Monday, August 15, 2016

Unlocking Local Capacity – four years on

Let’s start with the scene-setting – the introduction you hear at every local government conference you’ve been to for the last five years. Money is getting tighter and tighter. Demand is growing – particularly in areas like adult social care. Five years from now – short of some miraculous windfall – councils won’t be able to deliver many of the services they do at present, at least in the way they’re used to, and maybe not at all.

Next, you hear something about citizens and communities. Wherever we look for solutions – localism, behaviour change, channel shift, technology, better partnerships and so on – sooner or later relationships with communities crops up as crucial to making at least some of this work. That could mean getting better at co-designing services with citizens, as opposed to calling them out to dull consultation events every few years. At the other end of the spectrum, it could mean local organisations – or even just groups of residents – taking on a service or an aspect of a service that otherwise would no longer be sustained. Both of these activities are happening already, of course, in different places and according to different challenges.

This much we know – and have known it, talked about it and predicted work around it for over the last five years. But what we know less well is how far everyone’s got on in actually doing something about it. And that is what I want to find out.

So, if you work in a local authority, what is your organisation doing to build, nurture or unlock the capacity in your communities? How have you been trying to genuinely, deeply involve local people in redesigning services, or in helping them to change their lives/neighbourhoods for the better in ways that might not involve traditional council services at all? We asked these questions to 30 local authorities in 2011-12 when we researched our publication ‘Unlocking Local Capacity: why active citizens need active councils’. We made the case that empowering citizens didn’t just mean councils ‘getting out of the way’, but that on the contrary, it demanded that councils play a very direct, active role – just working in a different way than many had been used to.

Four years on, we want to revisit those same questions and take stock of what councils are doing or planning now. For some, the constant pressure on budgets and ever-increasing demand will have put innovation around community involvement firmly on the back-burner. For others, those same challenges have been a spur to action, driven by the ambition of certain members, senior managers, officers at the coalface or other local partners to try new things. Are we seeing real, tangible results, or is it all still a work in progress?

Over the next few months I’ll be holding a series of telephone interviews with strategy and policy leads in local authorities to hear about their successes, frustrations, ambitions and plans to build local capacity and move into new, dynamic and impactful collaborations with community partners. I would love to hear from people delivering different things across a range of local authorities across England to build up a picture of what’s happening and what works. So if you’d to add to the debate, please do get in touch.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Focus on water: PR19 engagement

Starting to think about the 2019 Price Review period? So are we! Ofwat recently released a policy paper on their expectations for the PR19 period, emphasising the importance of customer engagement and linking it clearly to pricing. To hear more about how we can help you put in place a strategy that meets regulatory requirements and delivers value for your company get in touch with our water specialist Amelie Treppass or check out what we offer.


Thursday, June 16, 2016

Ofwat confirm continuous customer engagement is key to enhanced status

Working regularly with water companies, we were pleased to see the industry regulator Ofwat publish its updated policy statement and expectations for PR19.

Like us, they welcome the step-change in quality and quantity of consultation and engagement that companies achieved with the 2014 price review. For 2019 they are confirming that ‘excellent customer engagement’ and how well it is reflected in a company’s business plan is likely to be needed to gain ‘enhanced’ status from the regulator.

The May policy statement is the clearest indication yet that the regulator is directly linking engagement to pricing.

So what does this mean for water companies? We think there are five main points that water companies need to address:

Engagement culture
Ofwat are very clear that ‘customer engagement is not a one-off exercise restricted to a specific time period in the run-up to a price review’. Companies will need to embed engagement into their daily culture across all staff and departments from board level down. In our experience even organisations that are achieving great one-off engagement work can struggle to achieve consistency across the piece. For those water companies that excelled at PR14 this period is going to be about consolidating good practice and spreading the word internally.

Collaboration not consultation
Ofwat are also clear that they expect a two-way process of engagement, not just soliciting customer feedback or reviewing data, but also informing and involving participants in co-creation and co-delivery of priorities and solutions. We think using online community platforms could be a really useful technique alongside more traditional methods as they provide a more flexible way to engage with customers over time.

A central role for stakeholders
Customer Challenge Groups (CCG) will play an even more important role this time round, both judging the quality of the company’s engagement and significantly how the results have been incorporated into the business plan. Clearly CCGs should be established (if they aren’t already) and involved alongside staff in strategy development from the offset. Ofwat want CCGs and by extension customers involved in setting the terms for PR19, for many companies this will mean going to CCGs earlier in the process.

