On Calling It Out

Orange lighthouse

I got into a bit of bother on Twitter recently.  It has led to many conversations and quite a lot of pondering.  This is where I’m at and where it came from.

I was invited to join a panel at the Cymorth Cymru annual conference. Pleasingly for me the focus was ‘System Change’.  Perfect, that’s what we need right?  That and transformation are the words of the season.

They asked me to be ‘challenging’ – absolute heaven for me.   So of course I said yes.

Me, Tamsin Stirling (a woman of many words), Charlotte Waite (an activist and super compassionate change maker) and Pat McArdle (a cool as f@*k revolutionary) did our thing.  I felt very lucky to be sitting alongside such amazing bravery, insight and experience. I talked about the sector needing to be more punk; that we are complicit in supporting unethical and toxic systems if we sell ourselves to work in them, that we have a choice to be ethical – and a choice not to be. I said that we need to call ourselves and others out if we are to affect real change.   I swore a bit, it was great!!

As is often the case it was followed by a bit of a twitter love in.  I was fuelled up, buoyed by the experience, over excited, and by ten in the evening a little tipsy.  I was loving the on line interaction; and then I dropped what for some was clearly a clanger.  We entered the drama triangle.

The conversations I have had since have been varied and fascinating. We are definitely not united in what ‘calling it out’ means, or even if we should be ‘calling it out’ at all.

The ‘clanger’ involved me questioning our collective integrity – the way we sometimes operate, do our business, run our organisations, deliver our services, and treat the people who work in our organisations. I truly believe, in my heart, gut and soul that we must not, cannot, be complicit in systems we know are broken, collude in practices we know are toxic, and still call ourselves change makers

Well – I’m fessing up, standing up, putting my head above the parapet – #CallingMyselfOut

So that you know exactly what I’m talking about I want to pose some questions – I’ll answer them honestly.  I would invite you to do the same.

Have you ever bid for work that does not stack up financially?

Yes – I have wanted to win and beat the competition and I have allowed us to bid for contracts that really don’t stack up. At times my ego, thirst for growth and desire to beat the competition have been in charge, not my heart and my integrity

When we bid for work that doesn’t stack up we are complicit in supporting a system that we call toxic and broken.  I’m calling myself out.

Have you ever bid for work where you know the specification will not give the people who it is intended to help what they deserve or want?

Yes – I have colluded with the notion that we can transform someone’s life in three months, with deficit models of delivery, I have signed up to delivering ridiculous amounts of move on accommodation and felt the sting of the stick across my back when I have been unable to deliver.  I have won contracts where there is more interest in the quality of admin, timing of returns and ‘allowable tasks’ than the person at the centre.   At best this work is not fit for purpose and at worse it harms people.

When we do these things we are complicit in supporting a system that we call toxic and broken.  I am calling myself out.

Have you ever created working conditions for staff that have harmed them in order to deliver on contract expectations?

Yes – if the answer to either of the questions above is yes then the only answer to this question is yes.  When we try to do work that does not stack up or is designed badly the only people who suffer are the people it is intended to help, and the people we employ to do the work. When you try to do work that is fundamentally broken not only do you deliver poor service, you break people.

I am calling myself out.

If you’re in the public affairs world, have you lobbied hard for your ‘special interest group’ knowing there is no new money or capacity  in the system, so therefore knowing that if you win and get what you want, someone else’s ‘special interest group’ suffers?

Yes – I like to think we have done some great influence work over the years, but fighting singularly for our ‘service users’ or ‘special interest groups’ will almost always be at the detriment of others. That just feels unkind and deeply wrong.

We need large scale, whole system transformation, not single issue battle fields with winners and losers.  A whole system approach to everything we do – so everyone wins

I am calling myself out.

Do you see all these things and more happening but carry on regardless because if you don’t do it a competitor will? Because your income might go down, or you might get smaller rather than bigger, or your profile or prowess diminish?

I have done in the past. But not anymore!!

This is what I mean when I say we need to start calling things out.  This is what I mean when I say we can be complicit in supporting things that we continually, endlessly complain about.

So here’s the rub.   I have worked in the housing, health and social care sector in Wales for a long time.   I know that the answer to some, if not all of these questions in many of our organisations is yes.  Not for all of our work, but for some of it.   There is some great work out there, amazing stuff being done, by amazing people – often against all the odds.  But some isn’t, and where the problems are structural, system based, we collude if we decide to play the game.

I’m not throwing stones– I’m just pointing out an uncomfortable truth.  A truth that I believe stands in the way of truly transformational system change.  For as long as we believe the survival of our organisations in their current form is more important than the change we want to see. That winning at any price is better than not winning, then we are doomed.

We have the opportunity to be part of the solution, but we also have the potential to be a massive part of the problem.

Following a deep listening exercise Mayday Trust  took the decision to almost half their size and focus on the work that they believe is the right work.  A brave, heartening and transformational decision. They have been an inspiration to me and many others.  Paradoxically, since we started being more discerning about what we do, giving work back, not pursuing re-tenders for the reasons outlined above we have got bigger. Different opportunities are opening up, transformational work is starting to become a part of our core work, new relationships are blossoming and new thinking taking shape. It’s been a mixture of fun, pain, terror and exhilaration – but most of all refreshing and motivating.

Change needs to happen, change isn’t comfortable, and it can be terrifying. Especially when it starts to question the very foundation of some of the things we have done for years, built our reputations on, build out careers on, and built our organisations on. But its time, it has to happen.

At the Cymorth conference I said we needed to be more punk – well I’m being more punk. I think we need to start calling these things out and to stop colluding with what we know is not fit for purpose. This means making painful decisions and fessing up to our own mistakes. So I’m starting with mine – I am publicly calling myself– and I will continue to do so.  We are on a journey, a mission, an exploration and a brutally open and honest process of transformation. We’re getting things right and we’re getting things wrong. I am seeing us learn, adapt and evolve. We are a work in progress and I hope we always will be.

We are proud to be part of a growing social movement for social change – it’s wonderful, exciting, energising, scary, painful and sometimes uncomfortable – join us – it’s more fun than getting your returns in on time.

#CallingMyselfOut #CallingItOut #SystemChange #BeMorePunk