise from a range of people and organisations and test new policies before they are implemented;
  • making more data available freely so experts can test and challenge approaches effectively; and
  • using web-based tools, platforms, and new media to widen access to policy debates to individuals and organisations not normally involved.

Most significantly, the plan announced a new “presumption in favour of open policy making, with policy developed on the basis of the widest possible engagement with external experts and those who will have the task of delivering the policy”.

This project, Guerilla Policy, is about how policymaking can be (and needs to be) re-thought for the age of mass participation, social networking and media, and open online collaboration – in particular, how these offer the possibility of getting more frontline voices into policymaking. So we obviously support the open policy agenda, and we think that government, so often characterized as being resistant to new ideas (especially where these ideas are likely to challenge the power of government) should be congratulated for thinking about how to open-up policy and for its bold public commitments to put this into practice.

Despite the widespread cynicism about politics and politicians today, then, we should take the Government at its word and seize this opportunity. This post and the next post are about what Government needs to do to make open policy a reality – and the role the rest of us can play.

1. Make open policy itself open and transparent

Government has set out its ambitions for open policy. Putting this agenda into practice should start with open policy itself, which is to say how the agenda is developed, how opportunities for funding and support are designed, down to how individual projects are selected and commissioned. An open policy agenda designed and determined behind closed doors would not only be ironic – it would be a missed opportunity to develop and extend the current proposals. Government could start with an open forum to discuss and co-design the open policy agenda.

2. Demonstrate how this is different from consultation

It would be tragic if open policy becomes the new consultation, that’s to say distrusted, devalued, and discredited. As stated in the reform paper, an important part of open policy is that those outside government can define problems, not just express their view on proposed solutions. Government needs to signal how open policy marks a fresh start. This doesn’t mean abdicating responsibility for setting policy objectives, just avoiding preempting the answers. One way for Government to do this would be to establish two or three ‘open policy challenges’ – competitions for potential policy solutions for difficult issues – and to see what happens.

3. Crowdsource the evidence on what works for crowdsourcing

‘Policy’ is obviously not one process but a set of related activities. As the US researchers on government innovation William D. Eggers and Rob Hamill recently pointed out, there are at least five roles that crowdsourcing could play in government – competitions, crowd collaboration, voting, labour (‘micro-tasking’), and funding. Government needs to breakdown the various stages of policy – from agenda-setting and development, to implementation and evaluation – and identify what approaches to openness might be most appropriate at each stage. It doesn’t have to start from scratch – it should ask the community of those interested in and supportive of open policy to help gather the research and case studies of what’s already been done, what’s worked and what hasn’t. In the spirit of crowdsourcing, we can help.

4. Make sure that open policy is open to new participants

There’s little point to open policy if it merely becomes a new way to generate policy from the same old suspects. New voices could deliver new (better) ideas, insights and evidence. Government has said it wants open policy to widen access to those people and organisations not normally involved. Two ‘rules’ might help to ensure this. Firstly, make it a requirement of individual projects and proposals under open policy that they engage seriously with typically marginalised people and organisations – especially those who provide or experience services at the frontline. Secondly, support and enable these people and organisations to engage in policy directly themselves – for example, if you want to generate new ideas about how to improve a public service, commission some service users and practitioners to work with you.

5. Deliver an early result

The biggest barrier to open policy – and especially our collective belief in it – will be Government’s preparedness to act on the outcomes. Without a notable ‘win’ – say, a crowdsourced policy passed into law within a couple of years – the armchair cynics will reassure themselves that they were ‘right all along’. The flip side of Government setting out such a bold agenda is that every time it falls significantly short it’ll be called on it. The Spartacus report – one of the inspirations for this project – was born of an angry reaction to a botched and seemingly disingenuous government consultation. Government can do better, and it should.

This is a really important agenda that could be potentially be very radical. The challenge is in how the agenda is developed from now on, and in the spirit of the proposals we believe that this is best done open and collaboratively. In the next post, we put forward five more ways that Government can make open policy a reality. In the meantime, what do you think about the open policy agenda? Do you agree with Government’s ambitions for this agenda – and how would you propose putting it into practice?


