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Prompting ideas and action: Learning from our micro-grant scheme in libraries


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This report shows how an inexpensive Local Government scheme can prompts lots of action around a social challenge. It shares learning from our micro-grant scheme to find new ideas for addressing the social isolation that too many new parents experience. The scheme was a partnership between ThePublicOffice and Essex County Council and operated across 74 libraries in Essex between May and December 2015.

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Prompting ideas and action: Learning from our micro-grant scheme in libraries

  1. 1. Prompting ideas and action: Learning from our micro-grant scheme in libraries December 2015
  2. 2. Introduction “We are never short of good ideas, but we are not always sure they’re welcome. Are you sure we have permission to do this?” Library Manager and Grant Recipient “
  3. 3. Introduction In May 2015, Essex County Council (ECC) started a programme to prompt new ideas and action around a social challenge. The micro-grant scheme ran between May and November 2015. It responded to a challenge that commissioners had identified in a recent review of the Early Years system: the social isolation that too many parents with young children in Essex experience. The scheme invited staff in libraries to share ideas for how they would address the challenge. It offered small cash awards of up to £200 to support the best ideas to happen. The scheme was simple in design and inexpensive to run. But its impact has been profound.
  4. 4. Introduction “This is a new way to work. This is the way we work now. The ideas are endless.” Library Manager and Grant Recipient
  5. 5. Introduction The micro-grant scheme has prompted new activity in 17 libraries to help parents and carers with young children to connect and make friends. It has also had significant unintended benefits: staff feel much more empowered to put ideas into action, respond to local challenges, reach out to new partners and learn and improve as they go. They feel they have support and permission to use their initiative to help shape local outcomes. This report shares what we’ve learned about this simple yet powerful prompt for innovation. Describing the scheme, its method and its impact, it should be of interest to anyone who’d like to use a similar approach to address priorities and incentivise action – especially social action.
  6. 6. Background
  7. 7. The challenge How could we help parents and carers with young children in Essex to connect and make friends? ECC’s micro-grant scheme was a response to a priority that commissioners identified in a recent review of the Early Years system. Researchers had found that social isolation was a huge, un- addressed problem for families with small children in Essex. Too many parents and carers had fragile support networks, making them vulnerable to crisis if things went wrong. Many new parents had difficulty making friends and were also lacking the confidence to even approach services and support that existed for them. Commissioning leads believed that there was so much more ECC could be doing through existing services and with existing staff and resources to address this challenge.
  8. 8. The method The scheme also grew out of a desire to explore new methods for generating ideas and mobilising action in communities. Commissioners at ECC were interested in trying new methods that allowed them to source ideas from a much wider pool. They were especially interested in ‘challenge’ methods, where people are openly invited to respond to an identified challenge and prizes are awarded for the best ideas and solutions. Challenge methods are currently enjoying a resurgence in public services in the UK and internationally. They are also a simple way to commission for outcomes, so chimed with the new strategic direction for commissioning at ECC. The idea for ‘micro-grants’ comes specifically from Amsterdam, where the municipal government has had great success building community capacity by issuing small grants to local people to address local problems. The programme adopted a simple challenge prize or ‘inducement’ method to stimulate ideas and action.
  9. 9. The partnership with libraries Libraries have always been important places for families and children: they were a natural partner in starting to address the challenge. Face-to-face services were a great partner for other reasons. Their newly-appointed leader, Sophia Looney, was already keen to empower staff to work differently with each other and with communities to bring new life to libraries. When she stepped into the role, Sophia had been advised that ECC couldn’t afford to run so many libraries, but neither could any be closed. This was a huge challenge that couldn’t be solved by ‘business as usual’. Sophia’s ambition for libraries has ‘civic innovation’ at its heart. Leaders of libraries were already exploring different ways to enable staff and communities to address their own local challenges and seize opportunities. They readily agreed to work with Early Years commissioners to try new ways to reduce social isolation for this group. We need to encourage staff to make best use of their creativity and initiative
  10. 10. How did we do it?
  11. 11. The micro-grant scheme responded to a challenge that commissioners had identified as part of a recent review of the Early Years system. Our short, intensive timeline 1 Call for ideas 2 Select ideas 3 Kick-off workshop 4 Interim workshop 5 Final workshop Mid-May 2015 End May 2015 3 June 2015 6 July 2015 24 Nov 2015 TESTING IDEAS IN LIBRARIES FOR HELPING PARENTS TO CONNECT AND MAKE FRIENDS
  12. 12. What happened?Participation 74 libraries 17 submitted ideas 13 projects in train All ideas had potential so every applicant was invited to join the scheme, to work together to develop thinking and put ideas into action. Projects in train: Basildon, Billericay, Chipping Ongar, Colchester, Earls Colne, Epping, Great Baddow, Harwich, Maldon, Manningtree, Melbourne, South Woodham Ferrers and Witham.
