Dawn Reeves Blog

Magicians, warriors and wise sages – the universal and unique stories of public finance leaders

Alchemists create new stories

Alchemists create new stories

It’s been a great privilege for a storyteller like me to work with the Chartered Institute of Public Finance (CIPFA) as a Writer in Residence. Through the Voices project I’ve been immersed in a complex, challenging world with big numbers and courageous and – sometimes – glamorous public servants who rarely get their moment in the spotlight.

I’ve had the opportunity to look beyond the usual stereotypes, dig out stories that get to the heart of the human condition and tell tales that illustrate the gritty underbelly of the economic and political issues of the day. What’s stood out has been the fantastic, talented and infinitely varied people I’ve met as I’ve done this work.

To give you a flavour of the stories and people, I’m using the writer’s staple of Jungian character archetypes – the sub-conscious patterns or roles we play in society that go beyond personality to deeper character traits. They’re recognisable in all cultures, communities and public sector organisations.

There are alchemists in CIPFA who have the ability to turn stories of scarce resources into positive developments and generate real value. They are magicians who have also changed their own approach to leadership; Sean Pearce’s story of unleashing the power of the balance sheet, Andy Burn’s provocation about turning data into gold and Hamza Yusuf’s thought piece on re-casting old narratives into a pioneering transformative story for local government are all powerful examples.

The Visionaries make visible a deeper reality – and so shape the future. These include Chris Naylor, whose use of insight is driving a new form of organisation in Barking and Dagenham. The transformation of councils as platforms for creative change is envisaged by Leigh Whitehouse, who also talks about S151 officers pushing transformation further and faster. Donna Herdsman’s piece speaks of a world where diversity is mainstreamed and public finance benefits from a much wider pool of talented thinkers.

Amongst these CIPFA members I also recognised the Warrior archetype – the practical enforcers of what is right and those fighting to protect the public purse; George Clarke was a formidable force as a forensic auditor sniffing out fraudsters. There are Wise Sages, brave members highlighting the awkward truths about what we can and cannot afford as a nation. And well-argued pieces on NHS finance from Esther Giles and Bill Shields are well worth a read.

The Everyman character trait came through in Pam Dyson’s human story about pedestals, perfection and performance; none of us are perfect but we get out there and keep on making things work. I also loved the Advocates, in particular a couple of stories revealing CIPFA members as powerful champions of their place; Carole Mills in Milton Keynes and Mark Taylor in Wolverhampton. And busting another stereotype, Chris West is the Jester, demonstrating the importance of warm humour and sharp edges.

The Voices project was designed to increase influence, provoke debate and inform decision-making. The work has resulted in more than thirty articles, stories, blogs and flash fiction collaborations and over a hundred members attending creative thinking and writing workshops at CIPFA conferences – smashing another stereotypical view of dull, uncreative accountants.

These stories show great leadership, potential and opportunities everywhere to make change – and I think the characteristics that come to life in these stories could form an alternative person specification for future leaders.

And of course, the stories and people have influenced me too. Although we are more used to seeing city bankers in novels and films these days, (there’s even a recent successful Ben Affleck film called “The Accountant”) my new novel is probably the only thriller with a public finance chief as one of the main protagonists (more on that shortly!)

Finally a big thank you to all those who’ve contributed to the project and shared their stories, to Drew Cullen for the opportunity and to Saskia Black for all the help at the publishing end. It’s been an inspiring and enriching experience.

To read some of the pieces mentioned see:

http://www.cipfa.org/cipfa-thinks/voices

And more info: dawn@dawnreeves.com

I’m going to make a pilot for a TV series this year … (argghhh)

Proper tv

Public service – stories that matter

How’s this for a (big hairy) New Year goal; I’m going to make a pilot for a TV drama series about local government, a proper one, Borgen meets Wolf Hall/real life politics – like Our friends in the North)

It’s not meant as a boast, it already fills me with an uncomfortable mixture of dread and excitement that wakes me up at night. But I’m making my intention public because I believe in the power of telling stories to make things happen and I believe I’ll be telling a story that matters.

Of course the chances of a first timer getting this type of script produced are slim to say the least – miniscule, really – but life’s too short. There’s no point waiting for a TV executive to suddenly think, “What we need is the next South Riding!” (that’s the series and film based on the 1930s novel by Winifred Holtby with its brilliant depiction of local government in those long ago days.) So I’m going to crowdfund the project, bring people together and have a go. (Expect to hear more on this during the year)

As a writer and facilitator of change in organisations, it feels like the next stage in thinking deliberately about the kind of stories I’m telling – and the way I tell ‘em. I was delighted to read and get a mention in Janet Sillet’s LGIU article on Telling Stories, seeing the photos and links to great novels and priceless TV spurred me on and made me itch to chip in to the debate about great stories and social change.

