Stories of Relationship & Transformation

Hillary Cottan, a social worker, tells us a wonderful story of transformation and services based on relationship. A story that starts in the moment she inverted a ratio that forced the social workers to spend more than 80 percent of their work in serving the social system and not the families. A story that starts in the moment the people/clients are considered to be the experts of their lifes and self-responsible in their decisions. A story that starts in the moment people/clients are not longer data provider for expert systems but equal partners in a relationship. These are in our experience also the bedrock stories for companies where people are forced to spend 80% of their workforce in the reporting process, and change initiatives where the management of processes kills the relationships they rely on.

Here is an extract worth reading:

Well, the first thing I learned is that cost is a really slippery concept. Because when the government says that a family like Ella’s costs a quarter of a million pounds a year to manage, what it really means is that this system costs a quarter of a million pounds a year. Because not one penny of this money actually touches Ella’s family in a way that makes a difference. Instead, the system is just like this costly gyroscope that spins around the families, keeping them stuck at its heart, exactly where they are. 

And I also spent time with the frontline workers, and I learned that it is an impossible situation. So Tom, who is the social worker for Ella’s 14-year-old son Ryan, has to spend 86 percent of his time servicing the system: meetings with colleagues, filling out forms, more meetings with colleagues to discuss the forms, and maybe most shockingly, the 14 percent of the time he has to be with Ryan is spent getting data and information for the system. So he says to Ryan, „How often have you been smoking? Have you been drinking? When did you go to school?“ And this kind of interaction rules out the possibility of a normal conversation. It rules out the possibility of what’s needed to build a relationship between Tom and Ryan.

So in a really brave step, the leaders of the city where Ella lives agreed that we could start by reversing Ryan’s ratio. So everyone who came into contact with Ella or a family like Ella’s would spend 80 percent of their time working with the families and only 20 percent servicing the system. And even more radically, the families would lead and they would decide who was in a best position to help them. So Ella and another mother were asked to be part of an interview panel, to choose from amongst the existing professionals who would work with them. And many, many people wanted to join us, because you don’t go into this kind of work to manage a system, you go in because you can and you want to make a difference.

So Ella and the mother asked everybody who came through the door, „What will you do when my son starts kicking me?“ And so the first person who comes in says, „Well, I’ll look around for the nearest exit and I will back out very slowly, and if the noise is still going on, I’ll call my supervisor.“ And the mothers go, „You’re the system. Get out of here!“ And then the next person who comes is a policeman, and he says, „Well, I’ll tackle your son to the ground and then I’m not sure what I’ll do.“ And the mothers say, „Thank you.“ So, they chose professionals who confessed they didn’t necessarily have the answers, who said — well, they weren’t going to talk in jargon. They showed their human qualities and convinced the mothers that they would stick with them through thick and thin, even though they wouldn’t be soft with them.

So these new teams and the families were then given a sliver of the former budget, but they could spend the money in any way they chose. And so one of the families went out for supper. They went to McDonald’s and they sat down and they talked and they listened for the first time in a long time. Another family asked the team if they would help them do up their home. And one mother took the money and she used it as a float to start a social enterprise.

And in a really short space of time, something new started to grow: a relationship between the team and the workers. And then some remarkable changes took place. Maybe it’s not surprising that the journey for Ella has had some big steps backwards as well as forwards. But today, she’s completed an IT training course, she has her first paid job, her children are back in school, and the neighbours, who previously just hoped this family would be moved anywhere except next door to them, are fine. They’ve made some new friendships. And all the same people have been involved in this transformation — same families, same workers. But the relationship between them has been supported to change.


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