How can civil servants make better use of social media?

Over the past couple of weeks we’ve been posting on how various bodies – think tanks, commissioners of public services, and trade bodies – can make better use of social media such as Twitter. In this post we consider how civil servants can use social media in their work – and suggest why many of them aren’t at the moment.

Sir Bob Kerslake, the head of the civil service, has recently been explaining why he sees social media as a vital tool for the civil service and why he’s on Twitter himself (@sirbobkerslake). Kerslake acknowledges that social media is changing the way government works, and says it will have an increasingly important role to play in formulating and delivering government policy. Significantly, he recognises that social media isn’t a ‘one-way’ broadcast medium, rather the civil service should embrace social media as a means of listening to and engaging both with staff and the public at all stages in the policy process. This is a radical and progressive view.

It’s a pity then that the advice government is giving itself fails to reflect this. The Government Digital Service and Home Office recently launched new guidance on social media for civil servants called Lets Get Social [sic]. The first paragraph of the guidance certainly supports Kerslake’s vision: “The Government wants to be part of the conversation; understands that it cannot do everything alone or in isolation and will work with those who can and are willing to help.” Yet most of the guidance’s ‘Ten tips for using social media’ are defensive – they aren’t so much encouragements to experiment with social media, rather warnings not to screw-up:

  1. “Have a clear idea of your objectives in using social media (behaviour change/service delivery/consultation/communication);
  2. Learn the rules of each social media space before engaging;
  3. Abide by the Civil Service Code and ask for advice if you are not sure;
  4. Remember an official account belongs to the Department not the individual;
  5. Communicate where your citizens are;
  6. Build relationships with your stakeholders on and offline – social media is just one of many communication channels;
  7. Try not to channel shift citizens backwards (move from email to telephone for example);
  8. Do not open a channel of communication you cannot maintain;
  9. Understand when a conversation should be taken offline;
  10. Do not engage with users who are aggressive/abusive.”

Of course, government is a sensitive business, and its business needs to be handled sensitively. But advice like this seems more likely to inhibit than inspire civil servants to explore the potential of social media (for a more positive and hopefully encouraging alternative, see our own ‘Five top tips for think tanks in using social media’).

Moreover, as in any organisation it helps if leaders model the behaviours they wish to see in employees. Why then do only six of the civil service’s 38 leaders have Twitter accounts (highlighted in bold in the table below). It’s not as if these people have to tweet themselves (many very busy leaders in organisations authorise others to tweet or blog on their behalf). While we wouldn’t expect the heads of MI5 and MI6 (pictured above) to be tweeting furiously about what they’re up to, it does seem odd that the Permanent Secretary for Culture, Media and Sport doesn’t have his own social media presence. The rest of government needs to be less like the Secret Intelligence Service and more like an open intelligence service – inviting and drawing on expertise and insight wherever it is.

The irony is that the Government agrees. As part of its efficiency and reform agenda, the Government is pushing for more of its services to be ‘digital by default’. It also thinks that more of its work should be conducted using networked technologies and social media. Last week the Government published its civil service reform plan, which includes some very interesting and potentially radical ideas on ‘open policymaking’, for example through:

  • commissioning policy development from outside organisations such as think tanks;
  • crowdsourcing questions to shape the definition of the problem (not just consulting on solutions);
  • using ‘Policy Lab’s to draw in expertise from a range of people and organisations and test new policies before they are implemented;
  • making more data available freely so experts can test and challenge approaches effectively; and
  • using web-based tools, platforms, and new media to widen access to policy debates to individuals and organisations not normally involved.

If you’ve read this blog before, you won’t be surprised to hear that we think all of these ideas are worth further consideration and development. But if leading civil servants aren’t using something as simple as Twitter to tell us what they’re doing – if they aren’t personally confident that social media is worthwhile – what does this suggest about their appetite to use technology to open-up policymaking?

