Guest blog: Person-led #SystemChange, pt. 2

28 November 2019
Pat McArdle mayday ceo

In the 2nd part of Pat’s blog (read Part 1 HERE) on person-led #SystemChange, she writes on Mayday’s use of ‘prototyping’ vs ‘coproduction’, and of the benefits of ‘intelligent listening’ -  listening to people and hearing individuals defining their own problems, not assuming what the problem was on their behalf.

Prototyping rather than co-production

Most of our learning and insight has come from prototyping our approach. We listened to people and then researched how we could respond to what people told us. We didn’t ask people to help us to co-produce or co-design the work as we felt that was our job, and it has become much more valuable that people experience our new ways of working and continually feedback so we learn and adapt. The nuances of what works and doesn’t work are easily missed in planning meetings and focus groups but not so when you are working alongside people and continually hearing their feedback. People experience the adaptions as positive listening which is why we advocate for less co-design and more prototyping.

More recently we discovered that many people who have become institutionalised in the system have adopted similar narratives and world views of those working with it. Therefore, when both come together collaboratively to try to coproduce new approaches to bring about systems change, what we find is ‘system efficiency’ where the system remains the same, but strategies are developed to make the navigation of the system work better. This is the type of tweaking response that we know from our experience isn’t enough and is reminiscent of the ‘faster horses’ experience of Henry Ford when creating the motor car. What is needed is a wholly new response that can only emerge through prototyping and learning from real time experiences of people at the grassroots.

Intelligent listening

One of the observations that we made when we took a long term look at ways that organisations have listened to people, is the literal translation of what people are asking for which short term, solves problems for people but long term creates much greater system barriers. A good example of this is when years ago people going through homelessness talked about their problems and inhibitions in accessing GP services. GPs either were reluctant to register people with no address or people felt uncomfortable in GP surgeries. GPs were introduced into homeless day centres which initially meant people accessing health care which they never would have otherwise.

What has evolved over time is people reporting how they never integrate in the wider community and the only people they see are other homeless people and professionals/people paid to be there. This segregation has created a psychological barrier to people moving out of the system and there are more examples of where we need all reflect hard on what we hear and how we respond as organisations who want to end homelessness.

Who defines the problem?

One of the most significant transformations that Mayday Trust went through after uncovering this situation, was changing our mission. We went from defining ourselves as a homelessness charity whose mission and purpose was to end homelessness, to a Transitions Organisation that aimed to prevent the systematic institutionalisation of people in homeless services. How to tackle people with ‘complex needs’ versus tackling people who have become institutionalised in a broken system is very different.

This radical redirection was reached by listening to people and hearing individuals defining their own problems, not assuming what the problem was on their behalf. It gradually became apparent that when we listened to people, that currently the most significant problem in their lives were system barriers which got in the way of their ability to transition themselves out of their situations. These system barriers presented themselves in many ways such as structural (e.g. Housing allocations policies and welfare).

One of the observations that we made when we took a long term look at ways that organisations have listened to people, is the literal translation of what people are asking for which short term, solves problems for people but long term creates much greater system barriers. A good example of this is when years ago people going through homelessness talked about their problems and inhibitions in accessing GP services. GPs either were reluctant to register people with no address or people felt uncomfortable in GP surgeries. GPs were introduced into homeless day centres which initially meant people accessing health care which they never would have otherwise.

What has evolved over time is people reporting how they never integrate in the wider community and the only people they see are other homeless people and professionals/people paid to be there. This segregation has created a psychological barrier to people moving out of the system and there are more examples of where we need all reflect hard on what we hear and how we respond as organisations who want to end homelessness.

Who defines the problem?

One of the most significant transformations that Mayday Trust went through after uncovering this situation, was changing our mission. We went from defining ourselves as a homelessness charity whose mission and purpose was to end homelessness, to a Transitions Organisation that aimed to prevent the systematic institutionalisation of people in homeless services. How to tackle people with ‘complex needs’ versus tackling people who have become institutionalised in a broken system is very different.

This radical redirection was reached by listening to people and hearing individuals defining their own problems, not assuming what the problem was on their behalf. It gradually became apparent that when we listened to people, that currently the most significant problem in their lives were system barriers which got in the way of their ability to transition themselves out of their situations. These system barriers presented themselves in many ways such as structural (e.g. Housing allocations policies and welfare reform) or economic (e.g. the gig economy) or psychological (e.g. the deficit informed system not listening to their stories)

These systemic barriers, instead of being recognised and removed, were instead becoming further hidden and deflected as charities and providers increased the focus on pathologising people’s experiences and making these the problem of the individual and not of the system.

When we flipped this narrative and responded by creating a completely different way of thinking and working which listened to individual problems as defined by people themselves, we found that by removing these systems barriers and giving people more power and control, they were able to quickly and sustainably transition to more positive lives outside of services.

Next week, in the third and final part of Pat's guest blog series, she reflects on how siloed services inadvertently end up trapping people by building up and reinforcing damaging system-defined identities.


Pat McArdle, CEO of the Mayday Trust, has been passionately working to tackle homelessness in the UK and Ireland for over 25 years.
Prior to joining Mayday in 2011, Pat worked for organisations including HARP, Cork Simon Community, Foyer Federation and YWCA England & Wales where she managed and developed a range of homelessness services, day centres, wet provision for drinkers, supported accommodation and hostels. Her passions and specialisms include drug and alcohol support, mental health, youth homelessness and working with women.