It’s also good to see encouragement of innovative processes that recognise the constraints of trialling out new techniques. This is a supportive atmosphere in which to be trying out new ways to track revealed customer preferences, rather than using the stated preference methods of PR14. This is music to our ears as practitioners who want to push the boundaries. Too often, we get demands for innovation without any acceptance of the inevitable risk of trying something new, so kudos to Ofwat for taking a strong stance on both.

New audiences
We also like that they suggest involving a younger audience in longer-term issues, as the bill-payers of the future! When we look across all our engagement work we see young people consistently under-represented. Hopefully PR19 can provide some insights that will benefit other sectors on this front.

And speaking of the bigger picture; in the long term, with the prospect of competition in the residential market looming, delivering customer engagement can’t just be about meeting Ofwat’s expectations. Building a culture of strong customer engagement now is the best way to prepare for a competitive world.

If you’re looking for someone to talk to about PR19, or to discuss a tailored approach to engaging your customers and stakeholders, give our Principal Lucy Farrow a call on 0207 042 8011.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Making the case for flexibility in standardised measures of social impact

Making the case for flexibility in standardised measures of social impact

Shared measurement and standardisation is a hot topic in the field of monitoring and evaluation, particularly in the third sector. Although there are several challenges to overcome, a flexible approach to shared measurement that is driven by those closest to the participants of social programmes could carry many benefits.

So why would we want to standardise measures in the first place? Here are a few suggestions:

This all sounds great, but standardisation also raises a number of obvious challenges. For example – with so many indicators to choose from, to what extent can different individuals and organisations agree what to measure? And in striving to agree shared measurements, is there a risk that we revert back to system-driven thinking where what matters most to participants gets diluted or overlooked?

I would argue that this depends on the type of questions and what their starting point is. One option is for standardisation to start at the level of overarching principles rather than specific metrics, and from the perspective of those experiencing the intervention or support. For example, this question from Saville Kushner seems to me to be a good starting point:

“How well does the program serve, respect, and respond to these participants’ needs, hopes, and dreams in this place?”

There are a number of reasons why I like this question: the first thing you have to do to answer it is find out what is important to participants; it provides flexibility to respond to the specific context; and it lends itself to be incorporated into service delivery rather than as an add-on. Also, the question gives me energy – I want to know the answers (there will of course be more than one) and explore what any similarities and differences might tell us. A question that gives people energy is often a great starting point because it indicates that we are measuring what matters.

In our own experience of supporting organisations to agree shared measures, particularly in person-centred health and social care, we have found flexibility to be a key success factor. Working together to devise a set of agreed standard measures for a sector or type of initiative can bring significant benefits but they often work best as a suite of standard measures to choose from. Furthermore, even where there are standard measures in place, we would usually suggest looking beyond them, and supplementing with bespoke measurements that capture the unique impacts of a particular programme in addition to those which are comparable across organisations.

Unfortunately, measurement has become more combative the higher it has moved up the political agenda. Those delivering programmes can feel frustrated if measures are imposed as conditions of funding and do not align with their own knowledge about what is relevant. And decision makers can be unresponsive to new ideas about measurements, particularly if they are less likely to result in straightforward and comparable quantitative data. For all the talk of person-centred approaches to service delivery and measurement, these do not always have traction where systems are entrenched in traditional thinking and priority is given to reducing costs in the short-term. I am generalising, but it’s certainly all too easy to fall into a trap of measuring what’s easy instead of what matters.

This is why there is a need for the third sector to get ahead of the game and set the agenda for shared measurement. If those providing social programmes can work with participants and each other to agree a suite of flexible standard measures, those measures are more likely to remain relevant to the participants themselves while meeting the varying needs of different stakeholders. In a challenging space of dwindling resources and increasing pressures, it is understandable that the energy and appetite for taking this forward might be low. Yet, the fact that so many discussions are taking place, and that these discussions are happening at the national, sector, and grass-roots levels, suggests that there is already much to build on and scope to increase collaboration.

My aim in writing this is to gather my own thoughts and continue the conversation. I’d love to hear your own reflections…because none of us will come up with the answers on our own.

In the spirit of dialogue I’d like to add that the thoughts laid out in this blog post have been influenced by the following events, individuals, articles and organisations:

Monday, September 28, 2015

Can a different kind of council website help build new collaborations with communities?

For years, most councils have been running consultations with their communities to find out what they think about services, what they want to see done differently, and increasingly what they would prioritise (and depriotise) in order to inform spending plans.

This is largely an exercise in research – in understanding what people think about their services, what they’d change, and when tough choices are on the table, what they’d protect and what they’d cut.

