Positive social change, creative facilitation and compelling organisational narratives

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Creative Facilitator

Creative Facilitator

I’m committed to supporting organisations in complex and challenging situations across the public and third sectors as they determine what needs to change and how. Time is tight and the pressure is on to deliver more and better with less. It’s critical in facilitated sessions for you to have enough structure to meet your goals, but also a creative and engaging process in which to imagine and explore new possibilities. Facilitation gives you the space to think and to have conversations that matter to you in a fresh and innovative way – a way that delivers something different.
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Story Activist

Story Activist

The speed and volume of change we all experience can make it difficult to make sense of the world, and to connect with what we’re trying to achieve and why. It makes it difficult to shift mindsets and behaviours. Stories are a powerful tool that help us understand what change means for us. They influence how we feel, what we think and how we act. I’ve developed a story-based approach that supports leaders and other change-makers looking for different outcomes to plot a new route. Through facilitated workshops, creative interviews and training, I work with you to produce lasting materials – books, blogs and video content – that support your change agenda.
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Writer

Writer

I believe we need more stories and a wider range of them that reflect the breadth of contemporary society in the UK. We need to turn around the dominant negative narratives about public life and create positive, thought-provoking and entertaining stories that explore what matters and what’s possible. I’ve curated and published four books exploring aspects of public life and two novels. My articles have appeared in The Guardian and I was the Writer in Residence at the Chartered Institute for Public Finance.
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New Novel

New Novel

About the new novel: A girl searches for her missing brother, a council leader fights to hold on to her principles and a chief executive battles to hold back the tide of cuts. Over them all looms a threatened football club and the sinister shadow of its chairman. As identities shift and allegiances are tested, how much will each of them risk to save the city, the club – and themselves? Dawn’s book launch and story workshop tour takes in conferences, public organisations, book clubs and libraries.
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4 pillars of mental toughness – dealing with challenges you don’t choose

Day 3 of the Kungsladen trail

Day 3 of the Kungsladen trail

Life throws challenges at us every day. The challenges of our own making are ok, I like them, thrive on them even. With the other type, the ones that are imposed or “gifted” to us by others, I find it hard to maintain my usual levels of energy and enthusiasm. I’ve had plenty of unavoidable, grit your teeth type work trials over the years but this summer, I faced a different test, one that needed serious energy – an 8 day, 120km hike along the Kungsladen trail, at the top of Sweden, 250km inside the Arctic Circle.

I’ve learnt over the years that when the going gets tough, the tough ask for help! In this case, a great conversation with Sports Psychologist and Coach Sarah Fenwick www.sarah-fenwick.com made all the difference.

I was anxious about the physical aspects of the trip. It meant carrying all your kit and food, getting water from icy rivers, sleeping in huts and crossing my most hated terrain – bog, ice and snow, thigh deep in places, thin and dangerous, squidgy and melting in others. I’ve had long term back and hip problems and was receiving treatment for a grumbling rotator cuff shoulder injury. I’m fit and used to walking but imagined serious discomfort.

Equally tricky were the mental aspects, the timing was awkward and I had competing priorities. I’d been struggling with my second novel, had recently found a creative seam that I needed time and space to explore. And, as is often the way with self-employed people, I was worried about where the money was going to come from. Why I felt I couldn’t say no was that it was one of my best friends’ 50th birthday celebrations, a relationship with a lot of love and history. My challenge was someone dear to me’s dream “holiday.”

So I’d begun the training walks daunted and with little excitement. It was all about the detail, buying kit and weighing kit, in my mind, a grey mist settled over my preparations for the hike. I begrudged buying what came to be essential kit – including a glamorous black veil – a netted hat to avoid being attacked by Arctic Mosquito’s.

Having coached life threatening expeditions across the Antarctic Sarah was the perfect person to share my worries with. Sarah did 3 very helpful things:
– firstly she encouraged me to find things that I wanted to achieve within the challenge. I’m a writer I could take inspiration from the dramatic scenery, create new imagery, and dream up new stories and situations.
– secondly, scenario planning my worst fears – what was I going to do when I had to wade through icy melt water, well up over my knees? Answers included, not feeling sorry for myself, preparing properly, getting back to the kit shop for gaiters (which in the event proved useless but I had to laugh) and remembering it’s just water, what was the worst that could happen – I’d get wet.
– and finally, the four pillars of mental toughness (Jones and Moorhouse 2008) which meant I was ready for our most demanding day.

