Learnings from Local Access

As part of our Local Access programme, which we’re running in partnership with Big Society Capital, we have invited twelve places to develop proposals for how a blend of grant and repayable finance could benefit their local social economy. Last week, we brought representatives from all twelve places together at Moseley Community Hub in Birmingham. The purpose of this day was to facilitate the building of relationships and the sharing of knowledge, ideas and aspirations in the hope that this would enhance everyone’s thinking and enable connections that can outlive this programme.

So rather than frontloading the event with more content from our side, we spent the morning hearing short portraits from all places. In the afternoon, places had the chance to sit down with members from our Advisory Board to speak with a ‘critical friend’ as well as join a session on partnership development with Collaborate CIC. The Local Access team stepped out of the room for the afternoon sessions as we wanted to create a space for places to work on their challenges without us looking over their shoulders.

There’s a lot for us to reflect on and learn from this event. Here are our two main take-aways.

Competitors can collaborate (though let’s not pretend the competition away)

We knew that it was somewhat unusual to bring people together who are effectively in a competitive process. However, the twelve places are very different from each other, and the people in the local partnerships have such a breadth of knowledge and experience, that we felt there was much more to gain from linking people up than not. In an anonymous survey we sent out after the event, most people said they felt there was a lot of respect, mutual support and a genuinely open spirit in the room. We felt encouraged by this, as our hope for this stage of the programme had been to make it valuable for places regardless of whether they are selected for investment later this year. 

Participants during an ice-breaker

However, it’s also important to recognise that the competitive nature of the process did of course shape how people interacted. As one participant described it:

“There was a sense that we were all ‘in it’ together. However, during question time there was a tension between asking helpful questions (that would provide constructive feedback and move things along) and asking or answering questions in a way that could reveal ‘weakness’ to the rest. There was also a tension between being too ‘slick’ and ‘selling’ our places vs. providing a balanced insight into challenges and opportunities with [Local Access] funding in our place.”

This sense of competition is inevitably part of the process we’ve designed. It can be difficult for places to work out how much they want to share with others at this stage, particularly when the parameters we have set are so open. We essentially trust places to work out what they need rather than prescribing what proposals should look like. Which brings us to our second point.

Understeering can be as unhelpful as oversteering

“[Without more clarity on what Access and BSC are looking for at a national level], it’s difficult to know how to focus our efforts and it feels a bit like fumbling in the dark. Each place could do a multitude of things, but it needs a lead on focus to do what so it complements other places.”

We recognise this challenge and have spent much time deliberating about it. In the process of designing Local Access, we have regularly come up against the temptation to set a more prescriptive process with a strict set of criteria that can be addressed in a written application. We know this would make things more straightforward for places – but it might also limit people’s thinking to what they think we want to hear and produce twelve proposals that all look very similar. Which is not an outcome we are hoping for – the twelve places are wildly different, and the same approaches won’t necessarily work in all of them.

Place representatives in conversation during a group exercise.

For us, place-based working is as much about the process of building relationships, developing a vision and creating the space for lots of different perspectives to contribute as it is about the content of the proposals we will receive. So the way places go about developing their proposals will be a key focus in our assessment process (hence bringing in Collaborate CIC to provide some support on developing sustainable partnerships). This can feel counterintuitive for people used to outcome-driven funding processes (which we are still unlearning ourselves). This approach is much harder to define, let alone assess, and challenges our current way of thinking about the basis on which decisions about funding should be made. 

What we are learning through Local Access is that as much as we want to put places in the driving seat of developing proposals, we also have to recognise that the absence of set criteria for proposals makes the narrowing of ideas more difficult for places and our decision-making more subjective. We will be reflecting further on how we can find the right balance between creating the space for places to define what is right for them and being more forthcoming about our expectations without steering places in a direction that might not be relevant to their context.