Over the last three years I’ve facilitated hundreds of public servants (friends and colleagues) to develop their own voice and to structure their stories in a way that I hope helps make change possible. So here are three things I think are vital to telling stories that help change the ending.

Grit and hope
Like many people, I found the political environment in 2016 seriously challenging. But I drew hope from seeing first hand the difference people working in public services make; from writing and hearing stories about small and important interventions in people’s lives and the brave work of managers, policy makers and local councillors behind the scenes. I know dark stories are really popular at the moment, but the sort of stories I’m interested in have both light and shade. The hope comes from experience, not a vague belief that everything is or will be okay. The grit comes from reflecting on the harsh realities of the times we are in. As writer Maria Popova says, “Critical thinking without hope is cynicism, but hope without critical thinking is naivety.” It’s a message for life and great story telling.

Authenticity
The best stories have a specificity and an authenticity about them. They are personal and connect at an emotional level. I think readers or viewers need to have the confidence that the storyteller knows about their world and cares about it, otherwise why would they spend time writing about it and why would people read it? That doesn’t mean all we need are stories that are 100% correct. Stories are always filtered by their writers and readers, but they need to be right enough to allow people to suspend their disbelief.

Mixing it up
There are so many different ways to weave a good yarn. I’ve experimented with fiction, from novels to 350 word short, short stories – flash fiction. I think first person opinion or statements can pack a real punch, while writing in the third person gives a measured distance that gives readers space to think themselves into. In 2016 a publication I worked on focused on visual imagery as much as the text that accompanied it with a series of photographs that illustrated the many, fascinating stories of life in the public sector. We asked people to take “shoesies” (www.dawnreeves.com/walk-tall-fantastic-ebook-is-launched) – pictures of their shoes – and the result powerfully represented the diversity and individuality of the public sector.

It’s about bringing a creative approach and mixing it up. So this year I’ll be exploring TV and I’m doing an evening class in narrative poetry. Who knows what a narrative poem about public services could be like – and if anyone will read it? My aim is to keep telling stories that matter in different ways with different endings.

To get a real sense of what I mean here are three stories – a fictional story dealing with a youth offending team, a metaphorical story about austerity and a frontline story of key workers in Wigan.
Let me know what you think.

Still walking tall

Still walking tall

Flash fiction

(Light) bulb moment

Sue Hawkins, Psychologist, Youth Offending Team, Children and Young People’s Psychology Service, Stockport Council (in collaboration with Dawn Reeves)

“It was only a sandwich from Boots. I was hungry.”
Dirty nails scratch the corner of the table. Slowly she lowers her cheek onto the birch-wood desk.
“Please don’t tell me off.”
The brash teenager disappears and a six-year-old girl looks up at me, sleepy, pleading. The file says: young offender, homeless, violent boyfriend.
“Are you hungry now?”
This morning’s headache travels down the back of my neck, through my shoulders and into my chest. In her 17 years, not one agency has heard her story, a pitch-black history of neglect, physical and sexual abuse.
“We can see what they’ve got in the machine if you like?”
*
“In biology once, we did this experiment where we planted bulbs. One we put on a windowsill and the other stayed in a dark cupboard.”
She’s a visual kid.
“You were the bulb in the cupboard, weren’t you?”
“Yeah I was, wasn’t I?” Her surprised smile says, ‘You nailed it, Miss.’
“And what happened?”
“Course the bulb on the window was the best.”
“And the one in the dark?”
“Well,” she pauses. “Just about poked its head through the soil.”
“The capacity to grow is inside the bulb, even if it’s not in a good place. We all need the right environment. And a bit of watering, now and again.”
The girl tips her head back on her neck to look through the high window in the meeting room.
“Straining for the light. Wasn’t I?”
*
My fully teenage client says, “I need a job.”
“Sounds good. What sort of job?”
“Do you think I could work in a nursery?” Her eyebrows are raised, her gaze questioning.
“Tending plants?”
“Ha!” We both laugh more in the sessions now.
“No, I meant with little ones?”
The bulb has been in good, nurturing soil for a year now, watered with compassion and fed with empathy. And now she wants to pass that experience on.
“And I could buy my own sandwiches.”
I take her to a local café.
“This one’s on me.”