  13. 13. The micro-grant scheme responded to a challenge that commissioners had identified as part of a recent review. Design principles The scheme was very simple in design. The following principles were critical to success (and not all of them were things we thought to be important at the outset). 1.  Clearly articulate the challenge 2. Offer incentives 3. Remove barriers to participation 4. Support collaboration 5. Reflect on impact
  14. 14. The micro-grant scheme responded to a challenge that commissioners had identified as part of a recent review of the Early Years system. Design principles 1.  Clearly articulate the challenge In this project, we issued a challenge question and shared the research which had found that social isolation was a huge problem for families. In our first reading of the submitted ideas, applicants had not addressed the challenge with as much precision as we had hoped. We responded by holding a workshop to share what we knew about the problem of social isolation for young families, and to help people to formulate even more precise responses to the challenge. Provide participants with a clear and precise understanding of the challenge (expressing it as a ‘how could we’ question is helpful). And take time to clarify the challenge if necessary. It
  15. 15. The micro-grant scheme responded to a challenge that commissioners had identified as part of a recent review of the Early Years system. Design principles 2. Offer incentives Competition and the promise of reward is critical to how the method works. Even small or non- financial awards incentivise action and encourage people to make a priority of addressing the challenge. The micro-grant scheme awarded small grants of up to £200 to library staff to put their ideas into action. These small grants unlocked a huge amount of energy and activity. Participants told us that the money ended up not being that important (and many have not spent their entire grants). But the promise of a prize gave them a push to develop and share their ideas in the first place, and to try new things that they might not have otherwise been encouraged to attempt.
  16. 16. The micro-grant scheme responded to a challenge that commissioners had identified as part of a recent review of the Early Years system. Design principles In this project, we encouraged applications from anyone working within face-to-face services in Essex. We also made applications very simple, asking only that applicants share their idea for meeting the challenge in no more than a paragraph or two. We asked that people let us know how they proposed to spend their grants should they be successful. But we also offered no conditions around what was an acceptable spend – as long as the idea responded to the challenge, we encouraged the project. Our aim was to keep things as open as possible so that people had minimal constraints around their creativity. 3. Remove barriers to participation It should be easy for people to participate – don’t stifle creativity or drain energy before you’ve started. This means making the application process straightforward, with no complicated criteria to decipher or forms to fill in.
  17. 17. The micro-grant scheme responded to a challenge that commissioners had identified as part of a recent review of the Early Years system. Design principles 4. Support collaboration We did not intend to facilitate conversations between the libraries through the programme. But it transpired that enabling people come together to discuss what they were doing was hugely valuable; it drove up levels of confidence, ambition and the quality of ideas. Through the 6-month programme, we brought people together 3 times: to strengthen ideas before grants were issued; for mutual support as people started the work; and to reflect on the early impact of the work after 3 months of activity. Participants began to see themselves as a ‘community of practice’, modelling the attitudes and behaviours of a more open and innovative workforce culture. Provide opportunities for participants to come together to discuss the challenge, share and develop ideas and reflect on what they’re doing and what’s working. It
  18. 18. The micro-grant scheme responded to a challenge that commissioners had identified as part of a recent review of the Early Years system. Design principles 5. Reflect on impact Share your expectations for when people should be able to report on implementation and impact, and create simple, clear milestones. This programme encouraged people to put ideas quickly into action and to report on impact within 3 months. This milestone was an important spur for action and collaborative learning. It meant everyone got something done and had insights to share on the most fruitful ways to tackle the challenge. But evaluation in this programme was light touch and focused on supporting development and learning. Participants were grateful for the license they were given to ’not get things right first time’. The most important aim was to build staff confidence to develop and learn, and to continue to work at solving the challenge.
  19. 19. Impact and learning: the challenge
  20. 20. What happened?What have libraries actually been doing? When they first came together, the libraries had lots of great ideas for supporting parents and carers to connect with each other (see their list of Ten Things to Try Today). But as they put their ideas into action, the libraries also learnt more about the nature of the challenge and began to make breakthrough progress in three key areas. They have been: 1.  Partnering strategically to reach people 2.  Becoming more welcoming 3.  Unlocking hidden capacity and resource
  21. 21. What have libraries actually been doing? Libraries are now firmly focused on encouraging parents who might find it daunting to enter a library for the first time. Most are pursuing partnerships with other agencies (such as children’s centres, birth registration, health visitors and GPs) to identify and encourage people. They are tackling issues such as confidence and trust in new relationships, showing a willingness to get under the skin of the issues to develop understanding and find the most effective solutions. 1.  Partnering strategically to reach people ”I’ve learnt that it’s really helpful to make positive relationships with other agencies in order to begin to identify families who might need additional support.” “Staff need to create the networks to support the community – a ‘finger on the pulse’ attitude is needed.”  
  22. 22. What have libraries actually been doing? Libraries are discovering the small things staff can do do make people feel welcome and to help to facilitate conversation between visitors. Many have had great success in encouraging conversations around new tea and coffee facilities, while others are trying name tags and introductions for parents at Stay and Play groups. Others are focused more generally on improving the way staff relate to people. 2. Becoming more welcoming “Encourage adults to chat and stay. The idea of tea and coffee in libraries is great to facilitate discussion.” “I’ve been encouraging all my colleagues to make new people to the library feel especially welcome.”
