Community Links delivers a wide range of practical services in east London. One principle underpins them all: We believe it is not only possible for one human being to make a real and lasting difference to another, it is often, in the most difficult circumstances the only thing that ever does.
Practical support or the transfer of knowledge creates the conditions for progress but it is the deeper qualities of a relationship that have the power to transform. One-to-one, deep value relationships are our beating heart at Community Links; tackling need, unlocking potential and releasing a sense of purpose and self belief.
Many of us will be able to relate to what the psychology literature describes as a “deep truth”. We will cherish the memory of a teacher, a care assistant or a youth worker who supported us in difficulty or opened our eyes to new possibilities. But let’s be clear – there is nothing sentimental in the Community Links approach. We do it because it works.
Our 2009 report, Time Well Spent considered the role of effective one-to-one relationships in the delivery of civil legal aid. Through primary research, and by drawing on other research and pilot projects, we showed how effective relationships between legal advice workers and their clients were instrumental to achieving quality outcomes at value for money. Unsurprisingly clients felt more positive when the relationship was strong, More remarkably and of particular interest to government, clients were more likely to act on the advice, significantly less likely to seek further advice elsewhere and substantially less likely to go to appeal. In other words effective relationships secured the best value
We followed up with a literature review and discovered that similar results had been found in employment services, education and health. In fact a huge body of international evidence supports the proposition that the “deep value” approach achieves good, long-term outcomes and is often cheaper in the longer run.
These are the reasons why I would argue that public policy should give far greater weight to the power of relationships, but first we need a better understanding of what this really means and a wider appreciation of the implications – they are deep and far reaching.
Prioritising relationships is not the same as customising. Policy makers and commissioners consistently confuse the two. If the busy commuter wants her holiday jabs at 7.00am the large and anonymous poly-clinic may be the best provision. The anxious mother worried about a chronically sick child, however, wants to see the same doctor that she saw last week and will see next week. Ministers have described both as “personalised services” but the first is a customised transaction; the second is a human relationship. Both have a value but they are completely different. We need to understand where the human bond matters, not as a nice-to-have but where it is fundamental to a good outcome.
Where it does matter, as the literature review showed over and over again, successful relationships are characterised by a very high level of trust and mutual respect – characteristics that are not generally associated with a competitive model or with very big organizations. There are implications here not just for how we design our services but also for who runs them.
Finally I am reminded of telephone conversation six years ago with the mother of a child I knew well. She was asking me to come to a family case conference. The mother read me the letter. No fewer than nine professionals were expected to attend so I asked why she needed me there as well. “Because,” she said, “I want someone who is on my side.”
There was no reason to suppose that any one of the nine professionals were working towards anything other than the best interests of the family. That, however, was clearly not the way it felt.
Perhaps that was inevitable. How could any harassed parent maintain relationships with nine professionals? You would need a diary secretary just to manage the appointments. Perhaps you could only make it work by meeting very rarely – so rarely in fact that there was no real relationship, trust or confidence. Perhaps too many were doing too little, too infrequently when all the family needed was a friend. Someone with unconditional time or at the very least several hours a week. Someone who could see the full picture, who could support reliably and consistently, who was demonstrably on their side. They need a deep value relationship.
These are obvious observations but with profound implications Prioritising relationships would require us to rethink and to fundamentally reconfigure how we plan, how we manage and how we deliver our public services – no simple undertaking but, given current trends, social and financial, vital and urgent. Potentially the outcome could be transformational for the service, for the exchequer and above all for the service user. Most important in these perilous times it would not be a stab in the dark. We know it works.
David Robinson is a Co-Founder & Senior Advisor at Community Links and leads on the Early Action Task Force. You can reach him at David.Robinson@community-links.org.