Flash Fiction

The mother of invention

Andy Burns, Director of Finance and Resources, Staffordshire County Council (in collaboration with Dawn Reeves)

Necessity sits at the kitchen table, head unusually heavy, shoulders slumped. If she’s said it once, she’s said it a hundred times… “It’s time to leave home.” In the lounge the daughter, headphones in, finger flicking across a tablet. The son, a grown man, football kit dumped on the floor, sprawls half-asleep, half-watching TV.
Am I a bad mother? All I want is for them to be happy, healthy, do their own thing, whatever that turns out to be. They’ve seen what it’s been like the last few years. We’ve got by, but it hasn’t been easy. “Treat us like adults,” they say. Well that’s all I’m trying to do now.
They’re just like me those kids. Creative and resourceful, they don’t want to be dependent on their parents. But then again, maybe I haven’t exactly helped matters, always being there for them, happy to be the provider. Necessity bends down to pick up a smelly sock, wondering why she’s still doing that.
No good reminding them they’re clinging to something they don’t actually want anymore. It’s in one ear, out the other. Yeah, yeah, whatever. Better to remind them how they felt coming back from that festival, confident, walking taller somehow. And maybe take a leaf out their gran’s book. She wanted to be in her home right to the end – and she was.
It’s scary to fly the nest, she knows that. Life’s hard and expensive. It would be good to wrap the parental arm around and say everything will be OK, but realistically they aren’t going to have their own bedroom to come back to anymore. At least not permanently. When they are in a jam, yes, of course, always. But still it weighs heavily.
Necessity puts the kettle on. The strong tea revives her. Let them complain it’s not fair, she thinks. We live in a democracy. That’s the way it is. Deep down they know it’s time to stand on their own two feet and do things differently. And I need to sort myself out as much as they do, so I can help them when they really need me, not just because it’s what I’ve always done.
Switching off the TV, Necessity stands before them. “Look kids,” she says, “it’s time to get real.”

Andy Burns, Director of Finance and Resources, Staffordshire County Council (in collaboration with Dawn Reeves)

We asked people to take selfies of their shoes - fabulously diverse and individual We asked people to take selfies of their shoes – fabulously diverse and individual[/caption]

Still walking tall

Still walking tall

Creativity boost – 1 day course to develop creative thinking at work

Creativity-in-PR1

Creativity boost:1 day course to develop creative thinking at work

I’m running this course on Wednesday 28th September in London – why not come along?

It’s designed to help you….

• get creative quickly – continue to think creatively, and support others to do the same
• develop fresh perspectives on sticky issues
• generate ideas, make space and shift mindsets
• build confidence in yourself and others to experiment and explore

How it works

• don’t worry if you think you aren’t creative – creativity is a muscle we can help you find and stretch
• our approach is collaborative, practical and energy boosting – it’s a safe space to try new things
• we break the creative process down into easy steps and share everyday practices to use at work and…
• we work on real organisational challenges and opportunities using different creative techniques

The takeaways…

• new skills and techniques to aid flexibility
• creative ways to support change and be fearless
• solutions and ideas to meet your organisations goals and outcomes
• increased confidence from stepping outside your comfort zone and… new ways to inspire and motivate yourself and others

Practicalities

Wednesday 28th September 11am-4pm
• It’s for: anyone who’s interested, all you need is a spirit of curiosity and an open mind
• Venue: Islington Ecology Centre, Gillespie Park, London N5 1PH – 2 mins from Arsenal tube
• Cost: £195 – if you are self-funding let me know
• Contact dawn@dawnreeves.com to book

Walk Tall – fantastic ebook is launched

We asked people to take selfies of their shoes - fabulously diverse and individual

We asked people to take selfies of their shoes – fabulously diverse and individual

Walk Tall: Being a 21st Century Public Servant was launched in Birmingham on Friday. It’s a great creative step for me and our fourth book. We’re really chuffed. Over the last 4 months I’ve been working with Fran Collingham and Lisa Hughes – on this fantastic commission for the Local Government Association, SOLACE – the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and the PPMA (the HR and OD people managers association for the public sector). We’ve also commissioned photography for the first time from Maurice Keogh, and worked again with designer Kate Ferrucci.

Download the ebook for free at the Local Government Association Website:

Our challenge was to write and facilitate compelling stories that illustrate the experience of being a 21st century public servant and that inspire people working in or with the public sector to develop the characteristics of this new breed. The stories are a positive reminder that, in the post-Brexit world, that the sector employs people who are already creating original solutions to complex issues. Their deeply held values, positivity, flexibility, progressive attitudes and fresh thinking jump off the page. The book illustrates why I’m proud of public service in the UK and why I continue to support and write about it.

Each chapter of the book focuses on one of the characteristics identified in the research on the 21st century public servant carried out by Birmingham University. Each story brings a characteristic to life, shining a light on what it means in practice, in real workplaces across the country. The contents are an intriguing mix of personal narratives, profiles, opinions and short fiction. We wanted to reflect the diversity of what is happening across the sector and invited as many storytellers as we could into print, encouraging people to write their own stories.

