First Steps to Thinking Relationally

Kate Bagley

Kate Bagley

At Participle, we strongly believe that a 21st century welfare system must work relationally. (In fact we believe it so strongly, that’s what we’ve named our blog.) So what does that look like? We’ve got a vision of a future where our public services are dedicated to boosting citizen’s capabilities to lead thriving lives, every frontline worker has the time and ability to form relationships with the people they assist, and local networks of support are helping everyone find great jobs, stay healthy, and stay connected.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We know that it’s not easy to make these types of changes in a system that resists them. But we also know that the role of the public servant is rapidly changing. We’ve always been happy to admit that you don’t need every single public service to function relationally – you don’t need a meaningful relationship with the people emptying out your bins in order for the waste disposal system to work properly. But lately I’m beginning to wonder. In our current environment, even the fire service are expected to reach out and work with the communities around them to a surprising degree. It’s evident that those of us in public service need to understand the thinking behind working relationally, and it’s also evident that we aren’t going to be able to change our systems overnight. So where do we begin? If you’re a public servant, here are some easy places to start:

  •  Map out your day. When we spent time with social workers who assisted troubled families, we found that they spent 80% of their working time filling out paperwork and dealing with forms, and 20% of their working time interacting with the people they were meant to help. Of course, a good portion of that 20% was spent seeking data to input into the forms. Still, when we asked them beforehand how their day was spent, they reported that most of their time was spent with the families. You might not realise how much time you’re spending with people until you sit down and purposely map it out. Realising how much or how little you actually have to work with is the first step to thinking about what a different way might look like. If you’re in management, think about the structures and tools you’re giving to the people who do frontline work, and if those are helping or hindering them in forming relationships with service users.
  • Learn about active listening. This might seem a little unusual, but if you’re in a role where you need to understand people’s lives and what motivates them to change, a little bit of listening will go a long way. Most of us are not in the habit of truly listening to what people are saying, or helping others reflect on their thoughts. These are skills which are easily sharpened with a bit of practice, and will help you do your job much better. We’ve found that even just simply giving people the space to get things off their chest while you listen makes them much more receptive to what you’ll have to say in turn.
  • Stay in touch with how people are helping each other in the communities where you work. This is a dual-purpose suggestion. Understanding how people are connecting to support one another will make it easier for you to point your clients in the right direction. Go beyond what large charities are offering, and pay attention to what small community groups are up to and which local businesses are the informal gathering places where people go to chat. Getting plugged in to these networks will help you understand your clients better, and might even act as inspiration as to how your service could function more efficiently in that context.

In the face of diminishing resources and time, even the above can look easier said than done. But give it a try. It could help you see your work in a new light, and it’s quite likely to make your job easier in the long run.

Kate Bagley is Campaigns and Content Manager at Participle

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