“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” Maya Angelou

Bucks Welfare Reform Ethnography

In January 2015, Darren Murinas, Vice Chair of Stoke Expert Citizens and a man who has lived experience of severe and multiple disadvantage welcomed the launch of ‘Hard Edges’, saying:

“I recognise the lives described in this report. I’ve lived it myself. I was lucky. I got the help I needed to become a clean, sober and responsible citizen after a childhood of neglect and a lifetime of crime. I am really glad that Lankelly Chase foundation is focussed on this issue and continues to relentlessly ask questions about why more progress is not being made to help all who need it become engaged citizens of their communities. Change is possible. But only if the system recognises it needs radical change.”

Making change happen is hard. Making radical change happen is even harder. It requires a shift in mindset and perception. Data is a first step to understanding where systems go wrong. But radical change requires more than data. It requires deep listening. It requires truly understanding what people’s lives are like, how they see the world, and what they aspire to.

This is why, in the next few months, we will focus on working with people with lived experience of disadvantage to tell their story in their own words. There are several reasons why, as change-makers, we should pay more attention to stories:

  1. Stories make people care – they can be used to generate empathy or mobilise people;
  2. Stories break down barriers – they can flatten hierarchies, and bring people together;
  3. Stories help people comprehend – they can illustrate complex issues, and provide structure and meaning to an otherwise chaotic reality;
  4. Stories help people suspend disbelief – they can prompt new ways of seeing, encourage creative thinking, and blow away pessimism;
  5. Stories are empowering – they can help make those who tell them feel ownership over the need to make change happen.

These are five reasons why change-makers should pay attention to the kinds of stories they are telling and listening to.

We all know that to have any impact at all, innovation needs to be driven by the needs and aspirations of people who will benefit from it. However, in a public sector dealing with lack of funds, staff shortages, political instability, it is not always easy for people who design and deliver public services to pause, listen, and reconnect with their purpose. In this context, stories of people serve to generate new kinds of evidence about what matters to people, and about what is and isn’t working. They also provide an emotional connection, necessary to mobilise sometimes sceptical or frustrated service providers and commissioners around the need for change.

Our work at the Innovation Unit and User Voice is about trying to bridge the gap between those who are ‘at the receiving end’ of public services, and those who make decisions about how the public sector should be shaped and delivered.

Multi-media storytelling allows us to delve deeply into the joys, pains, wisdoms and struggles of those telling their stories – a level of honesty and humility that comes across only with real lives and real voices.

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