Professor David Morris is taking the lead for the UCLan half of the Connecting People Study, as it moves into the pilot study within agencies across England. Here he tells us about his thoughts on the project as it is now, as well as putting the study into context within the policies that have guided its development.
Even at this early stage of Connecting People, we are clearly working with people and projects committed in their work to their users and to inclusion through participation. With our team, I am pleased to be working with organisations of very varying size and reach to see how their work can be shaped or underpinned by our intervention. Our intervention is not, however, set in stone; there is an extent to which it will itself be shaped by local experience and it is equally therefore a pleasure to be working with our sites reflectively – creating some time and space for collective conversation about what together might be achieved. It is already clear that this opportunity is equally valued by colleagues within the study sites for whom the day to day pressures of the work do not always allow for time to think and share as a team the experience of the work or their aspirations for it.
The process of our research is thus a co-productive one and in this we are likely to be reflecting the ways in which the intervention itself will be used locally. This seems to me to be really important. Services do not always work with their users to co-produce a way of meeting inclusion goals. Their work is often constrained by the imperative of quick outcome or confined to identifying individual goals and ambitions rather than enabling the realisation of these ambitions. Very often, these ambitions are simply about making a contribution as a citizen, offering personal assets – skills, experience, interest, enthusiasm – to a community (what I have heard described in some quarters as ‘Big Society’!). Since communities can of course be inhospitable places, these opportunities for community participation can be elusive unless (and perhaps even if) they are pursued through an approach to service delivery that incorporates both a ‘literacy’ about community assets and social networks and practical strategies for building the capacity of both.
The ideas that we are advancing here are rooted most recently in the social inclusion policy of the last government (but still largely relevant to the current one) that was set out in the series of reports from the cross-government Social Exclusion Unit. The five year National Social Inclusion programme (NSIP) was established in 2004 to oversee implementation that report which set out the evidence for exclusion in mental health and with it, some 27 sets of actions to address exclusion; to promote in policy and practice the rights of people with mental health problems to equity in relation to employment and, as importantly, community participation.
It was always clear that achieving change in relation to community participation would require a shift in the relationship of services to communities, harnessing the tasks of care, support and recovery to a more collaborative, constructive and engaging contract with communities themselves. While we saw in the National Service Framework the emergence of multiple forms of community mental health team, little attention had or has been given to how they – or any other part of the service system – would draw on and build up the social value of communities and their connectedness as an essential contribution to the service process. As a programme, we wanted to redress this imbalance, linking up with mainstream agencies to shape an agenda for connected communities in mental health. This was a commitment that migrated with me at the end of NSIP to the Inclusion Institute and it has been realised in a number of ways. For example, with the Royal Society for Arts and London School of Economics we established, with Big Lottery funding, the five year Connected Communities programme which is working on social network interventions in seven sites and elsewhere is provoking interest from many quarters nationally and internationally.
This then is the context in which ‘Connecting People’ sits. It is one that in turn will be enriched by the study and I hope in being part of the study, participants in it will feel part of that broader context. I would certainly want to promote that. People’s imagination and good work in this field need more than ever to be celebrated as a source of learning for others and we welcome your views about how, beyond the study, we can together best support that aim. In the meantime, despite the shocking impact of austerity to date and to come – and indeed, in part, because of it, there are significant opportunities to reveal innovation and to grow it appreciatively. This is what Connecting People is about. I look forward to our work together. Thank you for being part of it.