Day 3: Alesajaure to Salka. We were up at 5am, after not enough sleep in a 10 bunk room, with a string of mosquito bites on my forehead and one that had blown up, hot and irritated, inside my boot. The hike ahead was 28km/18miles much of it across unreliable snow. At one point it took us an hour to go 1km. But I managed it and felt a great sense of achievement. Here’s how the pillars of toughness model helped.

i) keeping your head to be able to make good decisions – in my case this included decisions from the smallest level, like concentrating clearly on where I am going to put my foot next, noticing when my head was going down or my mind was wandering and I was losing the path. I made important choices too, to share my hiking poles and chocolate with someone in the team who didn’t have any, taking and appreciating help when it was offered, like the lovely friend who lifted my pack onto my tired shoulders.

ii) Maintaining (finding) motivation- I delighted in the prospect of having a hot sauna at the end of the day in a beautiful hut in the wilderness and getting to the hut before the rain set in. It certainly made me walk faster.

iii) Focusing on what matters – Making your day as comfortable as possible, controlling what you can and letting the rest go. For example: remembering to stop and take some deep breaths at the meditation stones, which were thoughtfully (mindfully) positioned at regular intervals along the route (those lovely Swedes.) I remembered to take in the stunning landscape and to drink, avoiding dehydration. It’s also about the balance between short and long –term goals, picking the things that will help contribute to the overall goal, like saving energy because there’s 4 more days to go.

iv) Self-belief to achieve – I was never in any doubt really that I could complete the test. It was about reminding myself I’d done the training and about what I’d achieved before. And as I said at the start, that I enjoy challenges – it’s easy to forget this when you’re knee deep in bog being attacked by mosquito’s. I enjoy challenges because that’s one of the ways I learn and grow, whether I choose that challenge or not.

I don’t really consider myself mentally tough – like my three friends who made it to the summit of Mount Kebnekaise – but there were no tears or tantrums from me. The Mental Toughness ideas were invaluable and I’ll remember them the next time I’m asked to do something difficult that isn’t on my own to-do list. Thanks to Sarah and the amazing women on the trip, I “got over myself,” learnt a lot, had amazing unexpected conversations and came to see the experience as a gift.

So watch out for a new story about what goes on under the tundra carpet. There will be fingernail mountain flowers, arctic gentian, orchid and bartia, evil Skewer birds that will rip out your liver, suicidal lemmings and the wise words of Dag Hammarskjöld – Swedish secretary general of the United Nations in 1961, who died in a mysterious plane crash.

“It’s the effort that finds us, not we the effort.”

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Scary, tiring and sometimes bizarre – the story behind the story

I’m always interested in how to tell a good story and was delighted to be sent this piece last week by a senior manager at Sandwell Council. I was also pretty surprised, it’s not often I find good examples of story-telling in the realms of reality TV. What makes this story work for me is that it includes many of the key ingredients of great story-telling: seeing the world through the eyes of characters you rarely get to hear about, genuine need and emotional connection. In the background is a plucky team that tackle complex problems with tenacity and humour. And there is the bonus of an authentic -not fairy-tale- ending.

sandwell photo

It’s a brave decision by any public service to open itself up to the scrutiny of the cameras. Well done to all those organisations that have, in the context of more cuts, I think it’s increasingly essential, that we see difference that local government officers are making.

The BBC’s Housing Enforcers series followed Sandwell Council’s team inspecting privately rented properties. This isn’t just a story of a tenant and landlord dispute or dodgy repairs, it’s about passion and pride in your work, health, well-being and the state of the private sector housing in the UK.

With Richard Hawkins’s story behind the story below – you get to read his words, what’s important and how he feels about his work. It’s something I’d read any day and millions of people have already watched.

9.00am – Flat inspection, High Street, Smethwick

The case was referred to us by our colleagues in Public Protection who deal with fly-tipping and filthy and verminous properties. The tenant of the flat was a single male, part-time musician, Claude. His first floor flat above a take-away had a number of serious problems: fire regulation breaches, lack of adequate heating, leaks and electrical issues. I had already served the owner with a notice to fix the problems, however Claude had informed me no works had been done.

So today I was to meet with Claude and the landlord to discuss the matter, all in front of the camera. I was working with a BBC crew fronted by Matt Allwright, they wired up me and the camera started rolling there and then. There was no time to brief Matt off camera, no scripting, no managing expectations, it was all live.

We arrived at the flat and it was immediately obvious there was no change. The landlord and tenant were not co-operating and there were immediate hazards – all the smoke detectors were faulty. I called in the cavalry, my colleagues at West Midlands Fire Service. Not many people know how closely we work with the fire service, but we do. We often inspect premises together, and we help each other out by carrying out works or enforcement action against building owners. It was a great chance to show off this joint work.

The relationship between the tenant and landlord was damaged, I spent a long time trying to repair it, but the tenant’s lack of willingness and the landlord’s frustrations eventually resulted in Claude being re-housed by another of our colleagues. This wasn’t a failure because the flat is now being renovated to the correct standards and will soon be available for a new tenant. Claude is safe and the landlord now has a better understanding of his responsibilities.