A lot of my work in the last couple of years has been about promoting another aspect of community engagement (and this is definitely engagement, rather than consultation). This work emphasises the value of co-design, whereby service users and citizens more widely help to shape what services look like. More than that, it also seeks to explore how outcomes can be achieved in new ways – perhaps involving a community group in delivering a service, or supporting a community to take on a project or an asset itself.

Increasingly we’re finding councils keen to open up these new sorts of conversations – with town and parish councils, with community groups or just with driven individuals who have a big idea. But councils can struggle with what this means in practice. There’s the obvious challenge of making time and resource available to nurture these local ideas when ever-shrinking budgets loom. But aside from that, there’s another simple, practical challenge of what an ‘ongoing conversation’ or ‘ongoing engagement’ really looks like, and how to enable it in a way that’s cost effective and which isn’t repetitive.

Part of the answer – though only part – could be a website like the one Devon County Council has recently launched:

Devon County Councul website home page

It was something they already had in the pipeline when we worked with them earlier in the year through the Cabinet Office’s Delivering Differently programme. As part of that programme, we helped them produce content for the website, reflecting on some of the local projects we had been involved in and sharing some of the tools we had used.

So who is this website aimed at?

The intention is that a Devon-based group or an individual with an idea for their area – or maybe just half an idea – can use this website to get started. Perhaps you feel there’s a challenge that needs addressing and want to get people together to work on a solution – here you’ll find tools for running engagement events. Perhaps you have plans for how to use a local building in a different way – here you can read guidance about taking on a building as a community asset. Perhaps you’re starting with a project but no venue and want to find out what buildings could be suitable – the website provides a map of council buildings, how they’re used and even how big they are. And wherever you’re starting from and whatever your project, there will be some sort of guidance, tools or local case study that’s relevant. That’s important because when people find this website, they won’t all be starting from the same point.

Isn’t all this material available already, somewhere else?

Some of it, certainly. Lots of councils already provide (very dry) lists of consultations that are currently live, and somewhere else they may provide local data profiles of their communities. National organisations like Locality and the Plunkett Foundation, meanwhile, provide some great advice, guidance and case studies on topics like supporting a village library or saving a pub. The real value of Devon’s community website is that it brings all these things together into one place, presented through a very local lens, and makes a very public, positive invitation to residents and local groups to start a journey of involvement.

And that positivity, coupled with clear, practical routes to shaping a proposal and submitting it to the council – is important. Sure, there’s also a cuts narrative behind all this, and the cabinet member’s introductory message doesn’t shy away from that. But you can’t easily frighten or depress people into getting active – much better to inspire and energise, which is what the website’s local case studies do, from the youth club in Ottery to the book shop in Crediton.

Positive and practical routes to involvement

I personally would have gone with a  diffent tag line for the website – ‘helping communities to help themselves’ has something of the Victorian moraliser about it. But overall this website positions itself well as a different kind of local authority resource, combining warm words on co-production with practical routes to involvement – local data to inform your case, tools to engage your neighbours, buildings you could enquire about and guidance for making a proposal. I suppose it feels like a website which flings open a door on the sort of collaboration implied by the new Community Rights, rather than peering suspiciously from behind a curtain at County Hall.

What sort of response people will get from Devon County Council if they take up the invitations made here, I don’t know. Certainly a website on its own won’t mean much if in practice, it’s not followed up by a willingness or ability to support those ideas and proposals that emerge. But as a repository of useful information, an exercise in openness and a statement of a council’s intent to be collaborative and creative about its assets and services, it’s a good start. Maybe every council should set up a site like this as one strand of that ‘ongoing engagement’ we all keep talking about.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Public Dialogue to Understand Perceptions of Specific Applications of Nanotechnology

OPM Group is currently working closely with Sciencewise, the Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs and the Department for Business Innovation & Skills to lead an innovative public dialogue that scopes and enhances the UK understanding of the public’s views on specific applications of nanotechnology. The final findings will help inform the Government’s regulatory agenda for nanotechnology and how they communicate and encourage openness about developments in this field.

Our approach to deliberative dialogue on this project engages a broad range of stakeholders, experts and the public in the ongoing conversation about the role of nanotechnologies in society, while also building on previous research into public perceptions in this area.

In the lead up to the public workshops, our advisory group met regularly to help guide the process and ensure our materials reflected perspectives from scientists, academics, NGOs, industry and consumer groups. As we developed our approach, we also held a national stakeholder workshop with more than 50 stakeholders to map attitudes, issues and knowledge towards nanotechnology across sectors, including government, regulators, toxicologists, industry, NGOs, academics, and scientists. Following our initial scoping, we then conducted ten in-depth interviews with stakeholders to fill gaps in our understanding and to further inform the development of the process and materials for the public workshops – three reconvened events held in Birmingham with over 40 participants reflecting a cross-section of the UK.