As ever, your thoughts and comments are welcome – including via Twitter on @guerillapolicy and @newthinktankuk, this blog, and on our homepage.

Civil service leadership (those with Twitter accounts are in bold)

The table below is taken from the civil service website here. However, the published list is substantially out-of-date. This is hardly a good sign for a Government that wants to be ‘digital by default’. Guys, please update your own staff list! The list is inaccurate in the following ways:

  • Jon Cuncliffe has become the UK’s Permanent Representative to the EU;
  • Peter Ricketts is now British Ambassador to France – replaced by Sir Kim Darroch;
  • Philip Rutnam is the Permanent Secretary at the Department for Transport;
  • Lin Homer is Chief Executive and Permanent Secretary at HMRC;
  • Ursula Brennan is the new Permanent Secretary at the MoJ;
  • The MOD’s Director General for Security Policy, Tom McKane, has become the acting Permanent Secretary;
  • The Head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service is Dr Malcolm McKibbin, Permanent Secretary of the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister;
  • Richard Heaton is the First Parliamentary Counsel;
  • Gillian Morgan has announced she is retiring.

However, this doesn’t affect the overall result – professional Twitter use by the senior civil service leadership is very, very limited.

Sir Jeremy Heywood Cabinet Office (Cabinet Secretary)
Sir Bob Kerslake (@sirbobkerslake) Head of the Civil Service & Permanent Secretary for Communities and Local Government
Ian Watmore (@ianwatmore) Cabinet Office (Efficiency and Reform) (but he’s just about to leave the civil service)
Sir Jon Cuncliffe Cabinet Office (International Economic Affairs and Europe)
Sir Peter Ricketts Cabinet Office (Security)
Keir Starmer QC Crown Prosecution Service
Martin Donnelly Department for Business, Innovation and Skills
Jonathan Stephens Department for Culture, Media and Sport
Chris Wormald Department for Education
Bronwyn Hill Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs
Mark Lowcock (@DFID_Mark) Department for International Development (but he has only sent two tweets)
Lin Homer Department for Transport
Robert Devereux Department for Work and Pensions
Darra Singh Department for Work and Pensions (Chief Executive of Jobcentre Plus)
Moira Wallace Department of Energy and Climate Change
Una O’Brien Department of Health
Professor Dame Sally Davies Department of Health (Chief Medical Officer)
Sir David Nicholson Department of Health (NHS Chief Executive)
Simon Fraser Foreign and Commonwealth Office
Professor Sir John Beddington (@uksciencechief) Government Chief Scientific Adviser
Iain Lobban Government Communications Headquarters
Dave Hartnett (@D_Hartnett_HMRC) HM Revenue and Customs (Second Permanent Secretary) (but he has never sent a tweet)
Sir Nicholas Macpherson HM Treasury
Tom Scholar HM Treasury (Second Permanent Secretary)
Dame Helen Ghosh Home Office
Ursula Brennan (@urs18) Ministry of Defence (but she has a private account, and has only sent 13 tweets)
Bernard Gray Ministry of Defence (Chief of Defence Material)
Professor Mark Welland Ministry of Defence (Chief Scientific Adviser)
Jon Day Ministry of Defence (Second Permanent Secretary)
Sir Suma Chakrabarti Ministry of Justice
Sir Bruce Robinson Northern Ireland Civil Service
Sir Stephen Laws Office of the Parliamentary Counsel
Sir Peter Housden Scottish Government
Sir John Sawers Secret Intelligence Service (MI6)
Jonathan Evans Security Service (MI5)
Paul Jenkins Treasury Solicitor’s Department
Jil Matheson UK Statistics Authority
Dame Gillian Morgan Welsh Assembly Government

How can trade bodies make greater use of social media to improve the impact of their policy and research work?

How can trade bodies make greater use of social media to improve the impact of their policy and research work? Chris Sherwood, Co-Founder of Guerilla Policy and Director of Innovation and Development at Scope, argues that public sector trade bodies could make much greater use of social media to improve the impact of their policy and research work.

