BLOG: Time to Shelve the System?

Homeless Network Scotland has joined Mayday Trust, Changing Lives and Platfform in a UK-wide alliance that provides a place for those that live or work in a system they want to change. Maggie Brunjes, Chief Executive of Homeless Network Scotland, blogs as part of the launch week.

When the supermarket shelves were run dry at the start of lockdown, it got me thinking for the first time about the systems and mechanisms that underpin the smooth running of big supermarkets. We had some time on our hands.

Customer demand drives what supermarkets provide, how much and how often. We are free to enter and leave with mutual benefit, having exercised choice over what we want. We don’t really see or feel those systems or give them much thought – because they largely work for us. But at the start of the year, the supermarket systems didn’t (couldn’t) respond with enough flexibility, and for a moment it affected us all.

An unseen system that bends flexibly to what people want is exactly what this New System Alliance wants for people going through their toughest times. We need to put lives first – and build systems around them. Because when we do it the other way – try to fit people to services – the system becomes inefficient, it perpetuates the worst parts of itself and enforces its norms to survive. And this means people get overlooked, or segregated, damaged by their experience – or just opt out altogether.

We all see when it works well, which is why we can see when it doesn’t. For most of us living and working within these systems, we know it doesn’t always build from what works – and often forgets what matters. Too often the entry point becomes the same label stuck on us – mental health, addictions, offender, rough sleeper, vulnerable, challenging, complex, chaotic. And a labyrinth of services and systems, of policies and procedures, of rules and regulations. It is a system unable to connect in a way that prevents people from falling through the gaps and which frustrates the people who want to help. And this waste of human potential – and expense of getting it wrong – affects us all.

So, what does a new system look like? What do we take and what do we shelve? The New System Alliance is a place to keep talking and to start building. For me, this change needs at the very least:

  • To really feature people – lots of people, the critical mass needed to create real and lasting change. Building from the magic ingredient of relationships, how we all connect and interact with each other – that people make systems, in all our different ways.
  • To value normality – home, community, safety, wellbeing, recognition, love. The most basic ingredients to build and live our lives, and what most people are trying to secure. Yet these are the very things that are most often removed or replaced with ‘professional’ alternatives when people really need them most.
  • To recognise the unfairness at the root of hard lives, which means some of us are much more likely than others to experience mental ill-health, addictions, homelessness, the justice system, trauma, abuse and violence.
  • To be preventative, anticipatory, flexible and responsive. A system that puts people first, with choice and control, and provides a soft cushion for people going through tough times, not a hard edge.
  • To build from what’s strong, rather than what’s wrong. Without segregating people from their communities, trying to ‘fix’ or patronise adults – and without driving a wedge of difference and distance between all our connected lives.

The pandemic has created the opportunity to think and act big. In Scotland, there is already a determined policy environment – some of the most progressive voices in the drive for big systems-change are coming from within national and local government and across the health and social care service. But we need more help to convert that radical big thinking into real change on the ground and create together a better, fairer, experience for everyone.

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