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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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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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 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.


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


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.


A different story about welfare – connected, collaborative and a catalyst for change

Cloudesley Awayday - Trustee photo 1

One of the most urgent and important stories we need to turn around in the UK is welfare. Welfare has come to mean woe. It’s a negative tale of doom, gloom and despair with the dominant public narratives pitting the deserving poor (and their helplessness) against the undeserving (who the media feel its right to blame and vilify.) The mainstream story has the rest of us (fortunate enough not to be in the grip of serious hardship) on the sidelines, also feeling pretty helpless. It makes me angry when it’s suggested that it’s all about cuts, austerity and that as a country, even if we wanted to… we can’t afford to help. We don’t want to believe that people, and increasingly working people, need to go to a food bank in this day and age but what can we do?

So, here’s a different story, one in which a plucky but shy charity recognises the critical level of need in our communities, learns how to provide relief and assistance to individuals, families and local groups – and gets on and does it. I’m a proud trustee of a permanently endowed foundation, www.richardclousleycharity.co.uk we’re in the lucky position of benefitting from the will of a 15th century highly dubious character who bequeathed a stony field for the benefit of the poor and the sick of the Borough of Islington (and many of its churches).

In itself it’s a quirky tale – 500 years later, the stony field is one of the most expensive pieces of land in London and throws off an income that comes without strings and that we trustees try to use to make the most impact we can.  As we’ve been around awhile, we’re able to build on great relationships between other foundations, key organisations providing services to vulnerable people and a vibrant bunch of community groups in the Borough. (Big thanks as always to our partners and friends). We decided to review what we were doing and have a year of learning, giving lots of small grants to local groups (£5-£10k) to give out up to £500 to individuals in need. Disbursed grant giving through trusted partners isn’t new, but here are some of the things we’ve learned and tried to do differently:

Connected – we focus on the relationships

We’ve trusted local groups to know what the individuals they work with need. We don’t know their stories, they do. But in order to make sure the money gets used for the most impact, we’ve had to build trust a deeper level of trust with the groups, to let them work out their own governance arrangements around the money and not bombard them with monitoring. We try to keep the infrastructure light and use what’s already there, and we’ve given money to develop relationships, pay for people’s time and support capacity building.

It’s a dynamic and hyper-local approach. We aim to add value to the positive work being done by the LB Islington and other statutory agencies, spot the gaps and fill them. In such a fast changing situation, with government funding slashed and only a year left of our Council local Residents Support Scheme, we can only tackle need together and this can only be done if our relationships are strong.

Catalyst – understanding root causes

It’s about unlocking (sometimes hidden) blockages that stop people solving the problems that put them in situations of hardship. We wanted our groups to be able to do what was needed most. When we reflected on what this meant in practice, we decided to remove all restrictions on funding. This is challenging, for example in the past we wouldn’t have paid for support for people to get a passport as they can easily be sold, but we’ve learned that what will make the difference to people’s lives, that’s what matters. We’ve paid for people to get licenses to work in the security industry, its low paid work but a vital first step. Translation services, debt relief orders, paying for medical reports and train fares – for e.g. an asylum seeker had to go to from London to Liverpool for a hearing (!) – all these things have made progress possible.

It’s not so different from 500 years ago when Cloudesley himself took clothes into debtor’s prisons to provide people with assistance to get on with their lives. And although we may be old, in some respects we can move quickly – these days it is about speed in a crisis. Now ours funders can be faced with a family turning up on their doorstep with nothing and are able to respond immediately, be it giving a volunteer cash to go with the individual to buy a coat or emergency food supplies to cover the weekend.

Collaborative – facilitating the dialogue

It annoys me that collaboration is so under-valued as a way of meeting need. It’s often the first thing that gets cuts and yet without it, the danger is that you waste resources and are working in the dark. We’ve worked hard to build connections and facilitate dialogue. Where many networks are disappearing, we’ve facilitated our local partners to come together and learn from each other – as well as us learning from them. Our partners have also taken their level of collaboration further, asking us if it’s ok to pass on grants between themselves where it’s made most sense to help the individual. We’ve also experimented with supporting new groups to give out grants so that we reach into not so well connected communities and got them involved with the dialogue. And we are sharing / learning from each other on the bigger picture what’s happening with government welfare reforms and how we can mobilise locally, really get our act together to plan for the future to tackle hardship.

