Co-authors Alex Fox Mayday Trust and New System Alliance, Matthew Mezey Q and the Health Foundation, Jenny Zienau London Borough of Hackney.

Where we are so far

If you have ever needed to draw on more than one public service at once, or if you work with people who need more than one kind of support, the chances are you will have encountered the poor fit between services with a remit to address one particular problem, or health condition, or need, and the complexity of our ordinary lives, where people have many different things that they want and need. When we are in contact with several services, and each one wants to reduce us to a single problem we are having, the cumulative effect can be bewildering, unresponsive and even dehumanising.

This is an example of how, as the Human Learning Systems initiative has observed, when people’s lives are complex, no one service can create an outcome in someone’s life, it is the individual and their relationship with the whole system of services, which creates any outcome. And yet we still plan, fund and measure our public services as if they should always be able to create a clear change in someone’s life. This motivates services to do two unhelpful things: game outcomes measuring systems, and try to avoid working with people they consider ‘complex’.

So, if you are currently homeless, and have both mental health and substance misuse issues, you might be told by each of the three relevant housing, substance misuse and mental health services that you need to have fixed the other two issues before they can help you with the one they are interested in. Housing First is an example of an initiative set up to try to cut across those service silos, recognising that housing (and support) should be offered without any conditions, but well-funded, ‘high-fidelity’ Housing First programmes remain rare in the UK, and it is more common for people to experience the toxic impact of services arguing with each other as they attempt to avoid taking sole responsibility for the support of someone with multiple needs. And for people to experience the cycle of cases being opened and closed, as their trust and hope erodes. These public services are broken and unhealthy, for the people who work in them as well as the people who should be able to draw on their help.

Where we’re going

Systems Convener roles are starting to emerge that try to address this. The Systems Steward role is part of the Human Learning Systems model of system change. Stewards lead the attempt to learn and create new connections, conversations and change across service boundaries, re-orientating services from unrealistic target-chasing, to being part of a healthy, responsive system that can keep people and their reality at its heart through deep listening. This model reflects that set out in a free-to-download book, Systems Convening, by Etienne and Beverley Wenger-Trayner published by the Social Learning Lab with support from Lankelly Chase, RSA and Centre for Public Impact which gathers stories and practices from System Conveners in different fields and continents.

Matthew Mezey, Community Manager of the Q Community (The Health Foundation), says “I felt I had to ask the authors to write this book once I’d begun to really notice quite how many people are – under the radar – doing (or trying to do) this important ‘Systems Convening’ work that usually goes well beyond their official job description.

They had all realised it was crucial for making the changes they wanted to see. Without usually getting much credit, they’re working across all the silos with a much bigger vision of what’s possible, they’re building relationships, growing people’s own self-belief, and creating new spaces for learning and collaborations. I was personally struck by the power of Convening when I brought together a small group of people who didn’t know each other, from around the UK, and they soon had the idea for the NHS first-time bank, Hexitime – which is now thriving.”

Mayday Trust’s Systems Convener, Danielle Grufferty works with people who are often labelled as experiencing ‘severe and multiple disadvantage’, some of whom draw on Mayday’s strengths-based coaching, the PTS Response, to design and build their own support in place of rigid services, with some of them going on to convene groups of like-minded local people in community-led initiatives. Danielle works alongside them to influence local services and commissioners in the North Central London ICB and Haringey Council, as part of the area’s drive to reduce service inequalities.

Jenny Zienau works in strategy and policy for Hackney Council leading on change and transformation to tackle inequalities and reduce poverty. Inspired by the ebook and its pertinence to her reflections and learning about the way the team worked to build closer working relationships with community partners, Hackney Council created two System Convener roles to work with frontline staff across the system. The two Conveners in Hackney were seconded from frontline roles and have been working across the system since September 2022. Acting as the ‘glue’ between services on the ground, a key element of the Council’s response to the cost of living crisis, this way of working has already identified significant strengths, barriers and opportunities across boundaries and has enabled more meaningful relationships across the helping system. In this context system convening is being developed as a way to create spaces for learning. These are seen as a fundamental tools for service improvement leading to improved outcomes for residents who are struggling, and in particular those who do not trust statutory services and/or have experienced discrimination.

Have your say

Are there more Conveners out there? Matthew had over 1000 registrations for the Systems Convening book launch, although not all would be in specific roles of that kind. We are writing this blog to encourage Systems Conveners to get in touch, so we can develop a Community of Practice for this emerging field, if it exists. There is a questionnaire here which asks you what you think this role means, and if you feel you do this work and would like to take part. We have drafted a tentative definition of the role, which we would love your feedback on.

A System Convener’s role is to bring people together across sector, organisational and community boundaries, enabling people to share learning across those boundaries and to create positive change in how public service systems operate. Rather than concentrating on individual services or organisations, the focus is on changing systems, building connections and being led by people who use services, as well as those who are currently let down or excluded from them.

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