My main emotion was relief. I’d promised Claude I would help him and I did what it took to get a solution. It had been incredibly intense. I had to do my difficult job with the eternal scrutiny of the camera documenting my every decision and action. But it was worth it, I had managed to shine a light on the terrible housing conditions faced by some tenants in our borough and the tireless work we do to eradicate them. I felt I had shown that we work very hard in often pretty unpleasant surroundings for extended periods of our day, and we do it for a very just cause.

There is a great love for public services like the NHS. They all make us better, they are there to protect our most important asset; our health. Well, Sandwell Council also works to protect our health and wellbeing. We fight to improve for housing conditions to protect citizens against cold, damp, electrocution, falls, trips, scolds, burns, the list is endless but small things make a big difference.

“The Housing Enforcers” BBC series is a window into the front line of a battle against poor housing and poor health in Sandwell. I am so proud to have been part of it and to have helped elevate this important topic into the public gaze. It has been a scary, tiring and sometimes bizarre experience, but a positive and an important one.

Richard Hawkins
Property Intervention Officer – Private Sector Housing Services

You can see the episode featuring Richard and Claude at the following link from BBC iPlayer:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b05xbq6f/the-housing-enforcers-series-2-episode-16 Available until 23rd June 2015.

Other episodes featuring stories from Sandwell Council can also be found on the iPlayer until the end of June 2015 (see episodes 10, 13, 17, 18, 19, and 20).

Making our mark – in the world of work

Cover of the book - the image is by Maciej Jedrzejewski

Cover of the book – the image is by Maciej Jedrzejewski


How do you want to make your mark?

It’s the question at the heart of a new creative project I’ve been working on with the University of Greenwich, designed to explore student stories of work, their experiences and expectations. It’s a tricky question at any stage of your career – and I have to admit that when I started my working life I didn’t really have a clue – but the project has been a joy to work on. And I love the idea of making your mark as a theme because it’s so open, forward looking and can be answered in different ways. It invites speculation, gives space and opportunity to stretch your imagination, dream a bit.

The student experience is a serious issue for many universities and Greenwich were keen to hear how students felt. Rather than using traditional questionnaires, they commissioned us to facilitate the students to tell their own stories in different creative ways – either writing fiction or via creative conversations, or illustrating their ideas and talents through images or designs they’ve created. The book is beautiful, but also unlike any I’ve been involved in before.

We love facilitating people to write but this time we had to be innovative about the process and introduce new ways to tap into different types of creativity – particularly for those that are story-tellers not writers, for those who express themselves visually, and for those that think in 3d (and the one student who dreamed of a future in 5d!) We found the most important thing was making a connection, individually and personally with the participants, understanding their thinking, preferences, talents and supporting them into a new place, the future they want.

So, the stories and conversations are rich, engaging and honest in a way that no case study could ever be. And the story structure adds meaning and clarifies where the real rub is terms of getting started in a career. Aspiration and anxiety jump off the pages in equal measures. The stories are as much about making a mark in terms of being a valued person and supporting the greater good, as they are about becoming world renowned.

The students themselves confound any stereotypes that are in the mainstream. Most of them are juggling work in non-graduate jobs, hard-working and focused (which sort of reflects the self-selecting nature of the project) and there are contributions from maths, computing, English, graphics, 3d design, animation, business information systems. The University are delighted and have gained some useful insights into how they can enhance their support for students in their work journey.

And more great news, we are chuffed that…
The book will be launched on the 22nd May at the Greenwich Literary Festival
http://greenwichbookfest.com/festival-programme/

Let me know if you are interested in coming and I’m keen to hear how you’ll make your mark? I’ve made some definite marks in recent years – writing a thriller and curating a book of fiction, and as a result of this project, also some tentative marks in charcoal and paint. I’ve been inspired by the students and it’s made me think about what I want to do for the next ten years, a compelling question isn’t it.

William Morris, birds of prey and David Bowie – Jeremy Deller’s English Magic (and making some of our own in 2015)

80's classic Voodoo Ray re-imagined by Melodian Steel Orchestra

80’s classic Voodoo Ray re-imagined by Melodian Steel Orchestra

One idea to kick-start the new year is to collect up any remaining negative energy or narratives that might be hanging around from 2014, put them in a bag you normally take to work and get on a train to Margate.

When you get there, walk directly to the sea front and throw the bag with all your might into the waves. Then spend an hour or so being dazzled, tricked and inspired by an exhibition called English Magic at the Turner Contemporary Art Gallery. I guarantee you’ll feel fantastic.

