Experiencing The PublicOffice: radically rethinking public services in an Essex church

April 11, 2011 at 8:24 am Leave a comment

by Alec Patton

On Friday, I had the privilege of joining a group from across Essex’s local authority at a workshop put on by the PublicOffice.

It was an extraordinary morning: we were in a  very large room Baptist Church, framed by rather impressive arches, but they had transformed the space with temporary walls, purpose-built viewing booths playing video, and a wonderful five-branched table. The setting meant two things: first, the space was shaped according to the needs of the event, and was clearly defined as ‘their’ space. Second, they had already achieved something improbable by schlepping all of this stuff in, and it all looked just homemade enough to make it clear that it hadn’t cost that much to do it. The effect was instantly to open up possibilities – they’d already done something remarkable just by setting up this travelling roadshow – so what were we going to bring to the table?

It was an inspiring day, most of all because my fellow-participants were so eager to transform public services, and so incisive in their thinking. And it was interesting to hear the things they kept returning to: ideas like treating ‘families’ as a unit to support as well as individuals, and loosening up restrictions on what ages a particular service could work with (one participant expressed frustration that she worked with some families where she could work with a sibling who was over 13, but could not do anything for another who wasn’t).

But what struck me most was how the day began: we were told under no uncertain terms that we were required to go to the video booths and watch at least three videos. Each of these was a profile of a family, with the family members talking about their experience of services from their local authority. These were families who’d been having a very difficult time, and their articulacy, their patience, but above all, their profound frustration, was all palpable.

It was an incredibly powerful case for action, and gave an energy to the day, fuelled by moral purpose, which never dissipated.



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