Food programme forages for the Wirral I Municipal Journal
Food poverty is on the rise. In the Wirral, the number of people using food banks rose by 46% over a four month period in 2013, from 9,000 to 13,000
Food poverty is not just about the inability to afford food; it is more broadly about an interplay of factors – social, cultural, economic or environmental – that prevent people from accessing and consuming high quality, nutritious meals.
Better Food Wirral is a community-led initiative established to address some of these issues but how do you go about changing something as complex and multi-faceted as the ‘food system’?
Wirral’s public health team is part of the System Leadership – Local Vision Programme.
It is a national programme supporting local public service leaders, including those in local government and health, along with communities to work on ‘knotty’ problems that cannot be solved by a single organisation or person through traditional managerial approaches; problems like changing the food system.
There are 25 programmes currently happening around the country, with each team supported by an enabler who specialises in systems leadership approaches.
Convening the right people around the right issue is generally driven by organisational knowledge and bias, but this can and should only ever be part of the picture.
In-depth conversations to capture the stories of those experiencing the issue, in the form of ethnographic research, reveal what is hidden – the problems behind the problems – and can be a powerful lens through which data, projections and policies can be viewed.
Working with Innovation Unit, the partner for public services, we began by training a team of professionals to work as community researchers to capture these stories.
The aim was to develop more effective relationships with the community, building a cohort of people committed to working alongside us, and generating in-depth insights into the challenges and opportunities that characterised the Wirral’s food system.
Volunteers included staff members from across the organisation who already had strong ties with thecommunity.
These volunteers interviewed local residents, community leaders and business owners about their relationship with food and the food system.
But this was only part of the picture, we needed new ways of working with large and diverse groups and across organisations who play an important role in the Wirral’s food system – from producers and retailers to individuals, families, community groups and charities.
Traditional meeting structures – pre-ordained agendas, action plans, etc – can work against such looser groupings effective functioning. In contrast, a systems leadership approach requires people to be proficient in designing and holding a range of large group interventions that are altogether different from traditional organisational meetings.
We began by establishing the problem people wanted to solve, who had an interest in the food system and how they might come together in order to progress things.
We made an explicit commitment to building relationships to understand how different partners might best work together, and with us, in shaping and delivering the project.
We used a carefully facilitated process, brought to life through shared experience gathered from our research, to enable a previously unconnected group to articulate a shared vision for change.
Agreeing on what was held in common was key to making the partnership work, to make sure things happened and were not side-tracked by competing agendas.
After three months of research and engagement, we shared the results of our work with the wider community at a community conference attended by 100 people from communities, business, voluntary and public organisations.
The aim was to reflect on the research insights collaboratively, and to use these findings as the basis for defining a borough-wide food strategy.
Here is what we learned:
A focus on ‘place’ creates the means to hold conversations about ‘how do we work better together?’
Co-productive approaches lead directly to similar questions: If we are/represent the system, how do we get things done?
Look at what you already have – start with achievements: what is working well, what is enabling us, and what do we need to do more/less of to improve our performance?
A focus on human stories and outcomes shifts thinking: away from a traditional service approach to a focus onsocial/individual benefit.
The key message is to find new ways of working.
As WL Bateman is often quoted as saying, ‘If you keep ondoing what you’ve always done, you’ll keep on getting what you’ve always got’.
The System Leadership – Local VisionProgramme provided the Wirral with the space and support to explore a significant challenge and begin to find new ways of working to address it. Working with people and organisations to understand their reality through ethnographic research and engagement.