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Three key insights for being an effective learning and support partner

By Rachelle Angeline
Published 1 August 2022

In July 2021 the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) announced the 15 areas that were successful in their application for funding to the Changing Futures programme, a three year, £64million initiative testing innovative approaches to improving outcomes for adults experiencing multiple disadvantage.  

Multiple disadvantage is defined as people experiencing a combination of three or more of mental ill health, substance misuse, domestic abuse, involvement with criminal justice and homelessness. Many people experiencing multiple disadvantage fall through the gaps of existing services and are unable to access the right support when they need it most. The Fulfilling Lives report More than a roof – Addressing homelessness with people experiencing multiple disadvantage reveals that “zero tolerance policies on drugs and alcohol in hostels and other accommodation can lead to people with addictions being evicted” and that “being evicted from a tenancy reduces the likelihood that someone will improve their levels of homelessness or rough sleeping”. Changing Futures builds on the learning from Fulfilling Lives and Making Every Adult Matter (MEAM) that intends to change the system to support these adults, enabling people to access the right support when they need it most. 

Social Finance has been commissioned, alongside our partners Revolving Doors, to be the Area Learning and Support Provider for the programme. Our joint team has provided support, advice, and training on a number of themes including co-production, systems change, data and digital, and commissioning. We also play a role in supporting DLUHC through feeding up learning from local areas and reflecting on programme learning as they consider the implications for future policy related to multiple disadvantage.

Here are the details of our role and some initial reflections on designing and delivering this support.

Our role

Three key aims underpin our approach to supporting areas:

  • creating reflective, open spaces where we can help areas test their assumptions and ‘lift their gaze’ beyond the day-to-day of programme implementation;
  • being a conduit of ideas, solutions and resources between areas to support programme delivery;
  • drawing on the deep experience across Social Finance and Revolving Doors in addressing complex social issues.

Map of England with the 15 areas highlighted

The 15 Changing Futures areas.

We are in effect a ‘learning partner’ and our role is evolving all the time. Whilst we support areas to deliver their plans and learn and reflect on what is or isn’t working, we are deepening our understanding about how to deliver systems change programmes. In doing so, we help areas feel confident in taking a ‘test and adapt’ approach, we anticipate and prepare for perceived failure, and ensure this programme’s learning overall can lead to continued efforts to bring about systems change for those experiencing multiple disadvantage.

What have we learnt from being a support partner?

1. Provide a balance between strategic decisions and operational thinking
Each member of our support team acts as the Area Support Lead for three or four areas, with the support offer modelled after a light-touch learning partner. We regularly meet with the core programme team from the area, and in some instances, we also attend operational or strategic board meetings, design and facilitate workshops with wider partnership members.

The value of our local support was recently described by one area Programme Lead as “being able to navigate the void between operational thinking and strategic decision-making”. We often “prod and poke” areas to think more deeply about their delivery plans from angles they often are not able to due to capacity or because of their own ‘blind spots’.

For example, some recent conversations have  focused on helping leads to consider how the resources available and their programmatic activities relate to their vision, how they can continue to build and maintain momentum, and how they can leverage expertise from other Changing Futures areas. Our role in supporting all areas, whilst leveraging external knowledge, means we bring an outside perspective to areas and ideas that they may otherwise miss. We act as a constant reminder to ensure all voices have power and can shape what comes next.

2. Designing a systems change support offer needs to be flexible
We launched our support with an initial version of Living Learning Agenda which we later adapted six months into the programme. More recently, we’ve identified newer opportunities for learning which we are looking to add to our Learning Agenda during the remainder of our support period.

Changing systems is a long and challenging process. The pace of this process as well as the strengths and weaknesses systems have to offer will differ area to area. As we got to know the areas, the teams, and their initial plans, we were able to revise our assessment of the support required. This meant we were able to pitch resources at the right level, not under or over-estimating their understanding of key concepts, whilst also allowing us to sequence resources in a way that built on their growing knowledge in a logical way.

Naturally, some areas had more experience than others having previously been part of MEAM, Fulfilling Lives or other systems change work. Knowing where strengths existed across the programme meant we could leverage these areas as examples of best or emerging practice within our resources.

In setting up the Changing Futures programme at a national and local level, it is important to note that no one wanted to start from scratch. Indeed, this programme enabled us to see how work to date could continue but with an increased accountability from the statutory sector in understanding their role in supporting people across the system.  

As much as it is important for areas working on systems change to be adaptable to the changing complex circumstances, it’s also important for any Support and Learning Provider to be flexible. In asking areas to be open to anticipating failure, and adapting their approach as they learn, we have also had to be open to change, setback and adaptation. Listening closely to what areas have needed from us over the last 12 months has seen us update the content, mode of delivery and structure of our offer more than once.

3. Harness the power of peer learning to overcome resource constraints
In setting up Communities of Practice (COPs) and other workshops, we quickly realised the time constraints of the teams we were working with in each area. Our engagement is closest with the key named leads in each area – the Programme Lead, Systems Change Lead, Data and Digital Lead, Lived Experience Lead and Senior Responsible Officer. We found that due to the scale and complexity involved, the Programme Lead juggles many responsibilities and workstreams. Holding this complexity together is a huge undertaking.

It was important to find the right balance in 1-1 support as each area’s team has varying capacity to prioritise engagement with members of our support team. We have therefore had to be sympathetic to these constraints in considering when to step in and when to hold back from intensifying our support. There was no one-size-fits-all approach, some areas’ engagement with our learning offer has ebbed and flowed and we have recognised that this is part of the natural rhythm of the programme.
 
This is where we can leverage the value of COPs, peer-to-peer discussions and networking to problem solve and provide the opportunity for area leads to ask direct questions. Despite the range in intensity of support, our role is to always to make sure we spot and communicate both risks and opportunities we see in area plans, so that the leads have an opportunity to take these on board. The variety of ways in which areas can access support means there should always be a route via which they can engage should they require it.

What’s coming next

In our next blog we reflect initiatives and best practice to measure impact for learning in complex systems and how this can be used to influence the wider system.

If you’re interested in finding out more about this project or how we can support you, please reach out to Rachelle, Programme Lead, Changing Futures Areas Support and Learning Provider Team – rachelle.angeline@socialfinance.org.uk

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