Throughout the public workshops, our focus has been on exploring participant’s attitudes, aspirations and concerns towards specific nanotechnologies with an emphasis on understanding the values that underpin these views.

We are now in our analysis and reporting stage of the project, which will build on findings from the public workshops and integrate these into insights we’ve gained from other parts of the engagement process. We hope to also lead a reconvened meeting during this stage, where we will present our draft findings to all participants – stakeholders, experts, policy makers and the public. This will create an open dialogue space for all participants to reflect on the dialogue process and outcomes, and hear and discuss the findings of the dialogue.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Medical Frontiers dialogue and engagement

OPM Group delivered a multi-strand public and stakeholder dialogue and engagement programme to gauge opinion on the introduction of new IVF-based techniques for the avoidance of mitochondrial disease. The overall aim for this project was to develop an understanding of:

What we did

Following an evidence review and stakeholder telephone interviews we delivered a number of strands of engagement activity in order to understand the views of specific groups of the population drawing on different types of evidence:

The programme was guided by an Oversight Group representing a wide range of interests and perspectives on mitochondrial replacement.

The impact

The different strands of evidence were presented in standalone reports and also synthesised in a final report. The findings provided an essential part of the evidence used by the HFEA to decide how to advise government on the introduction and regulation of mitochondria replacement. In March 2013, the HFEA agreed its advice to government which considered that there was broad support for mitochondria replacement being made available to families at risk of passing on a serious mitochondrial disease. The Authority also recommended a series of safeguards, such as specific licences for clinics and further assessments of safety and efficacy of the techniques.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Identifying and recruiting participants for health research

A public dialogue for the Health Research Authority

The Health Research Authority (HRA) in conjunction with Sciencewise commissioned OPM Group to run a public dialogue on identifying and recruiting participants for health research. The final report is available to download.

The specific objectives of the dialogue were:

1. To inform the development of the HRA’s new UK wide Policy Framework to replace the Research Governance Framework and its associated operational guidance.

2. To provide opportunities for members of the public and patients to discuss and explore their aspirations and concerns about the governance of health research in relation to recruitment, data and consent, especially:

a. How patient data might be used in order to invite people to join research studies and who participants think should be allowed to access patient records in order to check eligibility

Patient Record Access


b. Different models for approaching potential research study participants including consenting to being approached directly about research

Recruiting Patients For Health Research – Participant Vox Pops


c. The plan to develop simplified models of consent for simple and efficient clinical trials of already licensed drugs and other interventions in common use.

Simplified Consent


Tuesday, July 14, 2015

‘Infrastructure and the Citizen’ policy paper serialised by Democratic Audit

Infrastructure and the Citizen’, the new policy paper by OPM’s sister company, consultation and engagement specialists Dialogue by Design, and UCL Transport Institute, has been serialised over the past few weeks in the Democratic Audit blog.

The following chapters have been published as stand alone articles:

Depoliticising infrastructure


The potential for public dialogue

Only an approach

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Happy Leap Second Day!

Blink.. and you just might miss it.

Scientists are adding an extra second to our clocks on Tuesday, June 30. The one extra second is called a ‘leap second,’ and put simply, every few years it ensures that the Earth’s rotation, which is gradually slowing, catches up with atomic clocks, keeping official time neatly in sync with night and day.

Leap seconds have been added to the world’s computers around once a year since 1972 – this is the 27th – but this occasion could also be the last. The world’s time keepers are divided over the issue, with some arguing that the periodic insertion of leap seconds can cause problems to systems such as computers and communications networks.

In May 2014 the then Science and Universities Minister David Willetts launched a public dialogue on leap seconds to help inform the future position of the UK Government on this ‘timely’ issue. The National Measurement Office (now the National Measurement and Regulation Office), in conjunction with Sciencewise, commissioned OPM Group to conduct this public dialogue throughout the UK.

A final decision on whether to keep time linked to the sun and the earth’s rotation, or to stop adding the leap seconds which maintain the link is due to be reached in November at a meeting of the International Telecommunications Union, the relevant UN body. Until then, OPM’s Leap Seconds UK Public Dialogue Final Report and blog present the public’s view of the full implications of ceasing the relationship between the sun and the time on our clocks.


If you have any further questions about the dialogue, please contact OPM’s Tracey Bedford or email more information on the methodology and outcome, please see the Leap Seconds UK Public Dialogue case study.