When I hear the word risk, I’m often filled with feelings of dread. I haven’t wanted to deal with it, hoping that it doesn’t come up so I can focus on the things I feel positive about. Whilst I have prided myself on delivering a truly person-led approach with individuals, when risk has come up, I have slipped into a fixing mentality, seeking to ‘solve’ the problem and resolve myself of any responsibility. This has been both as a PTS Coach working one to one with individuals and as a team manager, feeling the responsibility of getting it ‘right’.

Throughout my time working with individuals going through homeless pathways, I have filled out long risk assessments which have asked many intrusive questions about an individual’s past and present. Completing them has often felt uncomfortable, as if I am asking too much of a stranger as they are forced to disclose very traumatic events in their life. Then the trauma is left there hanging, undealt with, as input their risk levels into a computer and come up with a plan. The plan has often been done in isolation of the individual and has rarely had much meaning, it has felt arbitrary, I have ticked a box for the day.

Since then I have had many conversations with individuals about whether they think this approach to risk works. Not one yet has said they think it does. No one has thought that a lengthy risk assessment of individuals means that their risk is actually managed in reality. They have all stated that it serves a system and ensures things are ‘covered’ but that we have very little control over risk in reality. Many have said that they actually think that doing an intrusive risk process at the start of working with an individual is actually damaging their ability to build a relationship that allows them to effectively manage risk together. So, even though it appears that most agree it doesn’t work, it still seems to be the dominant way of approaching risk. People don’t seem to know how to shift it. They feel trapped in a systemic web, crippled by fear, unwilling to make a move or take, well, a risk.

How can risk work? For me, relationships are key. Placing a 20-page risk assessment in front of someone at your first meeting is not conducive to relationship building. Spending time getting to know someone in a neutral environment, allowing them to share the risks that are concerning them when they are ready, feels more real. I can hear people saying now ‘what if they don’t tell you a risk?!’ well I suspect that already happens, a lot. Do we think that people are honest throughout the current risk processes that dominate across social sector systems? Would you lie or not disclose if the truth meant you did not get a house/service/support? The systems are not prepared to genuinely deal with people, people have to fit the systems. However, by building trust, getting a more genuine relationship, I feel more confident that we will get more of what’s really going on for individuals. People will feel they can tell more without the myriad of consequences that they currently face, they can stop playing the game and be real people.

Risk will always exist and there is no perfect way of approaching it. However, the way we are currently doing it isn’t working, dare I say, it may even be creating risk! Let’s move out of the illusion that we have created for ourselves and start talking about risk in reality.

What happened when we talked honestly about risk…

On Thursday 29th July the New System Alliance hosted their latest online Conversations that Challenge event which this time focused on risk. What became clear is that this is a hot topic with lots of opinions which generated heaps of rich conversation and appetite for change.

Firstly, it was clear that a lot of fear exists around risk. People were worried about how to ensure they didn’t put their colleagues in danger, how they work with their commissioners and how they ensure their insurance policies remained valid under a new approach to risk. They worried about these almost unmovable barriers, unsure how to move forward.

However, it was also clear that people felt this risk was getting in the way. The focus on risk robbed them of the ability to have other, valuable, conversations. It was felt that we needed conversations, not forms, and putting relationships and a gradual approach to risk at the centre felt the most effective.

One thing that stuck strongly with me was the impact of not having a person-led approach to risk has on individuals accessing services. One participant shared their experience and described it as ‘cruel’. This is a powerful word to hear and their experience, like so many others, was not only not good enough but also has a real impact. It was clear that the intrusive and unrealistic risk processes that currently exist often made people on the receiving end of them feel alienated and like they were dealing with computers, not humans.

Additionally, people felt that there were two parallel worlds at work with risk. The reality is that risk exists, sometimes lots of risk. But instead of having real conversations about this, we got lost in processes which meant we couldn’t be honest. Without this honesty, people felt that risk could never be approached in a real way. Forms covered our backs but they existed in a fantasy world that didn’t allow for us to have actual conversations.

Positively, people left the conversation with a commitment to action. These actions varied for each person, with pledges to stop judging, to have some challenging conversations (with themselves and others!), to de-professionalise their approach and also to just be brave (easier than it sounds)! Engaging with the topic of risk felt tough at times, it can feel hard to shift. However, having this conversation and then spreading this out wider felt like a way to shake out some truths out of risk and move us away from the illusion world of risk.

About the Author – Sarah Hughes

I delivered the Person-led, Transitional and Strength-based (PTS) Response as a Coach and then Manager in Oxford before working on the national movement for change that the PTS sparked. This has involved leading on the PTS Qualification which has seen several amazing cohorts of change-makers graduate and all have gone on to disrupt the system! I have also had the pleasure of working with lots of organisations delivering the PTS who have displayed their passion, commitment and also frustration. I am passionate about truly listening to and responding to individuals experiencing services and ensuring that they remain at the heart of what we do – let’s make sure we are about people and not systems!

Links I’d like to share:

A blog by a previous PTS Coach on risk: Project Fear? I think not… By Mary Power

I also like talking about language – I think Bryony Shannon’s blogs are a must-read