Levelling up brings an opportunity to address deep societal inequalities. To do this, we believe a systemic approach that embeds participation can begin to create social systems that collectively work to improve our abilities to live a good life.
In this series of blogs, we will explore key themes that underpin the programme to share our research so far and how we hope to work with people and places to increase participation, reduce inequalities and develop systems that centre wellbeing and move away from siloed models.
Two years ago, I wrote a blog – ‘Why we shouldn’t use war metaphors to talk about healthcare’ – which spoke to the use of language in describing the response to the Covid-19 pandemic; so, bear with me while I briefly compare levelling up to a (real) war currently being waged in Ukraine. As soon as the Russian invasion began, ripples were felt. Fuel prices went up, refugees started to arrive in Poland, small communities across the UK began to receive donations for their families and friends in Ukraine and sanctions were being imposed on Russia. “What has this got to do with levelling up Ruth?” I hear you mumble. Well, it shows the interconnected and systemic nature of our lives and what happens if we develop a partial solution to a problem (just look at the complexity of the financial sanctions against Russia). It will remain just that - a partial solution.
Before comparing levelling up to a major war, I’ve been thinking about it a lot. I’ve worked with families affected by serious illness, disability including mental illness and, as its currently presented, levelling up won’t make much difference for those who are experiencing inequality most acutely. A new road, museum, building a factory or investing in grassroots football won’t level across as well as up. People experiencing acute inequality lead complex lives – we all do. Areas experiencing severe economic deprivation will also be experiencing severe health inequalities. The interconnection with these are felt by a whole family or household and the ripples play out across generations.
Levelling up, across and around
If we are to “level up” we must level across, level around. Essentially, take a whole system approach. We must invest in, and develop, new models of public services that recognise the interconnection between economic insecurity and health. Or like the excellent Human Learning Systems, creates a ’bespoke by default’ model that moves away from targets as the measure of success. We must have clear routes of participation and deliberation for residents. Our work in Nechells demonstrated a need and want for residents to be involved in decisions about where they live. This will mean the systems that support residents will have to have their voices at their core. They should reflect their lives rather than tackle a single aspect of that life. We must move rapidly to decarbonise our systems, and more besides because everything is connected. Two great examples show this: the incredible Obesity System Influence diagram that shows the small part of the system that health services can affect; and Barbara Pointon’s Web of Care diagram showings the different services that came into her home to support her husband who had dementia and the lack of connection between them.
I worked with unpaid carers and their families for years. During this time, I saw evidence that poor support for disabled people, older people and those with long-term conditions not only affected the individual but the whole household or family. Unpaid carers were giving up work, experiencing poor health, young people dropped out of education. All of this has a huge cost (both personally and financially) on individuals and the wider system. Yet solutions continued to be presented in isolation; standalone offers of support, lack of connection in the system, poor information provision and employers still not recognising that it costs less to be flexible and keep an experienced and skilled worker in a role than it does to recruit and train a new one.
Levelling up: No easy solution to a complex system
Complex systems aren’t easy and there aren’t easy solutions to them. It would be exciting to see the Levelling Up White Paper as an opportunity to take a complex system approach, creating clear links to all aspects of policy decisions on welfare services, health services, social care funding and design, public transport strategies, climate change plans and, crucially, the lack of engagement and participation embedded in them. Political engagement and trust have continued to decline in recent years, therefore, for meaningful transformation to work, we must shift our systems to those of participation. Enabling residents to decide how, what and where things happen in their local communities can be transformative. Changing systems to allow residents to see how budgets are spent and how shifting focusses are decided upon will help change to take hold as well as foster more participation from those stakeholders who use these systems.
Complex systems aren’t easy and there aren’t easy solutions to them.
So, let’s make levelling up more than a soundbite. If we centre participation, focus on the complex nature of inequality and develop systems that centre wellbeing (what we need to live a good life) maybe then we will see levelling up, around, across – all over the place! The work we have been building over the past year that embeds participation shows the impact this can make. For example, our Young People’s Economic Security work has young people at its heart and their voices in all we do.
And instead of us citing Renaissance Florence as our goal, we’ll be citing renaissance Selby, renaissance, Bangor, renaissance Kilmarnock as the ideals we should all strive for. But unlike Florence where the Medici did unto their city and not for the benefit of all, let’s meaningfully do things with citizens to achieve better lives for all of us.
Get the lowdown on levelling up
This is the first blog in a series from the People and Place team that will explore the themes that underpin our work including economic security, participatory practice and more. Watch this space to gain an insight into work we will be launching soon that investigates the interdependencies between wellbeing, participation and equality – essentially what do people need to live a good life. If you are interested in supporting this work, feel free to get in touch: [email protected]
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Thoughtful and thought-provoking exposition of the complex challenges involved in a holistic, intelligent approach to improving outcomes and life opportunities for all. I look forward to hearing more about the “how” as the initiative(s) develop.