The lifeblood of trade bodies is to represent the interests of their members effectively to Government. Generating impact from their policy and research work is critical to both maintain confidence of members but also to ensure that their organisations have a credible platform from which to lobby from. Social media can help to achieve this – especially if trade bodies wish to set the agenda not just respond to it.

Like many people in my position, I’m often invited to meetings held by trade bodies, which are intended to try to capture and reflect the views of their member organisations. I tend to take a lot away from them and, like many participants, I appreciate the opportunity to network at these events. I recently took part in a consultation event on one area of government policy, which involved drawing together 40-50 individuals from the leading organisations in the sector to discuss a series of policy recommendations to improve this area of policy. The event was summarized in a report that was submitted to the Government. It was a well-attended event and a good quality report emerged as a result. However, it also prompted me to think: how could social media have helped to achieve a better outcome?

At the moment, we’re thinking about the wider application of Guerilla Policy. Guerilla Policy is an experiment in how research and policy development can be opened up through the use of social media and the internet generally. Could this approach be applied to trade bodies in order to generate greater impact from their policy and research work? On this blog we’ve already discussed the potential benefits that could be gained from social media to the development of policy and research, especially by inviting collaboration from a wider group of people who use and provide public services. These lessons, we believe, also apply to trade bodies.

Social media can help trade bodies in the following ways:

  • Help them to work collaboratively with their members to set the policy agenda in an open and transparent way;
  • Reduce the costs of involvement such as travel and time costs;
  • Enable ongoing dialogue between members and trade bodies, which allows for greater time for reflection and consideration;
  • Provide greater transparency over what happens to the contributions that people make, so that they can see the connection between the ideas they offer up and the final product;
  • Engage more people, in particular frontline practitioners and service users who bring a different perspective on the issues to hand;
  • Strengthen relationships between trade bodies and their membership and in particular to deepen these by engaging more people in member organisations;
  • Hook the media early on in order to build interest, rather than relying on a press release at the end of a project.

Social media offers other possibilities for trade bodies. A dedicated social media community would also enable trade bodies to conduct quick trawls for case studies and evidence to enable them to respond to an increasingly fast media cycle or to collaborate more effectively with partners. Finding the right case study to articulate your ‘policy ask’ can often be critical in generating interest. Social media enables also trade bodies to expand their networks, and since many journalists already use Twitter as a main news source when researching articles, trade bodies need to increase their social media visibility if they are to continue to be heard.

There are obvious barriers to adopting such an approach, not least that this way of working could be quite different to the way that some of the organisational members of trade bodies work. Developing policy in an open and collaborative way might also be daunting – what happens if you arrive at a different conclusion to the one you expected? There are also concerns about accessibility of this kind of technology, since generally-speaking social media is more popular with younger workers.

Yet the benefits are likely to come in terms of the impact of trade bodies’ work. The Spartacus Report is a model to learn from – but also a warning. This report on welfare reform was developed by disabled activists using social media. The impact was significant with it trending no 1 on Twitter before hitting mainstream media including Newsnight. This example shows that in a crowded media agenda, it is important to think creatively in order to cut through on behalf of members and their issues. It also points to a potential risk for trade bodies in that they could face competition from groups who can claim to represent their members, as social media facilitates the formation of new common interest groups.

Social media offers up a range of possibilities for trade bodies to increase the impact of their policy and research work on behalf of their members. It allows them to strengthen their relationships with their members, gives them a better chance to cut through, represent their members and ultimately influence Government policy.


How could commissioners make greater use of social media?

How could commissioners make greater use of social media? Chris Sherwood, Co-Founder of Guerilla Policy and Director of Innovation and Development at Scope argues that commissioners should use social media as a way to collaborate with citizens to open up commissioning.

In the previous two blogs I have argued that an open, iterative approach to commissioning where citizens and providers collaborate with commissioners will ultimately lead to better, cheaper services.  In this blog I will consider how social media can be utilised by commissioners to achieve this objective.

