Bird not butterfly

One of the things I’ve learnt as a service designer is that briefs describing a requirement for service design are about as rare as albino penguins. So when the Transformation Challenge brief landed in my inbox, I was naturally quite excited about it. The prospect of helping Cornwall Council to redesign how they and others commission the Voluntary, Community and Social Enterprise (VCSE) sector was something to be excited about. Forget commissioning I thought, this is a great opportunity to deliver real change as a result of devolution.

I’m now about 100 days into my secondment. When I say 100 days, it’s been three months since I started. On a part-time basis, that means I’ve worked around 25 days so far. I’ve learnt a lot in that time and this blog explains some of these. There may be 1 or 2 recommendations around IAG too.

One of the targets that Cornwall’s TCA team has been set is to save £2.2m from the Council purse. This target is inherent with problems, not least that the TCA Steering Group might be sanctioning their own fate by endorsing any proposals that deliver a cost saving. The bigger risk however, less recognised but way more important to me, is that focusing on cost savings presents a very real threat to the achievement and pursuit of transformation in the first place.

As a service designer, I always believe it is possible to achieve cost savings and improve outcomes. It’s something I’ve been doing for many years. But I know many people are sceptical about this – the idea that we can achieve more for less – and rightly so. Sometimes there’s way too much optimism from commissioners around what providers can do on less. So starting a transformation programme on the premise that we must save £2.2 million gets any project off to a really bad start. Achieving transformation is to know that great solutions will be found from a much deeper understanding of the problem.

And, so it follows, I have spent these first few months doing my homework: researching the problems with IAG more deeply, gaining fresh insights and exploring new perspectives. My focus has not been to look at specific contracts but focus on the whole system of IAG commissioning and service provision.

A good analogy would be this: if you can imagine the transformation of a caterpillar into a butterfly, then although that is indeed a transformation, this represents something that was always going to happen. But if you realise that what you really want is for the caterpillar to transform into a bird, because a bird is stronger and more resilient than a butterfly, then of course you have to revisit your starting point. Transformation to me does not mean “same end, better means” (e.g. nothing really changed but Cornwall Council saved £2.2 million). What it means to me is “different ends, different means” … building movements not organisations.

So it’s with a certain degree of irony that my first step when looking at IAG was to perform an activity that was very traditional, almost institutional. That was to look at the way in which Cornwall Council currently commissions and delivers IAG. However, in glueing together odd bits of information around IAG, and presenting it via a 2x1 metre infographic, what I have been able to reveal is this: IAG appears to be commissioned in silos, IAG appears not to be customer focused, service providers appear not to wrap their services around the customer. It has even become apparent that IAG as a term, or as three separate terms, is not commonly understood because it is not consistently defined. As TCA Commissioning Advisor, I would be hard pressed to define what good IAG looks like.

Fast forward this thinking a little, if all service providers tell you their service is invaluable, and that IAG is inseperable from the service itself, how can anyone make any judgement if they themselves do not know what good IAG looks like? It is implausible to transform something you do not understand.

Revealing information about how IAG is commissioned and delivered is interesting but it becomes invaluable when mapped against how customers actually experience IAG. We have been keen to learn whether customers experience IAG in the same way as commisioners intend it. We have begun to map seven different customer journeys, using creative media to bring these journeys to life, and we have focused on areas that offer, we believe, the greatest areas for transformation. We will be sharing them with you, as they are completed.

This includes looking at the role of the contact centres, the role of digital, people with multiple and complex needs, the role of libraries and One Stop Shops in providing face-to-face services, the role of customer groups that are serviced by 1 or 2 providers rather than 10 or 20, and the role of organisations that receive no funds from Cornwall Council (for instance: Foodbanks).

The activities I have outlined observe the Design Council’s “Double Diamond” design process. Put simply, I have performed a short sharp diagnosis of the current situation, and undertaken to discover the ideas and experiences of service users (aka co-discovery).

My first three months have not always gone smoothly. At times I have been challenged as being too maverick, too vague, too holistic, with no immediate cost savings being identified. At other times, I have been challenged as not being maverick enough, that I am reliant on the third sector for ideas, and that I am following the “standard approach” of the council.

But this is not unfamiliar territory to me. I learnt a long time ago that clients want to get to the solution as quickly as possible. As a member of the institution, it doesn’t surprise me either that I am possibly seen as part of the problem rather than the solution – perhaps I need another 100 days to prove myself? What I have also learnt over the years is that trust and respect are gained when you demonstrate leadership and deliver results. This is my next step, now that I know what the problem is.

Although not yet written, my IAG strategy is highly likely to contain a number of recommendations that will significantly improve outcomes, such as:

  • Designing out failure caused by the delivery of an inconsistent and competitive IAG service.
  • Designing a service that that allows service providers to focus on what they do best.
  • Designing an efficient referral system.
  • Implementing a set of outcomes oriented IAG performance indicators.
  • Designing an IAG user pathway that has multiple access points for the customer.
  • Allowing people who give more (data) to get more in terms of opting in for services.
  • Designing a system for building the resilience of communities and capacity of volunteers
  • Designing a flexible service that recognises the needs of every individual.

These are just some of the ideas floating around my head.

Lastly, let me talk about a dangerous four-letter word: “need”. I have said right from the beginning of this project that I believe it is critical to understand the needs of customers so that firstly we can improve the supply of IAG but secondly, and more importantly, we can seek to prevent that need from occurring in the first place. I think everyone has bought into this: prevention represents the greatest opportunity for transformation. How we go about achieving this has potential to polarise views however.

There has been much discussion in our team about mapping the needs of people in Cornwall by aggregating all of the various datasets that we have on people. Whilst I believe thisis an important task, I strongly believe it could send us down a rabbit hole. We could spend the next two years mapping the needs of people in more detail without any clear outcome at the end of it.

I believe it may be more fruitful to create an environment where people can simply express their needs on an individual or group level, and create a flexible IAG system that responds to this.

Having worked with many great charities in the past, I know that activists who work outside of the system frequently achieve more than those who try to navigate the system. So it is my belief that we may achieve more by adopting a grassroots, bottom up, approach to identifying and responding to needs, than by rationalising a top down needs analysis activity that creates more questions than answers.

So, in summary, I believe this project was set up to transform commissioning into a butterfly but we now realise the need for transformation is bigger and more profound that we first thought. Consequently, we may have to reengineer everything about this project; from the role of the steering group to the prioritisation of tasks. Bird not butterfly.

Thank you for reading.


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Ian Smith 5 Years Ago
Good article Rob. I don't disagree with any of it, so does that make me a maverick too? "Prevention prevents the best opportunity for Transformation" - yes, definitely. "people express their own need" - yes, if they can express it - I think the current manifestation of this is Person Centred Care, so this needs extending to person centred IAG, "Silo busting" - definitely, but for savings achieved by one "department" to be banked by another we need some kind of exchange rate mechanism, some kind of virtual or trade-able social impact bond. Good stuff mate - keep it up. Ian