Jeremy Deller* is a conceptual artist and a magician. His show uses popular culture, music, film and an unexpected cast of people and events to weave a spell that makes us see ourselves and society in different ways.

William Morris throws Roman Abramovich’s yacht into the sea; young David Bowie fans create an alternative reality to the industrial conflict and IRA bombs of the 70s; prisoners and ex-servicemen, many who served in Iraq, display hidden portrait skills. The Melodians, a steel pan orchestra from South London, create a toe-tapping soundtrack re-interpreting an 80s classic (‘Voodoo Ray’) and a hen harrier hawk changes the ending to a story where Prince Harry escapes justice.

The exhibition gave me a creative boost because it’s the kind of art that engages my brain through different senses and emotions. We are invited to bring our own perspective, make connections and seek meaning – to be creative ourselves.

It might seem a bit of leap from contemporary art to local government and public services, but for me what lies beneath English Magic are important questions about society – the tussle between public resources and private gain, the forces of social reform and how we might call up the past to prepare us for a different future.

There are also new endings on offer. I’m always arguing that the public sector is not all doom and gloom, and we can choose and influence the way the story goes. Imagine in 2017 people care so much about paying tax that there’s a popular revolt against those that choose to avoid it. (Anyone who’s seen or read anything about last year’s Shared Press project Change the Ending last year will recognise this.)

And there’s also something special about Jeremy’s creative process that I hope leaders in the public sector can benefit from, as I have. His approach is widely collaborative and accessible in a way that people in bureaucracies often don’t think is possible, let alone productive. He chooses to illustrate difficult issues in ways that make you pause and give you space to think again.

This year I’ll be focussing on bringing more creativity and new stories to local government and public services. I’m really looking forward to working with Birmingham City Council on a beautiful book that collects stories written by council employees – stories that illustrate what it means to be a public servant.

We’ll be supporting staff and managers who have worked for the authority for a long time, and others in groups representing the diversity of the workforce, to tell tales of the city and why they care. There will be creativity workshops and story-telling techniques that can also be used for problem-solving and managing change. The idea is that these stories will be handed on to new recruits, who will be able to carry with them the organisational memory, share the ethos and the artefacts, and hopefully encouraged to write the next chapter. Together we’ll create some magic.

*Jeremy Deller won the Turner Prize in 2004, and is probably best known for his 2001 work Battle of Orgreave, a video re-enactment of the Battle of Orgreave, which took place during the 1984 miners’ strike, or the inflatable Stonehenge that was part of an Olympic Tour in 2012. He’s currently reading Change the Ending!

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The birth of a collection – practical support for the creative process

Jenny Hacker's story Left Behind, has a sense of well-being whilst under a train!

Jenny Hacker’s story Left Behind, has a sense of well-being whilst under a train!

The birth of a collection – practical support for the creative process

Change the Ending – our collection of flash fiction about the future of public life – was born in October. It was a moment of joy. Despite the hard labour behind the scenes, seeing it grow and develop was fantastic. I loved the creativity and the collaborative process – working with the writers, taking part myself and the basic act doing of it. Write something, publish something and you’ve made something happen. Who knows what it will become, but it will exist.

The writers in this book are an eclectic bunch who wanted to say different things in different ways, who had differing levels of experience and motivations for writing. Working out who needed what was critical. I’m not someone who has a thousand ideas a day. I have a few ideas (and plenty of random ideas within those ideas) and like to see them through. One of our first-time writers echoed this when he said he wrote his story simply because he said he would. He’d made a commitment, he still had the fear that it might not be any good, but was willing to apply himself. Finishing it was everything. In his case, my job as curator of the project was to sit tight, give him space and, in his own time, he delivered a great story.

There were other people who had important stories to tell, but for various reasons didn’t really want to write alone. There are three stories in the book that grew out of intense, inspiring conversations, where we jointly crafted a story based on their ideas and words, using their ways of expressing a feeling and making sense of a situation.

To make the collection happen, we realised we needed not only to tackle writers’ fears and show the benefits of the project, but to put in place plenty of practical support. Based on my own experience of what had helped me as a writer, here are some examples of what we did:

* We know that creativity, like many other things in life, requires application, effort, persistence and learning the techniques, so using the structure and tight 350-word constraint of flash fiction helped.
* We provided tips on writing flash fiction and links to other websites to help people get going.
* We ran creative workshops to give people story-telling skills and practical approaches – this was very useful for the project but also their organisations.
* We tailored support for writers depending on need, everything from full collaboration to a light touch – and we were delighted that some stories entered gracefully into the world almost fully formed.
* We enlisted the support of a gifted editor with an approach that supported the writers to tell their own stories in their own way, focusing on flow and technical expertise.