Social media is an important tool that commissioners are missing out on. As I’ve suggested previously, social media is a way to engage a wider community of people around a particular issue and allows for the discovery of new ideas and networks of people. Commissioning is a complex, multi-disciplinary process, which involves a range of disciplines including research, analysis and evaluation – all areas where social media could play a helpful role. To adopt social media at scale in the commissioning landscape means that the expected skill set and training offered to commissioners would need to change to include social media as a key part of this.

Social media also offers up the opportunities for professionals to collaborate with each other, which has been pointed out in a comment from Alex Kenmure at Camden Council on an earlier blog post. In developing Guerilla Policy, we have considered its potential as a platform to facilitate collaboration between professionals within a sector as well as between sectors. Commissioners, whose numbers are under pressure, often don’t get the opportunity to collaborate and share ideas with each other or with potential providers. Social media could really help in this regard.

As I’ve argued in the first blog in this series, commissioning is often effectively a ‘closed shop’. I was involved in one recent national commissioning opportunity. The funding stream was a brand new one that targeted troubled families, and the government department launched a consultation exercise with prospective bidders on the proposed programme. The programme also involved close cooperation with local government (as they would be the source of referrals), yet they were not involved in this consultation and instead bidders were asked to contact them as part of the four-week commissioning window. The approach to involvement of these stakeholders was weak and rather late in the day, which meant that the ability to influence of the design of the programme was constrained.

Social media could have added significant value here as a cost-effective platform to facilitate a wider discussion between prospective service users, local authorities and providers. This example also points to a wider challenge that Guerilla Policy seeks to address, which is that too often the people who use and provide services are involved to comment (at best) on an already defined agenda rather than being involved in setting the agenda.

How could social media help? The commissioning cycle could be re-imagined as an iterative rather than linear process. The way we commission involves a number of different skills and disciplines, which a linear process could draw out and utilise. Safeguards could easily be built into the process to protect the interests of taxpayers, providers and service users.

This argument isn’t really about specific social media platforms or technologies but rather is about how to open up commissioning to wider participation of a community of interest for which social media could be a valuable tool.  As a starter for ten the following areas of the commissioning cycle strike me as primed for opening up using social media:

  • Undertaking a population needs assessment – could this be crowdsourced? The needs assessment conducted by the public body could be shared publicly as part of the commissioning process with comments invited from the community on the analysis that has been reached.
  • Developing tendering documentation – could suggestions be generated through a community blog site? Could aspects of the documentation (e.g. the outcomes the service is looking to achieve) be shared publicly with comment invited?
  • Scoring and selection of proposals – whilst this is a sensitive area because of commercial sensitivity, could a closed community (and anonymising of bids) be used to crowd source the scoring of bids?
  • Evaluation and monitoring – could users be invited to blog or upload a film to a YouTube channel documenting their experience and feedback on the service commissioned? Social media can play a role as a research tool, e.g. a hashtag could be set up on Twitter and this could be used as a way to trawl for comments and people to be invited.

Community Budgets, which are being piloted in 16 different areas to support families with complex problems (involving 28 different local authorities) and the recent announcement of whole-place and neighbourhood-level pilots, both offer up opportunities to experiment with social media. These pilots are designed to make better use of resources including local knowledge, community assets and voluntary effort, and afford greater control to local people over services. Making use of social media as part of the commissioning process could offer real benefits to these communities.

Ultimately this comes back to culture. Are we prepared to take risks and try something new? Social media can help to open up commissioning. It means that commissioners could involve a wider community ensuring both greater accountability and buy-in to commission services that deliver better outcomes, potentially for less money. Where and how do you think that social media could be applied in commissioning?  What are the constraints and where are the opportunities? Tell us what you think.


What role could social media play in commissioning?

Chris Sherwood, Co-Founder of Guerilla Policy and Director of Innovation and Development at Scope argues that commissioners should use social media as a way to collaborate with citizens to open up commissioning.

