The issue of skills is so often integral to most of the current national and more local headlines - be that Brexit, immigration, the NHS recruitment difficulties, poverty and/ or inequality. Although 'skills' rarely in and of itself makes the headlines. Aside from what will no doubt be the annual furore this week and next week about the "downgrading of school exam results" with the publication of A-Level and GCSE results (this year with added confusion for GCSEs of new numbered grades).
But while grappling with this agenda may not be headline grabbing it does loom large for policy-makers and political leaders, in particular a number of 'metropolitan Mayors' placed it high on their election manifestos. And it offers ideal territory for exploring the benefits of using participatory spaces offering co-design and co-production as part of the solution.
As Happen Together we brought a collection of varied facilitators together to test out thinking on the benefits of participatory policy making in April in support of the Tech North Digital Jobs Action Summit in Leeds. The brief was to produce a participative session to, "support attendees to co-design solutions and kick-start action to increase the accessibility of digital jobs". Our approach, designed with amity was centred in an understanding of human-centred design, the need to understand and work with systems and clean language use, with a fundamental belief that together communities can generate the collective knowledge and solutions they need. Since also working with amity at the Greater Manchester Homelessness Partnership in similar ways and through our involvement with Collaborate Out Loud it seems timely to reflect on some of the key lessons we've learnt so far for creating participative policy spaces.
1. There's a demand
People (or stakeholders as the policy world likes to label them) want to be involved in creating solutions. They have experiences to share, a desire to learn from the work of others and want to take responsibility for being part of creating more change.
2. Data needs to be timely and digestable
Data is critical to understanding the problem and monitoring the impact of the solutions we try. But it can't become a thing unto itself. At the Jobs Action Summit organiser Kirsty Styles was rightly keen to strike a good balance between presenting analytical research from 'experts' and authored studies with new and raw data for contributory analysis and the time for thinking about solutions.
3. Pay attention to the connecting
If we want people to collaborate on driving change in the skills (or any other policy) agenda, working across sectors, organisations and regions then we need to spend time consciously building relationships. It is trust, understanding and appreciation of others that will motivate us to listen, work together, try new things and ultimately innovate.
4. Everyone is an expert
Participatory methods of co-production offer the opportunity for truly inclusive spaces for policy and planning. When bringing stakeholders together we need everyone with a 'stake' represented; pro-actively designing in the means to make the space accessible and address the inequalities some experience in their engagement. We need to think in advance, based on evidence and experience, about where we need to make particular efforts to engage people, not react when it's too late.
5. Build a shared language and picture of the system
When we people together we inevitably bring together a plethora of different languages. Be conscious about explaining and finding shared means of expression. In the tech skills world, as in many, we were struck by some of the complexities of the policy, funding and actors involved and how many people from 'within' the system lacked clarity on how the system worked as a whole.
6. Support tangible discussions about scaling-up
We talk often in policy about sharing good practice, and the challenges of doing this consistently in an increasingly busy and fragmented space. We are definitely in need of improved methods of communicating what is working, but we also need to move beyond that to thinking about how we 'scale-up' these successes and elements.
7. Set out the objectives - but don't curb the ambition
It matters that people understand the terms of the debate, the influence they can have and the scope of what you are trying to achieve. But if we're thinking about systems it's equally important not to constrain the opportunity to consider the system differently if that gets us to a new potential solution.
It was clear from the morning session that the issues that needed to be addressed in this skills debate were wchanges that need to happen