Finally – and it’s very much our belief at Shared Press – these are stories that matter. I was very clear about my own intention and, as someone who’s worked most of my life in public services, I was emotionally connected to it. That’s why the invitation to contribute was to people who care about the subject, who care about changing the ending, and the message to our writers was write what you care about. If you care, readers will understand that and engage with it.

Creativity comes from your own unique perspective or relationship with the world and how you choose to explore that is also unique. The diversity in Change the Ending proves this point and it’s what makes the book special. Publishing the collection has meant our writers’ stories are out there, being read, and there’s an added reward in that readers can hold a beautiful book in their hands.

One of the writers passed the book on to his teenage daughter who read it (yes, really!) and actually talked to him about his job – such a rare thing that he said he went to work feeling anything was possible.

The book has already inspired change in me, to push on and write another town hall thriller. Yes, I know it’s not mainstream, but I’m even more motivated to do it after this project. I can only guess at the impact being involved in this project has had on the other writers, but I hope they’re proud – they should be – and willing to have another go, or maybe they’re now expressing their creativity in other ways, because who knows what other new endings that might open up…

Flash fiction – the future of public life in 350 words

Change-the-Ending_cover

Change the ending has been published! Here’s my latest the article from the Guardian in case you missed it

Flash fiction collection offers unique insight into future of local government.From assisted death to mobile libraries and bees, Dawn Reeves has curated stories from those who love local gov

Derrick Anderson, chief executive of Lambeth council, said the book is ‘extraordinary and engaging, brimming with commitment’

Can you tell the future of local government in 350 words? That was the task I set back in June, when I asked all those who care about the public sector to submit a very short story on this huge and profoundly complex subject.

As someone who’s proud to have spent most of my life working in the public sector and who now focuses on facilitating change and creativity, and writing novels, I wanted to set a different agenda. I was fed up of the gloomy, negative narratives that are so prevalent and I wanted to hear what other people think and feel.

Even though the project was backed by the Guardian’s Public Leaders Network, Solace and KnowledgeHub, which gave me confidence, I had no idea what kind of reaction I would get. What I found was that while some national observers were talking up the end of local government as we know it, people in councils across the country responded to my challenge to create alternative scenarios, to envision futures they wanted to see, and to tell it like it could be.
I received many more stories than we had space for, including lots from first-time writers more accustomed to producing reports than fiction, and the overall standard was extremely impressive. Well over half of the 42 published stories were contributed by people working at a senior level in local government, including accountants, planners and public health consultants, although people who don’t work in the public sector, but nonetheless care deeply about it, wrote too.

The stories, three of which are being published by the Public Leaders Network (see below), cover a broad and in many ways unusual range of subjects, from fraud and illegal immigrants to assisted death, mobile libraries and bees. Some of the narratives are set in the future, and others draw lessons from the past. Some have a melancholy feel, and a sense of protecting what the writers value about current provision, but even in the darkest stories there are glimmers of hope. One child dies but another is saved; people are pushed to their limits and risk their careers in the hope of change; doubt and fear appear in the margins, but bravery brings rewards.

By contrast, there are also uplifting stories about people with complex lives that have been changed for the better by the intervention of public sector workers. And while many of the tales are full of warmth and humour, the collection contains real grit and serious ideas. The writers have taken on knotty political issues with great heart and insight, inviting readers to think again about how we care for vulnerable older people, how we balance difficult choices between quality and cost, how we value people who work in the public sector, and how and if we can make the resources stack up.

To buy Change the Ending, curated by Dawn Reeves, please contact production@sharedpress.co.uk OR go to www.sharedpress.co.uk

How It Might Start
By Andy Burns

He arrives at Clare’s house at 11pm and hesitates. It’s too late to knock, so he sits in his car, thinking. He’s been living in the shadows of Detroit, the spectre of municipal bankruptcy stalking him. He wraps himself in a thin blanket of denial. It couldn’t happen here. Surely they wouldn’t be the first to go under. But there’s no hiding from it now. Why else would he be here? Hours pass heavily in a flash. His clothes crease and mould.

Clare had offered a solution. “We can put our arms around you.” She’d been speaking metaphorically, one council with money to another with none. One chief executive with options to another with … not much time left.
“Come round and have a drink. We can talk, offline,” she’d said.
He tries to convince himself that it’s the politicians who won’t accept the help of a neighbouring authority, but he knows that’s only partially true. At this unearthly hour of the morning, there’s no escaping himself.

The first light is watery and insubstantial. That’s how he feels. He knows he should be pushing back the gloom, putting in support structures, holding up the sky, but he can’t do it alone. He has to ask for help, has to admit he’s not enough.

