Last week LGiU’s Janet Sillett wrote an excellent article about how local government has been portrayed in fiction.
Do these fictional representations accurately reflect the reality of local government and do they influence the way that people feel about local government either positively or negatively? Dawn Reeves is a facilitator and trainer working largely with public sector clients. For the past few years she has been interested in changing the narrative about the public sector, exploring creative ways to tell the real stories from the local government and other public services. She explains the importance of giving voice to those stories and shares some of them below.
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.
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 – minuscule, 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.
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 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.
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 per cent 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 – Walk Tall – 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” – 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.
(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.
“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.”
It’s a conversation
Lindsay Saunders and Heather Brown, Key Workers, Live Well Team, Wigan Council
We try not to refer on. We had an example of a client who’d been referred to more than 30 different officers. They were sent round and round the system and were totally disengaged. Where some services have a ‘three strikes and your case is closed’ approach, we keep trying. It’s hard to say exactly how long we keep trying, but it’s very rare we give up on someone
As key workers, mostly what we do is support people with mental health or drugs and alcohol problems. That said, whatever the issue is we’ll tackle it. Because we’re not attached to one service we have flexibility to focus on what the person needs. It’s true integrated neighbourhood working.
Being based in the police station really helps as we pick up and share information as much as we can. We work closely with the local surgery and the GPs listen to us, because we’ve got trusted relationships with the people we’re supporting.
We’ve massively reduced the number of missed appointments and the numbers of police callouts to the same addresses. Often we can avoid the need for specialist interventions by providing real empathy, support and building confidence, so people can do small things to help themselves. It has a big impact. We use the Chaos Index Tool to log decreased risk and behaviour changes.
People can open up to us, because we’re on the ground and we’re not hiding behind a uniform. We advocate and challenge services when we need to. We are ‘take us as you find us’ types and people recognise that we’re local, too.
Using motivational interviewing skills also helps. It’s a different type of conversation. When one client said, “I’m not good at anything,” we were at her home and could see she’d got an interest in arts and crafts, and was actually dead good. We helped her join a group and now she’s volunteering.
We’re proud of the whole team. We’re already growing, bringing in domestic violence workers and community health nurses who are dual-trained. For every £1 that’s spent on our service we save the public purse roughly £2.50.
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.”