It’s systems change, stupid

ClareWhat happens when people’s needs outstrip the capacity of the system that is designed to help them? Most often, we blame the person rather than trying to change the system.

At the VSNW2014 conference in Manchester yesterday the failure of systems was a constant theme. Julian Corner, chief executive of Lankelly Chase, started the day with a powerful indictment of the role of public systems in perpetuating severe and multiple disadvantage.

‘The profile of multiple disadvantage cannot be understood separately from structural inequality and the behaviour of systems’, he said, citing the evidence that while the received wisdom is that early experiences of neglect or abuse lead to unstable lives, a much stronger predictor of later instability is being excluded from school or being arrested early in life.

It is the decisions taken by public systems that act as determinants of later life, with the result that those who most need support learn not to trust the very system that should be helping them.

What does transform people’s lives is a strong and trusting relationship with a caseworker, who listens without judgment and who opens up new possibilities of who they can be. What we need then is a system that focuses less on risk or measuring ‘outcomes’ but on building people’s capabilities. That asks questions about what is needed rather than relying on lazy and outdated processes.

Later in the day Damon Gibbons, the director of the Centre for Responsible Credit, offered a similarly damning indictment of the model of local finance. Growing numbers of people are locked out of mainstream finance not through any fault of their own but because the system is no longer able to cater for them.

The big banks have been allowed to become distant and to renege on their responsibilities for economic sustainability, while regulations and processes mean that the alternative finance sector – CDFIs and credit unions – is underfunded, disparate and difficult to navigate.

While attempts are being made to knit together current provision, what’s needed is more systemic change. What would this look like? It might include local councils and civic society holding big banks to account in their areas. It might see debts written off. It might build an integrated alternative finance sector. Ultimately though, it will aim towards building a system in which the need to borrow is no longer there.

We are living through times of change and turbulence. Let’s take the opportunity to rethink, revalue and rebuild broken systems.

See more from the conference here:


Clare Goff
Clare Goff is former Editor of New Start magazine


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