He knocks his head against the steering wheel. Come on, man, have the conversation!
When a light goes on in the house, his mood improves. Clare answers the door in a soft grey dressing gown that’s more like a blanket. In the hallway, the smell of coffee revives him.
“It’ll be an investment. We’re not interested in a takeover,” she says. “And we’ve got about 30 minutes before I have to get the kids up.”

He wonders if they can make it work. What he’ll say to the councillors, to the management team, the staff, his wife. It’s all a risk.
“We’ll make it work,” Clare says. “We always find a way.”

Back in the car, relief floods his engine. He sits a while longer. It’s the right result. The city and their communities need a way forward. The road ahead will be rocky, the navigation a nightmare, but she’s given him a new direction.

Andy Burns is director of finance and resources at Staffordshire county council and president of the Society of County Treasurers

Chicken Chow Mein for the Soul
By Gareth Young

It had been a big day for Stephanie; the sort of day that deserved a celebratory beer and a Chinese takeaway; the sort of day that came very rarely for a hardworking but underappreciated social care commissioner. After eight months she was about to deliver a new home care contract for the council.

Whereas previously some areas of the borough had had spotty coverage, there would now be multiple providers in every area and, most importantly, Stephanie had saved the council an incredible £3 for each hour of care delivered. It was no wonder she had been roundly congratulated, so why didn’t it feel quite right?

Just five years out of university, Stephanie was committed, intelligent and ambitious. Admittedly it was a sign of the times that someone so young had been asked to lead this crucial piece of work, but she had done well and a promotion was on the cards, so why hadn’t she ordered her chicken chow mein yet?

At the back of her mind she knew why. Although the contract was a great deal for the council and therefore the local taxpayer, the companies providing the care would need to find a way to absorb those cost-savings and that meant paying their staff even less.

They had to cover administration charges, management overheads, travel costs, holiday pay, sick pay, pension contributions and a small amount of profit out of that hourly payment, which left very little for the people actually delivering the care. This nagged away at the young local government worker; the people looking after people like her sick grandma were now going to be paid a lot less.

Had she struck the right balance? She wasn’t sure, but she did know she hadn’t had a choice and she’d enabled the council to deliver the most significant savings in the history of local government without taking services from the vulnerable people they served.
It was a big day and Stephanie ordered her chow mein and had her beer. She’d done a good job and deserved it. It just didn’t quite taste as sweet as she had hoped.

Gareth Young is a local government officer and the co-author and presenter of the popular welovelocalgovernment blog and podcast

Lessons in Corporate Parenting
By Kersten England

I learnt almost everything I know about being a corporate parent from an extraordinary young woman I met courtesy of Radio 4. She came into my kitchen one Saturday morning, talking straightforwardly about her and her sister’s experience of local authority residential care. Her desire to reach out and support other young people whose birth parents were not able to nurture them was palpable.

New to social media, I tweeted about the interview’s impact on me. Right back at me came a tweet from Radio 4 connecting me to Kyra. It turned out that she was a recent care leaver and one of “our children”.

We met in my office just as she was going to uni. We talked a lot about what care leavers really need. Actually, mostly I listened. Sure, we have always had a committed team of “leaving care” professionals who have navigated fluctuating funding streams and shifting policy approaches. But now we have brought our care leaver children closer to their wider corporate family.

When one young man wanted to be a firefighter, we called the chief fire officer. When someone needed funding to attend an international care leavers’ conference, we found it. When a young woman’s roof leaked persistently, we didn’t get off the phone until it was fixed. We made sure more care leavers got apprenticeships. When we realised just how little the basic apprenticeship left a care leaver to live on, we introduced a “living wage” apprenticeship.
Uni hoodies, Christmas presents, quick coffees in city centre cafes are all part of our corporate parenting and, yes, on occasion, helping young women, sometimes now with children of their own, to find refuge from abusive partners. We are not perfect parents, but we do want the best for our care leaver children.

And what about our young Radio 4 woman, Kyra? She is now an ambassador for student care leavers and about to have her foundation degree graduation. She cares for various members of her family, older and younger, and is a weekly visitor to her foster mum, who doesn’t get out much anymore.

I am indebted to Kyra.

Kersten England is chief executive of York city council. She is a trustee of Nesta, the national innovation charity, a keen cyclist, hill-walker and mother of five young adults

Change the Ending – advice on writing flash fiction

Thanks to everyone who’s got in touch about Change the Ending flash fiction project, and to any randomly curious or interested observers with something to say or a germ of an idea. Many of the contributors so far are new to flash fiction and have asked for some tips on getting going. Hope this is helpful and look forward to reading more stories.

Where to start?

Like life, local government and public services are complicated. The issues are like a mountain range covering huge territory. The terrain can be rocky, but the views from the top can be beautiful. Don’t try and give us the whole picture; for this project, think about what you’d like to see.

