By Andrea Wershof, Senior Local Area Coordinator – Hornsey and Crouch End wards, Haringey
There cannot be a Local Area Coordinator in the UK who hasn’t felt frustration and sadness at the inadequacy of the systems in which we operate. Some of the biggest challenges are presented by the way residents are forced into “front doors” of services, the inaccessibility of support (especially in the statutory world) and the constant assessing of deficits. I don’t know about you, but sometimes I feel like a crusading knight, on a mission to change the world, with my trusty Sword of Person-Centredness and my faithful Shield of Strengths-Based Practice!
Instead of fighting, of course, we all approach this battle as a charm offensive; we build relationships, gradually chip away at old, out-dated cultures, and try to get colleagues to realise that Haringey residents are people with gifts and skills, so much more than a set of needs. We model compassionate ways of working and demonstrate that although it may be slower, the results are more robust, sustainable and meaningful.
Here in Haringey, this message is getting through to the extent that recently I was asked to train a group of colleagues from Customer Services who were embarking on a pilot project to help residents resolve issues around debt and benefits. The training needed to focus on how to be more human!
The main function of Customer Services is the deeply transactional nature of the interactions they have with our citizens. A resident calls, asking for help with something; the officer gives them the information or directs them to the right webpage; the call is ended, and it’s over. This “one-and-done” transaction is known as the “gold standard” for customer services: one call, one piece of advice, one minute of time, and that’s it, the resident never darkens our doorstep again. It also means customer services colleagues can get through very high numbers of calls every day. For the vast majority of people, this level of support is perfectly adequate; but for a small percentage of callers, much more is needed. And of course these are the people who end up coming back again and again, until they reach crisis point because the help given is never the right help at the right time.
It had been acknowledged that a high proportion of these “returning issues” were people with problems around debt and low income, and this pilot scheme was conceived as a way to resolve the challenge.
The first – and to my mind most important – thing was to make sure that the people evaluating the pilot changed their culture first. They had to move away from the marker of “good” being the quantity of interventions. We wanted them to measure the quality of the relationships. It took some persuasion, but in the end they agreed, and so – now we had removed the main obstacle – the stage was set for my training sessions.
The group of customer services operatives had all put themselves forward for this trial by submitting expressions of interest and undergoing an informal interview. All six of them had worked in Customer Services for many years and most of them were Haringey residents, too. To say that they were excited about the prospect of actually being able to talk properly to residents is an understatement. They told me they’d been desperate to have more time to support residents holistically but in their usual roles they were prevented from doing this because of the requirement for them to get through the calls as quickly as possible. There was no time to chat – and suddenly here was I telling them that chatting to residents was exactly what we wanted! The looks on their faces were priceless. They told me that for years they’d been wanting to work in this way. It was a revelation for these fantastic practitioners, suddenly being asked to just be themselves, that we trusted them, and that their skills and kindness were enough.
My job was easy – it was like pushing at an open door. They leapt on the opportunity to develop relationships with residents (and each other), and to talk about their values. There were challenges, of course. I mean, when you’re being asked to stop following a process flow, to stop sticking to a script, and just to use yourself, it can be daunting. So quite a bit of the training was demonstrating to the team that they already had the skills, knowledge and tools; that in and of themselves, they were enough. They grew in confidence as they realised they already had everything they needed to build relationships with residents. Because when the most important tool in your kit is YOU – your desire to be helpful, your compassion, your professionalism and your ability to listen – it’s both incredibly liberating and a bit scary.
We also did quite a lot of work on Values. At the start of the workshop, the team decided they wanted to use the corporate values of the council – the words inscribed on the lanyards that hang around all our necks – Ambitious, Professional, Human, Accountable. And they also added one more: Empathic. And we worked on descriptors for these – short sentences that provided some detail on what those values actually look like in practice, the behaviours that are demonstrated. I would say this particular piece of work was the most meaningful for the group. For years they’d had their corporate values lanyards and yet they’d never had the opportunity to talk about what the words meant and how they applied to their way of being in their working life. It was in this workshop that everyone started properly to articulate what is important to them, and to talk about their vision of a good job.
From a corporate point of view, the trial has been a huge success, with many tens of thousands of pounds worth of debt resolved and a similar amount of income generated into residents’ pockets, and a funding commitment to expand the project, including extending the culture change to other teams in Customer Services. From a personal point of view for the practitioners, we’ve built huge levels of job satisfaction, confidence and happiness. Any pilot scheme means the workers are under extreme scrutiny, and these colleagues thrived on that challenge. We’re now booking monthly reflective practice sessions to revisit this work and to embed the principles further.
For me, personally, it’s been hugely satisfying to know that the principles of local area coordination have found a fertile place to grow. Now we have a “foot in the system” within a project that has been and continues to be the focus of senior leadership and elected members, other opportunities are appearing. How might we deliver something similar to other teams who do different kinds of work? How can we make other systems more compassionate? And – really excitingly from a LAC perspective – how can we streamline a recruitment process where officers are selected with involvement by residents? It’s an exciting time to be a local area coordinator!