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Working with, not doing to: building relationships in North East Lincolnshire


9 Oct 2015

Simply prioritising the building and maintenance of a respectful and collaborative ('with') relationship climate, within either a practice or a leadership context, Steve Kay argues, is the crucial first step. Thinking about the concept of working 'with', rather than doing 'to' or 'for' takes you a step further.

I was pleased to read Donna Molloy’s recent blog about the importance of the quality of relationships within the context of early help. It’s interesting to see the developing recognition within this area of work, which resonates with the useful and innovative work on the 21st-century public servant.

This certainly resonates with work that we have been developing in North East Lincolnshire, which focuses specifically not just on our interactions with children and families, but also with our managers, practitioners and leaders.

We are reframing our work with children and families including the following elements:

We are moving from children’s centres to ‘family hubs’. All of our children centres are considered to be ‘outstanding’ or good’ under the current Ofsted framework. The new family hubs will retain a focus on 0–5, or even the first 1001 days, while also considering the context of the broader family. In North East Lincolnshire, we have already had health visiting and school nursing within the local authority for the last few years and health visitors are based already within our family hubs, as are midwifery and a number of voluntary organisations, in addition to council staff. The important thing here is that they all work towards to the same care pathway.

Many areas are struggling to maintain the same level of children centre provision, and the Department of Education is about to launch a consultation in this area. The statutory model for children centre provision may change, but for us this must provide support for the whole family, and include collaborative approaches to service delivery and commissioning.

We have established a team of Family Group Conference practitioners, who are focusing on working with families who have children identified as ‘in need’ and the edges of care.

We have reviewed our thresholds and revised the child in need model to include ‘universal plus’. This was an important step for us in being clearer about the differences between universal, universal-plus, through to the most vulnerable and complex children. The supporting framework also uses Signs of Safety approaches, offering clarity of purpose for our recently developed family support pathway.

In partnership with the Restorative Foundation, we have started on a journey to enhance and align our communication practices, underpinned with restorative principles. Our aim is to develop a communication framework to build a respectful and collaborative professional relationship context.

We are working initially with practitioners, managers and leaders. We already have a number of colleagues who have become restorative champions from all levels of the organisation, and who are keen to develop ideas and practice. We have also engaged a number of primary and secondary academies in our pilot.

This for me is amongst the most important corner stones of any effective partnership, service or strategy. Achieving that necessary coherence and clarity across an entire system, or local authority boundary offers some challenge. It’s a journey.

Challenge of change

No matter where you sit within the spectrum of provision, service delivery or policy making within public services, the one thing that we all have in common is change. It is constant, often complex and multi-faceted. It can be about driving forward positive innovation, whilst change for some can be unsettling or even unpalatable.

There is a mountain of evidence that supports the need for the development of prevention and early help approaches.  We also have a duty to recognise and respond to the challenging and often contradictory environment in which this work sits.

We are experiencing large-scale system changes across the police, probation, clinical commissioning groups, academies and more, which requires some careful thought and consideration. Local government devolution offers opportunities for further challenge, change and innovation. We also see provision delivered in different models, including multi-authority or regional solutions for provision and services for children and young people.

The ‘deal’ with children, families and their communities

Accepting the shifting sands of the practice and policy environment, as public servants our collective responsibility remains the same. We must use resources in the most effective and efficient way in order to enable the best possible opportunities for improved outcomes with children, families and communities.

A core part of this, for all public services, is to retain a collective focus on prevention and early help. We can’t let issues spiral, we must work with families and where needed get the right support to people at the earliest opportunity to prevent crisis.

The environment is complex and in order to achieve the necessary change it is important that we develop joint approaches to the complex issues, such as neglect or unemployment which we see within our communities.

The only way to begin achieve the necessary change is through distributed and collective leadership, which requires a shift in thinking for some and a removal of traditional hierarchy or divisions within organisations and partnerships.

The paradigm shift: working ‘with’, not doing ‘to’

Structures can change easily, policy can be revised or funding streams aligned or removed. However, whichever model is implemented in whatever context, what is left in the end are people.

As practitioners, managers and leaders working within a system, whether we are working directly with children or families, managing a team, working with elected members, negotiating with partners or establishing a new multi-authority solution, the simple fact is that everything we do sits within the context of a relationship. Restorative practice and the underpinning principles can have a dramatic, positive impact in this context.

Respectful, collaborative and socially responsible relationships do not happen by chance, they have to be made in all of the interaction and communication that takes place between and among individuals.

To be clear, this isn’t simply about having a mind-set of ‘keep everyone happy’. That will not help resolve issues within your organisation, or resolve an issue with a child or family. Where we have high challenge, we need support and vice versa. We must nurture both and strike a balance. Creating these conditions and being genuinely authentic, helps to enable an open, honest dialogue. This can (and does) work at all levels, whether this is between a teacher and pupil, midwife and expectant mum, within a child protection conference or leadership situation. Whilst the context is different, the principles remain the same

Restorative practice aims to create a respectful and collaborative relationship context in which both challenge and support is consistently characterised by working ‘with’ people, rather than doing things to them or for them. For some public service practitioners and leaders, this simple approach can be a significant paradigm shift in the way that practice is delivered, services are designed and partnerships are created.

These restorative approaches are not unique to North East Lincolnshire and are already being used, in other areas to very good effect. There are numerous examples of schools that have adopted restorative approaches and seen significant results. These include reductions in fixed term exclusions, and improvements in attendance and attainment.

If we are attempting to create an effective culture within a team or organisation, or trying to establish an effective relationship in practice, there are some basic questions that we need to ask of ourselves:

To deliver our core purpose:

  1. What type of environment do we want to create?
  2. What is my communication practice currently creating?
  3. How do I communicate in order to build and maintain the culture?
  4. What underpins my communication practice when challenging/ supporting colleagues?

These core questions underpin the continuing development of our restorative leadership programmes.

Although we have been using these approaches in our borough for some time, we are only at the beginning of our journey. The development of a specific restorative leadership programme and commitment to restorative practice is central to our people strategy and commitment to the development of 21st-century leadership within our borough. Restorative practice will take time to understand, develop and embed across a system.

Some of the results can be immediate, for example the following initial impacts noted by our leaders:

  • Stronger connection between team members and our core purpose
  • Meetings are more effectively chaired and result in more direct action
  • Fewer meetings required as more focused and purposeful
  • Higher levels of personal empowerment
  • Creating dialogue to challenge system or individual performance is more effective.

Simply prioritising the building and maintenance of a respectful and collaborative (WITH)  relationship climate, within either a practice or a leadership context, is the crucial first step. Thinking about the concept of WITH, rather than doing TO or FOR takes you a step further.

Everything we do sits within the context of a relationship and they are the environment through which all change occurs – for better or for worse!