Choose a small idea inside a big one.

It might come from a surprising conversation (in a meeting even??!) or a part of a story you’ve heard, a few words or notions. Take these and stretch them, turn them upside down, don’t go with the obvious – make it different! Create a character that intrigues you, whose voice is unusual, or tap into a reaction or emotion you’ve felt. Explore a possibility and hook your reader in with something small, immediate and intimate.

Write a beginning, middle and end – then start in the middle.

Get to the heart of the story asap. When you write your story, don’t take two pages to explain all the pre-story. Find a way to set it up in the first sentence or two (and use the title even – sweat the title is a good tip,), then crack on with the rest of the tale. The reader can fill in the blanks. You don’t have time in this very short form to set scenes and build character. Use one powerful image or a specific small descriptor – it can tell as much about a character as several paragraphs of description.

Make sure the ending isn’t at the end.

This is a great tip from David Gaffney: Try to place the end of the story (what changed/what’s the denouement) in the middle! Then allow the reader time, as the rest of the text spins out, to consider the situation along with the narrator, and ruminate on the decisions the characters have taken. Use the next few paragraphs to take the reader on a journey below the surface.

Leave your reader wanting more/thinking/asking questions

This is a challenge, but it’s what Change the Ending is about. Try to leave the reader with something that keeps them thinking after the story has finished. The last line of a story shouldn’t complete the story. If it can take us somewhere new, somewhere we can continue to think about the ideas in the story and wonder what it all meant – especially for local government and the future of public services – then you’ve cracked it.

Practicalities

Stick to one point of view, stick to one tense, check your spelling and grammar (don’t rely on spell checker.) You don’t have to reach the word count. If your piece naturally ends at 198 and the word limit is 350, that’s fine.

Read it out loud

Hearing your story really helps. You’ll get a better sense of what sounds right and how it flows.

Hope that helps and enjoy being creative

Dawn 

Flash fiction – Change the ending – call for submissions 31st July

Change the ending

 The idea

Change the ending is a collaborative creative writing project that will produce a collection of flash fiction stories about the future of local government, written by people who care about it.

Why it’s worth joining in?

We are interested in writing and reading new stories about all aspects of public life; stories that bypass the prevalent negative narratives – cuts, decline, incompetence, bureaucracy – and explore new ideas, possibilities, approaches and visions – all in 350 words. We need to change the ending and imagine the future we want to see, or the stories we tell about local government and the public sector will become the same old same old, we lose what’s good and everyone else loses interest.

We’ve got some senior public sector managers, colleagues from the front line, some from public health and teaching, and a couple of wry observers looking from the outside in, who’ve already signed up to think and write creatively. The aim is to publish a limited edition paperback collection of around 40 stories, plus an e-book. This is an open call for anyone who’s interested in picking up a pen and joining us by 31st July.

What can you write about?

Stories can be about… well… anything related to the local government and public services

  • They might be small tales, green shoots of positive change that point the way to a future we want to see.
  • They could be snapshots that show why it’s important and why we care. They could highlight tricky dilemmas or big battles.
  • They might be interesting, seriously challenging, funny, sad, curious, bizarre, true-ish, re-imagined or wildly imagined.
  • And we hope all the stories will reflect public sector ethos and values in original quirky ways.

Creative writing is good for the soul and provides excellent brain food.

How it will work

  • The idea is to be collaborative, to support and encourage each other as writers (giving feedback and ideas where people want that) and then share the stories with as many people and organisations as possible.
  • Solace – the Society for Local Authority Chief Executives – is supporting the project and the collection will be launched at the Solace Annual Summit in Liverpool in October. The stories will be used to provoke a different type of debate about public services. The stories will also be published on the Shared Press website (under construction).
  • Solace and Shared Press will curate the collection – all stories will be selected on the basis that they are ‘positive’ about local government and the public sector, but ‘critical’ stories will be considered for inclusion if they stimulate debate and demonstrably seek to ‘change the ending.’ Project lead is Dawn Reeves, former local authority Director and author of Hard Change, a successful ‘town hall thriller’ which seeks to ‘change the end’, published in 2013 by Shared Press (www.dawnreeves.com)

If you’re in, email  dawn@dawnreeves.com for info, top tips on flash fiction and t’s&c’s.

Doubt, trust and flash fiction

Quick blog post from me, prompted by a piece from the wonderful Sarah Dale (@creatingfocus) – on the difficult subject of doubt. Below is a flash fiction story that I wrote during a bout of the wobbles whilst editing my first novel Hard Change. Writing it helped steady my nerves. It reminded me that doubt is an essential part of creativity. If we were sure about everything, would there be anything new or different to say? Being open about doubt makes us human and engaging with it can open new doors.