In the first blog we considered the need to open up commissioning and this is where social media can help. Social media offers a range of tangible benefits for commissioners, which mirror those that we have documented for the policy and research community (and are the inspiration behind our Guerilla Policy platform). It is cheap and easy to use. It can provide a way for commissioners to engage citizens and providers in the commissioning process. It can play a significant role in building the confidence and trust of citizens and services users in what is actually selected because the commissioning process has been conducted in an open and collaborative way using social media.  Most importantly it can help commissioners to improve the quality and impact of services by opening up commissioning to new people and ideas.

When it comes to social media, commissioning seems like it’s in the dark ages. Even half of MPs now have an active Twitter account – yet a Facebook page or Twitter account would be seen as unusual, even regarded as risky, for a commissioning team. This means that commissioners are missing out on the opportunities that social media offers to collaborate with the people who use and provide public services to commission services that better meet need and use resources effectively.

Social media is an accessible, mass-market technology that is increasingly blurring the distinctions between ‘producers’ and ‘consumes’ of services.  Social media is a platform for collaboration.  It can facilitate the discovery of new or different insights about a social problem.  It can allow ordinary citizens, people who use and provide public services and commissioners to come together to co-design products and services.  More people involved means that more ideas are considered and there is greater transparency over what is actually commissioned resulting in good quality services that deliver better outcomes.

Social media is not a panacea and is at the end of the day a mechanism to support a wider shift in commissioning patterns from a command and control approach to one that is iterative, open, citizen-centred and reflects the lived experience of users.  A good example of this shift is the Make it Work service in Sunderland.  The service design agency Live:Work were commissioned to work in partnership with Sunderland City Council to design a new service to support hard to reach unemployed people secure employment.  Make it Work was designed through a collaborative process involving over 280 practitioners, employers and clients.  It became a two-year and £5m Working Neighbourhood Fund Service which has supported over 800 people, of who 200 have secured work (at a cost of less than £5,000 per person).  Where this example differs from the norm is that the commissioning cycle was broken up with the ‘needs analysis’ and ‘development of options’ phases undertaken by Live:Work, with a provider then selected to actually deliver the service.  The reach of these examples is going to be limited in an era of public sector cuts, but social media offers up a way to collaborate with citizens in the earliest stages of commissioning (building on this example) at far less cost.

Pepsi Refresh provides further inspiration for how social media could play a role in commissioning.  A web platform – http://www.refresheverything.com – was used to crowd source project ideas that could receive funding.  Up to 32 projects could receive funding each month.  The platform gauged the reaction of people to proposed projects to assist in determining those that should receive funding.  There are obvious parallels here with commissioning.

Both of these examples point to a different commissioning process, which is open, collaborative and built on the needs, lived experience and aspirations of those who will ultimately benefit from the services that are commissioned.  Social media provides a way  to help spread these approaches by providing the means to engage citizens and service users at far less cost and in a more focused way.  A local authority could for instance crowd source a needs assessment or use a social networking site to record people’s experiences of a service that is commissioned.  In the next blog, we will go onto further consider how social media could be used in the commissioning cycle.

The use of social media challenges the conventional way of commissioning as discussed in the previous blog and there will inevitably be concerns about the use of social media from commissioners and providers.  Obvious objections include how will this mesh with competition law, how do we up skill commissioners to adopt these methods, could the process be hijacked by a small minority motivated by a particular agenda and how can the commercial sensitivities of providers be protected?  All are genuine concerns and as a Director of Development for a large national disability charity I share some of them; yet these should not be barriers to change.  There are ways to remove these.  Commissioning is a complex, multi-disciplinary process that could be re-imagined as an iterative process, which we will consider further in our next blog.

Now social media should not be seen as a cheap alternative to commissioning of services.  This is not an agenda for cuts.  It will still need to be resourced, but it does hint at a new way of working for commissioners that we will look at in our next blog.  It is also not a panacea to solve all problems with commissioning.

Ultimately, why social media offers benefits to commissioners is that it helps people to feel that their voice is heard in decisions that are made about services that should be commissioned in their area.  Surely that can only be a good thing?