The initial signs for our learning year are good. The practical results are encouraging.  Richard Cloudesley was a complex character (rum old bugger) purportedly racked with guilt over committing a murder himself and wanting to pave his way into heaven but he chose to help those who needed it most and in different ways. Like Cloudesley we recognise that welfare isn’t about woe, it’s about “alleviate the suffering or assisting the recovery of such persons in such cases that are not readily available to them from other sources,” (in the words of the charities scheme.) Of course we’re scratching the surface, we can’t meet all need (and we need the government to get real) but I think the new approach helps to tell a different story about welfare – one where we support individuals to change their own lives, it can happen, and fits well with Cloudesleys’ intentions.

(p.s. these views are mine as leader of the Welfare Review, not the full Board of Trustees)


Why i write – another mystery?

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Writing a book is a horrible exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”

 Reading this sentence in George Orwell’s fantastic book “Why I Write,” made me feel like I wasn’t going mad and taking too many Ibruprofens. At times during the process of writing “Hard Change” I had cramp in my shoulders and hands, and regular headaches from sitting at my computer for so long. I also slept badly at some points, waking up at 3am with exciting ideas that, come the morning, seemed somewhat bizarre and not really that helpful. Now I’m writing book two I’m in a period of painful fluidity, the exhausting struggle is on me and I’m suffering from pangs of doubt. How on earth is this going to come together and will it say what I want it to say?

 Yet I’m totally telling the truth when I say that I loved the process of writing my first book. I imagine it’s similar to that old saying about giving birth – you forget how bad the pain is as soon as the baby arrives or else you’d never do it again. Obviously childbirth is much more painful, but writing a novel can take years.

 I’ve used Orwell’s ideas to delve a bit deeper into what the demon is that drives me on and, although if you know me and my writing you’ll think the answer is obvious (it says on the front of “Hard Change” that it’s a political thriller), what I’ve found is that it’s more nuanced than that and, like the characters we writers create, it’s never black or white.

 So, not including the desire/need to make a living, Orwell gives four main motives for writing which could explain the “why would you put yourself through this” mystery.

 1. Firstly, sheer egotism, which includes the desire to seem clever. This is something I recognised, but probably haven’t always admitted to, especially in public. As a kid I always wanted to be a tap dancer on a cruise ship and have subsequently spent much of my adult life driven by a desire not to be seen as fluff. Becoming a writer has been part of that journey, although I’ve not lost my love of sequin dresses and glamorous foreign destinations.

 2. Secondly is an aesthetic enthusiasm – the perception of beauty in the world and the love of the arrangements of words. Whilst I love reading, poetry and dance (in fact most creative art forms engage me in one way or another), aesthetics are only part of my motive. I love it when I write a great metaphor or turn of phrase that really illustrates what I mean in a different or deeper way. However, on balance I’m more about telling the story, and I trust that, by developing my creativity and seeing the world from a unique point (as we all do), I make it above Orwell’s level of writing a utilitarian railway guide.

 3. The third motive that Orwell headlines is an historical Impulse. It has two aspects: the historical aspect of collecting evidence and truths (which doesn’t generate many sparks for me), and the idea of wanting to see and portray things as you see them, and set that down for posterity (which does.) “Hard Change” definitely has elements of this. I wanted to tell a story of public life as I saw it, especially as I see it changing and being under threat.

 4. So to the heart of why I write… politics, in its widest sense. Like Orwell (did I really say that!) I think I’m a pamphleteer; someone who has views, ideas and opinions about how I want the world to be. I think it will be my life’s work to write about the politics of life and power, of decision-making, money and agency (rather than party politics) in an exciting and engaging way.

 Writing in the 1940s Orwell says, “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.

 In my day job I’m a local government consultant, so I work with leaders in the public sector, helping them find ways to meet their public service remit in challenging operating conditions. I am personally committed to the public sector and I knew I wanted to find a way to tell its story. I didn’t want to whitewash its flaws and failures, but I did explicitly set out to give some space to its triumphs. If you like, I tasked myself with casting the public sector itself as the hero of my story, because I felt few people were doing that and because I believed it deserved it.

 Orwell says, “Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” I agree – and that’s why I had to write fiction, not journalism. Fiction is a powerful and compelling way to test out what’s important, what we are, and what we might become.