  23. 23. What have libraries actually been doing? Libraries all reported on the unexpected capacity and resources they were able to muster when they shared the challenge. Colleagues, partners, families and local businesses were forthcoming with additional ideas and support, and sometimes with gifts of equipment and toys. Participants commented on how easy it was to gather support, when the challenge was clearly articulated and shared with others in the community. 3. Unlocking hidden capacity and resource“Ask the parents what they want! And let them tell you; take time to listen. Empower the parents; they have great ideas too.” “Staff were completely supportive of what we were trying to achieve, so much so that I only spent half my grant and staff donated the items I was originally going to buy.”
  24. 24. TEN THINGS TO TRY TODAY 1 Learn names: Too often we know the names of the children we meet in Stay and Play sessions, but forget to introduce the parents to each other. This is a huge missed opportunity to connect people and put them at ease. 2 Make Tea: Probably the simplest and most effective thing we could do to encourage parents to talk to each other is to provide facilities for tea and coffee making – with a hot beverage to encourage folks to linger, the rest takes care of itself. 3 Ask people what they want: What kind of activities might appeal to new parents? What might get new folk through the door? Have informal chats or host an organised group discussion to gather insights and ideas. 4 Let other people design and run things: You don’t have to do everything yourself – allow others to come up with ideas for sessions and have a rolling programme of activities. 5 Open on weekends: Lots of parents and carers are busy during the week, but would love to meet others on the weekends. Let’s create those kinds of opportunities.
  25. 25. TEN THINGS TO TRY TODAY 6 Work with partners: By collaborating with certain kinds of partners – midwives, birth registrations, health visitors, children’s centres – we could engage parents at the most opportune moments. 7 Experiment with branding: The names we give to sessions can draw people in – or put them off. Try mixing up the names of different sessions to see whether this attracts a different crowd. 8 Use social media: You can assume that most people in Essex – especially young parents – use smart phones. Use social media to ask questions, publicise events, generate conversation and grow communities. 9 Host one-off events: Clothing and toy exchanges, quiz nights, BBQs and picnics … a one-off event can create a buzz and get new people involved. 10 Think beyond the building: The things you run can happen in other venues and around the community. They can also happen in the green spaces around libraries. Ever thought of a community vegetable garden? Get planting!
  26. 26. Impact and learning: wider benefits
  27. 27. Impact on workforce culture ★ Staff feel much more empowered to put ideas into action and respond to local challenges and opportunities. They feel they have support and permission to use their initiative to help shape local outcomes. “The scheme not only prompted new ideas, but gave the ideas status and support.” “It allowed us the freedom to target isolated families using our own ideas that we thought would appeal.” “This is a new way to work – this is how we work now. The ideas are endless.”
  28. 28. Impact on workforce culture ★ Staff are taking a ‘develop and learn’ approach to implementation. They loved having license to test and develop ideas, building on knowledge without pressure for everything to be perfect the first time around. “We could just get on and do it, without too many forms being filled or permissions from everyone. Quite liberating that we were responsible for taking our project forward … It’s important to measure success in the ideas being developed and then evolved into something that works within the community – reflecting what the community wants.” “It’s breaking down the barriers we have put up in recent years in libraries ... being given the freedom to run with an idea and not be criticised if it doesn’t initially work. Staff have so many ideas that these relaxed environments will facilitate and can only benefit the library and the community.”
  29. 29. Impact on workforce culture ★ Staff are collaborating with peers across the library system. They loved exchanging ideas and supporting each other to explore a difficult challenge. “It’s been great to meet other colleagues and share ideas. This project has really made me think about how libraries cater for all ages and communities.” “It’s not just about how we spend money, but how we share ideas and take things forward. We’ve worked very well in the group … and we have been able to poach ideas from each other. It was a great personal opportunity for me to embrace and take forward as my own.”
  30. 30. Next steps
  31. 31. The micro-grant scheme responded to a challenge that commissioners had identified as part of a recent review of the Early Years system. Colleagues have agreed the following… 1.  Addressing the challenge of social isolation: Libraries will continue to test, develop and implement ideas for supporting parents and carers with young children. They want to stay in touch with each other as they do this and would love light touch support to facilitate meetings. 2.  Sharing learning about the challenge: Libraries are keen to share what they have learned about the challenge with the wider library system. They want their good ideas – developed through practical work – to travel. Again they will need light touch support to make this happen. 3.  Running new schemes and developing workforce culture: The leaders of the scheme are keen to explore new ways to deploy the micro-grant mechanism and grow a more creative, empowered and responsive workforce. Specific ideas include using small grants to prompt staff to act on new commissioning priorities (such as older people’s social isolation or dementia). We are also interested in exploring how micro-grant schemes could be used to empower community members and social entrepreneurship.
  32. 32. We’d love to tell you more about our experience of running a micro-grant scheme. For more information, please contact: ★ Paul Probert - Essex County Council - ★ Perrie Ballantyne – ThePublicOffice –