The book includes a reflective piece by Sue Hawkins, a psychologist in the Youth Offending team at Stockport Council, on fostering a shared humanity with the young people she works with; a gritty and immensely practical frontline view from Lindsay Saunders and Heather Brown, local government Key Workers based in a police station in Wigan, focusing on their relationship with their locality; and Ian Lloyd, Transformation Manager for the Isle of Wight Council, on how communicating change to citizens is central to his creative thinking in response to austerity. There is also a sideways take on pan-public sector leadership by Mark Rogers, Chief Executive of Birmingham City Council. In times of upheaval it can be tempting to fall back on traditional, hero-style leadership, but these stories show how collaborative and distributed leadership can make a significant difference.

Although we know the book doesn’t scratch the surface in terms of the range and depth of the contributions public servants make, we are delighted that 65 people from 25 organisations have taken part including colleagues in local government, the NHS and the Fire and Rescue Service, as well as – in today’s mixed economy of service provision – public servants working in voluntary and private sector providers.
Serving communities and improving people’s lives is a driving force and clear motivator for all our contributors, and public service is at the heart of every story.

As the leader of the team that curated the book (and a former corporate director in local government), it’s been a creative and inspiring experience. In the same spirit, we hope that everyone who reads it will use the book creatively and – importantly – will pass it on to colleagues. We believe that by changing the story, you change the workforce, the organisation and the sector. This storybook is bold and the people in it are fantastic. They are the ones who will stitch the post-Brexit world together.

There's a fab guide dog in it too!

There’s a fab guide dog in it too!

Gold, Japan and FC United – intentions for 2016

Gold, Japan and FC United – not resolutions but intentions for 2016

2016 is going to be a year of facilitation, writing and travel. Lucky me to be able to do what I love and to do it with inspiring people. When I meet people and the vibes are good, I lean in and find a reason to work together. My first intention is to do more of this.

It’s like that with CIPFA – The Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy – where I’m the Writer in Residence. CIPFA might not sound that glamorous but they’ve been amazingly supportive and open to thinking differently – how many organisations have a creative writer on board? It’s bold and I’ve been chuffed to help their members to develop their voice, influence and get published.

It’s also another way of continuing my on-going theme to “change the ending” – developing positive new narratives for the public sector. The articles and stories recognise where we are (public finances continue to be cut) and shed light on opportunities, possibilities, hidden realities and alternative perspectives.

So this first week back I’ve been thinking about prospecting for gold. Andy Burns –(@CFOstaffscc) – big thinker and great collaborator, sees Gold in Data. It’s an idea that became an article and with input from provocateur and tech guru Martin Sadler (@MartinJSadler) is becoming a wider creative conversation that I’ll be facilitating in Feb (see below.) I’m working with interesting, can-do people, I get to learn and experiment and we hope the result will be a new seam of resource for public services. Of course we’re prospecting so who knows….

In 2016 I’ll also be developing some new facilitation techniques – it’s easy to fall back on what you know works but I like to stretch myself and the groups I work with. It keeps the process fresh, curiosity and creativity high. I had the opportunity to introduce some new exercises in the summer last year at UCL facilitating a dynamic cross cultural multi-disciplinary group representing universities from the UK and Japan. Part of the RENKEI programme, their task was to generate new ideas for social enterprises that tackle inter-generational fairness – a tough ask for any group.

The facilitation exercises had surprising and sometimes moving results. Members of the group co-wrote and performed stories about… a dying fathers’ regret at the lack of communication with his son, a young girl who turned a toxic jelly fish into a mobile phone charger and one story imagined Sir John Soanes time-travelling to share his curiosity and hunger for change.

The group developed great commitment to each other and their task. This year the programme continues in Osaka, it’s a gift to work on. We’ll be focusing on turning ideas into reality and it’s my aim to learn a bit of Japanese.

My final intention is to finish my second novel this year – deep breath – it’s taken three years so far. I like to see writing as a collaborative process (too much sitting still in front of my computer makes me go stir crazy) and so invite people to share their ideas and insights around the themes in my writing. It’s incredibility supportive and I treat the feedback as gold-dust. One outcome of this is that I’ll be heading to Manchester shortly to watch FC United play North Ferribly United in the National League North with Jayne Stephenson (@JayneStephenso1) as inspiring an accountant as you’ll ever meet! I’m following my nose to fan owned football clubs, where the Council has supported their development and people have taken their destiny and that of their club in their hands. I’ll be hoping for a win and that it will help me with the end of the book. All good stuff eh!

Setting out intentions works for me. I prefer it to new years’ resolutions which often feel negative and are usually impossible to achieve. My intentions make me excited about what next. How about you?

there's gold in our data!

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.”

2015-07-24 11.43.11

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…