This is highly relevant as I and many friends (with an interest in local government and public life) embark on a collective flash fiction project (more of which later – call for submissions on – change the ending .) Let me know what you think.

 

Trusts’ lodger  

Doubt follows me around the flat. Humming like a faulty plug socket, always about to threaten a nasty shock. It’s clear we’ve become too close. The choice of cereal takes up the morning. Words run and hide whenever I pick up my pen. Umms and errs abound.  Tension mounts when her boyfriend, Fear starts staying over. I ask my friends for advice.

Disapproval turns her nose up and shakes her head in reproach – how could you get yourself into this situation?  Contempt wants me to evict Doubt immediately. Apprehension isn’t too sure.  Distraction suggests a trip to the seaside. I like the idea of a cone of chips on the pier but find myself in a quandary. Interest wants to know the basis of the tenancy, what did I say when Doubt first moved in? I struggle to remember. She popped round now and again but it was never meant to be permanent.

When it all feels too much, I go to my parents for the weekend. Mum says I’ve got plenty of room and that I should try and understand why Doubt has turned up now? My dad encourages me to tell her how I feel. Being the child of Openness and Honesty is irritating. I know they’re right. It’s time to square up to the situation, so I ask her to meet me for a drink. The pub is quiet, the atmosphere relaxed. I opt for the house red and I start to wonder if there’s really a problem. Doubt is hesitant but loosens up when I remind her that I’ll always be there for her. I just need some time to remember who I am.

Happy world book day

south riding

World Book Day 6th March “South Riding” – a novel that casts local government as the hero

In celebration of World Book day I’d like to convince you to pick up a novel about local government. I realise it’s a tough ask. If you work in the public sector you may not fancy another dose of harsh reality; and if you don’t you could be among the many mistaken souls who think local government is increasingly irrelevant or even boring.

What also makes it difficult is that there aren’t many books about local government to choose from, and it’s clear many writers, and publishers, prefer the more well-trodden corridors of power in Whitehall, missing the significance and the sharp edges of what my recommended novelist called “world tragedy in embryo”.

“South Riding” by Winifred Holtby is a bold, expansive story that draws you into the life of a whole community at a time of austerity. Local government is “the first line of defence thrown up by the community against our common enemies… poverty, sickness, ignorance and isolation”. The compelling plot includes a darkly motivated public-private scheme and a scandal centred on building on flood plains. It portrays the stark choices to be made about budget cuts and offers brave alternatives such as investing in infrastructure to create jobs, all wrapped up in a tale of dreams, love and death.

And all this was written around 80 years ago, in the long shadow of the First World War. Published posthumously in 1936, the book is still totally relevant, and hasn’t been out of print since. There are great characters, especially the 70-year-old first female Alderman of the County Council (loosely based on Holtby’s mother), the idealistic early feminist teacher and the Machiavellian councillor.

But the magic of the book, and the meat of it, is in the politics. It’s brave enough to show us the complex tangle of motivations behind the public decisions and their unforeseen consequences. Ultimately it has faith in the system to make positive change and its powerful human content, small triumphs and painful tragedies, lift it above any novel about game-playing in Westminster.

The reasons I love this book are the reasons that also motivate me to write. As the first-time author of “Hard Change”, a gritty but optimistic town hall thriller, I used a murder as the driver for similar, but contemporary, dilemmas. Like Holtby, I wanted to use fiction to get underneath the surface of power and politics in its widest sense, and local government allows you to get up close and personal.

I’m also aiming to follow in the footsteps of other great authors who have written about what’s important in difficult times. In the 1940s George Orwell wrote, “In our age there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics…’ All issues are political issues. The idea that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.” I feel the same now. Local government is constantly being undermined and it’s important to me that we generate more stories which explore and make sense of what’s happening, particularly as the range of narratives on offer in the mainstream at the moment is depressingly limited. I know these stories are there. Lots of people have said to me that in local government, “you don’t have to make it up,” but I think we do! There’s so much doom and gloom surrounding the future of local government, and I think we need to fashion some new endings.

Using what I’ve learned from writing “Hard Change”, I’ve developed creative workshops that use story-telling techniques to explore leadership and challenge colleagues to reflect on the endings they want to see. The sessions are about thinking imaginatively and seeing the world differently, about exploring possible directions. Participants have found the sessions highly energising, the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive and alternative stories are emerging.

I’m also keen to hear from other writers – anyone reading this who is interested in writing about public life. Let’s share and support each other to get more stories out there, so that when future World Book Days come around there’ll be a wealth of local government novels to choose from; books that build on the fantastic legacy of “South Riding” and that look to the future.