On bumpy but exciting starts, relationships and complexity
Three and a half years down the line
I can’t quite believe that it has been three and a half years since Platfform was born and a few months more than that since I passionately, but somewhat naively blogged about ‘System Change’ and ‘Calling it out’. A blog which led to me putting my marker firmly in the sand and in me meeting many new friends and activists in the process.
It also succeeded – in equal measure – in motivating and galvanising some, and in alienating and firmly knocking the noses out of joint of others. How to alienate good people who really care – one of many lessons that I have learned since jumping excitedly into the world of ‘system change’. The main lesson being – it is easy to say and a lot, lot harder to do!
We have learned a lot over the last three and a half years. Some of it exhilarating, some of it blindingly obvious once you’ve seen it, and know it; and some of it painful. But – it has all been worth it and our purpose has remained clear:
Who knew that six months after becoming Platfform and embarking on our big ‘transformation and system change’ adventure, we would be thrown into lockdown, and just like everyone else, find ourselves learning to navigate a pandemic, trying our best to keep our own s*** together whilst holding close our friends and families, experiencing loss on a scale and in an environment that we could never have dreamed of; seeing people already having a tough time once again getting the roughest deal, and doing our best to do our jobs as well as we could in the best way possible in the circumstances.
It was a lot!!
Conversations for Change
But, as our report Conversations for Change identified, in the middle of all the absolute awfulness, some good things were happening. System change type things.
Systems are people, nothing more, nothing less, they are designed by, led by, and in the main, done by people.
Charlotte, our Director of Transformation and System Change at the time, led a series of conversations with over 300 people working across housing, health and social care in the public and third sectors. Bringing people together to connect and share, and to understand what was helping to make some of the good stuff happen. We wanted to learn and understand and to see if some of the good things we saw happening could contribute to longer term system change. What were the conditions for system change (code for kindness and offering people what they want and need – not what the ‘system; tells them are their eligible options).
Well – what we heard was that it was about the role power, culture, leadership and values played in organisations and systems. Psychological safety, room to fail, experiment, without fear.
Where the conditions were right, great things happened, people moved away from process, eligibility criteria and did was needed and helpful, human.
Where they didn’t, people retreated, the draw bridge went up and willingness to put yourself out there was absent.
This isn’t really new news, but it laid it bare – and for me it sums up – why well-intentioned change programmes often don’t work; why great legislation, policy and strategy never quite have the impact that was intended. Because a policy on its own doesn’t change things.
Ensuring that the enabling, encouraging and safe conditions that we uncovered in some places (not all places) during Conversations that Change are present, evident and real everywhere – that’s what will do it.
This is why we’re so happy that the Wales Trauma Framework starts to articulate the system-wide challenge of being truly relational and trauma informed. The framework was launched in 2022 and moves into implementation this year, and I think it’s a great first step. It was a pleasure working with Jo and colleagues at ACE Hub Wales, and with Jon and his team at Traumatic Stress Wales – and with all the many people across sectors who have been involved in development of the Framework. It starts to articulate, for the first time, the real change that will come only if we embrace whole-system thinking. It’s a far cry from what we usually see across the public sector. When we say we want ‘change’, all too often what we do is just train or re-train our frontline staff (I hate that term). We expect more from the people already doing the work. We don’t even question if leadership, our organisational culture and our power structures are standing in the way of change. And we don’t ask how these things can instead act as enablers.
We have been talking for some time now about how distress and our mental health are rooted in our life circumstances, and not in disease and pathology. In Wales it feels like this conceptualisation is evolving but it needs a greater focus, more energy and a much more concrete commitment. We need a holistic and social justice approach to mental health, built on an understanding of the impact of poverty, adversity, injustice, and trauma. The social determinants of mental health need to be at the heart of all public policy, successive programmes of Government and the infrastructure needs to be put in place to make this a reality.
And this is why we believe change urgently needs to happen - to bring about an evolution in how we understand and respond to mental health. This is what we are seeking to articulate in our Manifesto launch on 2nd February.
So – building on the 30 plus year history we have of working with people experiencing mental health challenges and in systems designed to offer help and support, from the stories of over 9000 people a year we support and the 300 staff who offer support; based on established and emerging research and evidence (or lack of), we have created our Manifesto for change.
It’s not complete, it probably never will be, but it’s a start and where we think we and others need to start – and it is a call to action for politicians, civil and public servants and people working across helping systems and across sectors.
It is providing focus and motivation for us and I hope it can do the same for at least some of you.
Watch this space.