Losing Control in Plymouth

Ab Brightman from the Losing Control Advisory Council attended “Losing Control With Funding and Social Finance – It’s SIMPL!” organised by Plymouth Octopus Project (POP+) and Real Ideas Organisation (RIO) in Plymouth on May 2nd.

To share learning across the Losing Control network, this blog features Ab’s reflections and outlines some key insights from the event.

 


It turns out that something pretty incredible is happening in Plymouth.

Last week was my first visit to the city, which marks the very far tip of Devon and a ferry gateway to Cornwall. I was heading to town on behalf of our Losing Control Network to experience a one day event on ‘Losing Control With Funding and Social Finance’, organised as part of the fantastic SIMPL project.

This event sought to explore new research from Collaborate CIC around practical insights for funding, commissioning and managing in complexity, then to generate new knowledge and learning about how funders (investors, grant makers, commissioners, philanthropists) can work together, and with potential providers, to ‘lose control’ and create a collaborative-by-design system of finance.

Once you dive in, Plymouth is quite different to many British seaside cities; sure it has charming industrial heritage sites, friendly locals (well – friendly compared to the stony faces of Oxford where I am based!) and pockets of social deprivation and struggling high streets to bring you back to reality. Yet what sets Plymouth – and its surrounding towns – apart is the progressive social change sector that can be found there.

For one, Plymouth’s local funders and City Council, who commission local charities and community groups to deliver services, is turning its focus from dogmatic outcomes policing towards instead building funded alliances between their grassroots partner organisations to provide a more human way to provide help to individual clients using multiple services, and to support innovation and learning between everyone.

For another, Plymouth is a recognised hot spot for social enterprises and is working towards developing as a global city leader in social enterprise. It felt like there were free advice events happening every week for new and growing social businesses, delivered by a small coalition of groups such as Plymouth Octopus Project (POP+) who were the organising partner of my event.

 

The overall event was very valuable in bringing like minded people and groups together. We began with a three hour introductory event the night before the main event was definitely a great way to break the ice with people and get a feel for how the sector down there panned out. The next day’s main event and had an ambitious design; blending open conference methods with a more planned plenary format (P.S. Stella Duffy of Fun Palaces and the Losing Control Advisory Council shared a great article about how Open Space technology can transform networks). During the open space segment I ended up facilitating a session on ‘how can we ensure that the principles of losing control are reflected within our organisations too?’ exploring management, hierarchy and decision making.

One thing which struck me was that Honest Conversations, which is a Losing Control Network value, seemed to resonate especially well with people when I mentioned it. However, creating a culture of any size where the people within it have enough of a rapport to truly live this value is a challenge in itself. POP+ is keenly aware of this and feel that more and more their priority through their work needs to be prioritising building trust above all else. How to create the conditions which allow for trust and honest conversations are definitely questions we need to keep in mind for the Losing Control Network and associated events going forward, too.

With that being said, I think that this willingness to be at the forefront of the losing control movement can be summed up in the heresies we were thrown into debating almost straight away! I’ve listed them below because they’re fun to contemplate with yourself but also for an honest discussion (one of the Losing Control values!) with any other organisations, funders or social investors you have a good relationship with to build understanding of where you all currently are on the spectrums they throw up.

  • Accountability for delivering results cannot exist in complex environments
  • More participation and diversity always makes better decision making
  • By not aligning funds, funders are actively choosing poor outcomes
  • Managing performance by outcomes perpetuates harm

The fascinating part of this change taking place in and around Plymouth is that although it is (in part) well supported by outside grants, the clamoring for change came from the organisations themselves. They felt like many of us do; frustrated by ineffective funding as inequality across the country soars, and excited by the possibilities truly social enterprises offer communities. I think that this brings a lot of hope to those of us looking at our own local pictures (or the whole national one), which are lagging far behind our progressive visions of what would be better. It is clearly possible to influence this change with funders or those who contract our services and find those who are willing to actively shift the power balance.

The full Collaborate report ‘Exploring the new world: Practical insights for funding, commissioning and managing in complexity’ is available to read here.

And you can find out far more about the rest of the SIMPL project here.

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