Saturday, September 5, 2009

Give Me Sunlight

This week I made good on a long-held promise to myself - to go see the work of Peter Holbrook and his team down at Sunlight in Gillingham, Kent. I travelled down there with one of my Trustees, John Willis, who was hoping to find inspiration for the renewal of Huntingdon Community Learning Centre - something of a White Elephant so far - but packed with potential.

So what is Sunlight? Well, one one level, its very simple. It's a `community anchor' type organisation. It is housed in a big building in the middle of a deprived area and within its doors lie a panopoly of resources for people to tap into, from the offices of of public sector and third sector organisations through to an alphabet-soup of informal self-help groups led by volunteers. On top of this, Sunlight runs a major catering operation and a number of community cafes in the town.

`All very nicebut what accounts for all the media and politician-attention this place gets?' I am hearing you say... `Is it all spin or is this something that merits special attention'.

I am glad to report that, for once, the hype lives up to reality. This is not just another high-octane community centre. There are a number of differentiators from most of what I have seen so far.

1. The business model. There are two aspects to Sunlight - the Development Trust and the Community Interest Company (CIC). The CIC pursues commercial opportunities - and now runs the whole of Medway Council's catering operation. Profit from this is used to support aspects of the Development Trust's work such as their offer of free space to new community groups or one-off grants to residents for key pieces of equipment (e.g. the new set of chef's whites bought for a local lad just off to college). Having profitable elements creates the space to ignite community action which otherwise would founder early through lack of support. The result is a much larger number of self-help groups than one would expect. And that means lots of good outcomes for little financial outlay.

2. The ambition. Most third sector organisations like to stay in their box. Manage public services? No thanks, that's government's job etc. Sunlight aspire not only to provide workspace to the GPs and Social Services teams in the area, tney want to run these services and plough the profit back into the community. The Sunlight team have bid, so far unsuccessfully, to manage the primary care & GPs surgery run from its building - but have been blocked from doing so by the PCT. Should they eventually pull this off - and add perhaps an outsourced Job Centre Plus - you've got a model of public service provision that could be the template for the 2010s and beyond. Which accounts for the interest of one D. Cameron and his team I suspect.

3. The community's involvement. Most community centres are run by well-meaning middle class people and follow a low-risk public sector template. So if you are poor and or vulnerable you can use the place OK but that is very much as far as it goes. You'll never work there, expect perhaps as a volunteer doing something very marginal. At Sunlight most of the staff come from the community. Many are former `users' of the centre and have developed into employees. Sure, this doesn't make for the smoothest of receptionists or the most cleanly polished floors I have ever seen - but it does make the place BELONG to the community. Obviously there are difficulties - the story of an overpromoted local finance officer made me wince - but these outweigh the benefits.

4. The ethos. Ethos is a difficult thing to pin down. It is everything but nowhere is it written down formally. The ethos of Sunlight is clearly one of what MBA students call its `core competencies'. People know what matters in Sunlight and align their behaviour accordingly. One example. In the cafe while we were there a woman three tables away burst into tears following a visit to the GPs (bad news, obviously). Within moments, a member of the cafe staff had come from the kitchen with a free cup of tea and was with the lady for half an hour. This is obviously beyond contract stuff, not in any job description - just the way the place works. No formal Compassion Policy. No Charter of Care or operations manual. Just a great ethos.

5. Entrepreneurial Leadership.
Peter Holbrook, the CEO of Sunlight, doesn't like being talked up. He is very quick to point out that it is others, not him, leading the many facets of Sunlight's work. However, he provides an example of the kind of entrepreneurial leadership that makes the difference between an ordinary place doing ordinary things to an extraordinary place that is creating a new paradigm for how we tackle the challenges of our most deprived communities.

If cloning were already possible, I daresay that Peter and Sunlight would be rich from selling his DNA (as well as being a talented and energetic man, he is one of kindest and most compassionate people I have ever met). However, the fact that we can't yet recreate Peter at scale doesn't mean we can't support people like him to make things happen in communities all over the UK. You see, in the public sector, someone like Peter would probably lose his job or get burned up very quickly. He'd break some rule, take some level of risk deemed `inappropriate' and refuse to accept the glacial pace of change that public sector organisations seem to believe is acceptable. His counterpart - the drone we currently entrust with millions of pounds of public money does none of these disruptive things. But he doesn't do a lot else either. A socially enterprising government needs to say to PCTs and Councils that they have to support the Sunlights of this world (and without tying them up in constricting service-agreements) - or the people leading councils etc will lose their jobs. Sounds a bit harsh, crude, simplistic etc - but I can't see any other way to galvanise change.

6. A Whole Person Approach. Most services in this country are set up by people who have done a very long specialist training and believe that what they do is most important thing in the very world. They then fight with other professionals (who believe the same thing about what they do) for resources and before long you have a whole health and social care system set up around the people leading and managing services. Clients (me, you etc)of course come with a whole range of needs, some of which don't require a professional at all, just the company of others, or support from someone who had been there themselves. At Sunlight, a lot of the things on offer are not professional-led, they are led by residents. There is a recognition that people might want to do other things, access other areas. This is positively encouraged. People are not `owned' - or indeed seen as the `responsibility' of others and shunted off. If someone comes to Sunlight in crisis, having been beaten up and thrown out by their husband, they are not `signposted' elsewhere. There is an immediate and effective response. Someone stays with them through the process they need to go through and they aren't allowed to pinball around agencies or fall through gaps. Very different from the public sector and indeed many third sector agencies.

Overall my visit to Sunlight confirmed a lot of what I already believed. The bits of Sunlight occupied by the public sector were very telling of what is wrong and what any new Government needs to deal with quickly. Offices were large for the numbers employed, though often just full of junk and big piles of paper. You needed key-codes to get in even to offices. Peter I noticed couldn't easily access some areas. The Social Services assessment bit, for example, is full of kids equipment which, couldn't be used by the community even through it is empty much of the time. Although people were perfectly pleasant, there was still a touch of that feeling of `This is Us, you are the public/other, we have our rules and systems, fuck-off and wait till we're ready to see you'. People naturally don't trust this as much as Sunlight's approach. Which is why Sunlight want to take over those services.

And the third sector...well you know I am often critical. But the organisations I metwere welcoming and upbeat, despite the shitty contracts they had with the public sector and being jammed into their offices like sardines.

We drove away four hours later (Peter had given up practically his whole day for us)not only inspired but INFORMED that there is another way with public services. This is why so many people right now are finding their way to Gillingham.

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