Five myths about local government – and why we believe them at our peril

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Myths about local government abound and I’m sure you have your favourite. But I believe it’s time to seriously debunk those myths. Firstly because they’re not true and, secondly, if they were, the crisis would clearly be even worse than the myth-purveyors would have us believe.

1. Local government is full of fat cats

Let’s start with the one about the dream job for life. In this myth, council managers are paid exorbitantly, clock off by 4.30pm (3pm on a Friday) and sit around counting down the days until they can draw their gold-plated pensions. Of course, if they were any good they’d be working in the private sector anyway.

In fact, if there ever was any fat it was undoubtedly trimmed long ago. In my experience, with the heavy lifting of complex change, constant juggling and routine long hours, the vast majority of council managers don’t need to go on a diet.

If their jobs were really so attractive, surely arrogant City-types would be queuing up outside town halls and pestering recruitment agencies to get them onto interview shortlists pronto? Imagine the damage bankers’ ethics might do in a debate on vulnerable people? 

2. The council says ‘no’

Next is the myth of the council enforcers, the local government staff whose sole aim in life is stop you from doing what you want. Apparently health and safety, trading standards and licensing departments around the country are stuffed full of them.

Many people think they should have the right to do anything they like to their own property, but what if an oligarch moves in next door, excavates the basement and adds a few extra storeys, or a concrete factory buys the land opposite?

Rules, including planning regulations, exist for the benefit of the whole community, and when its’ staff enforce them, the council is attempting to balance the needs of everyone. Without them we risk toxic fly-tipping, more pre-loaded teenagers splayed on the pavement outside your local offie and a few dismembered limbs on the factory floor.

 3. They just want to take your kids away

In this golden oldie – an exemplary example of demonisation – social workers have no common sense, refuse to see the child is always better off with its own family, and should give over with this PC nonsense.

Without doubt, recent prosecutions and public enquiries into shocking, high-profile cases have shown that the systems need urgent attention. Mistakes are made, sometimes with desperately tragic consequences. Social workers are dammed if they do and dammed if they don’t, and of course it would be very helpful if they could develop the supernatural ability to predict who is about to neglect or harm a child, but while we’re waiting for that to happen perhaps we could recognise and debate the pressures they’re under? If we don’t, the human tragedies will continue to mount.

 4. Councillors are self-serving fools

Then we come to the widely held but false belief that anyone could do a better job of running our cities than the current crop of councillors, who seem happy, nay keen, to close down libraries, nurseries and swimming pools just as long as they get their photo in the paper.

 Well, if that’s all there is to it maybe we could get a celebrity in to tell us how to do it and a few volunteers to run the thing? But the celebrity will only stick around as the cameras flash, expecting a teaching assistant’s annual salary as an appearance fee, while the volunteers do have mortgages to pay, you know, and unfortunately can’t commit the time today.

 However much you like the sound of your own voice, being a councillor is a pretty tough – and thankless – role. People stand for election for a whole range of reasons, but at heart all of them must have some notion of public service, otherwise it just doesn’t compute. In reality, councillors up and down the country don’t make such a bad job of it, despite the difficult circumstances, but if you think yours isn’t up to scratch you know what you can do – get involved, vote or even stand against them at the next election.

 5. Local government is just unnecessary

Finally, the biggest myth of all is that private sector companies should be delivering council services – only the ones we really need, like rubbish collection, of course – right across the board, because they can do it far more efficiently and cost-effectively. In this scenario, we don’t need local democracy, just someone to hand out and sign off the contracts once every three years.

 I believe a mixed economy of service provision can and does work, but there are also many well-documented examples of high-profile (naming no names) companies screwing it up on a grand scale. And with no local accountability, follow this myth to its logical conclusion and you end up in inner-city Detroit, the outskirts of Lagos or rural Turkey – destinations where there is quite simply no functioning state.

 And in case you think that idea has something going for it, these are places where you pay for everything yourself, trusting to luck that enough of you have enough money to create a market in which someone is willing to provide transport, education, social care and so on. Forget any sense of building community or rule of law, start building a big wall around your home

 In truth, I’m not interested in romanticising local government and I know all too well that the real stories don’t always have perfect happy endings, but I’m interested in celebrating the many talented people who choose to work in the public sector, telling the tales of what they can and do achieve, and challenging those tired old myths. I believe that our lives and the lives of our communities could depend on it.