In March of this year I asked myself a very important question, what on earth am I going to wear to 10 Downing Street?
Last summer I received an email about the Government ‘Day in the Life of’ shadowing scheme where third sector workers can apply to spend the day with a member of staff from a relevant government department and they in turn spend the day with you. On a sunny day in July I completed the application form and after a couple of months received confirmation that I had been successful and had been matched with Adam Baker, Head of Prioritising for the DWP.
I have a background in working with the DWP through Legal Aid Welfare assistance, but since last year I have been working on the Fulfilling Lives programme for which Changing Lives are the lead partner. Fulfilling Lives is a BIG Lottery funded programme working with multiple complex needs individuals, with an additional focus on system change; we launched this programme in November 2014 and as part of the Day in the Life of scheme, Adam made the trip up north to attend the launch and spend some time learning about the work we do.
Following the launch, I took Adam to visit Elliott House, a Changing Lives accommodation based project working with some of the most chaotic and complex individuals in the city of Newcastle. During our visit, the support staff had lots of questions for Adam about the DWP and how there are aspects which do not work particularly well for our client group, an example of this was the frustrating telephone calls clients and staff alike have with the Benefit Delivery Centre when trying to make or resolve an issue with a benefit claim. This concern was really taken on-board by Adam and myself and since this time we have launched a small pilot based at Elliott House looking at how the Benefit Delivery Centre could work in a more social justice informed way to better meet the needs of a vulnerable complex client group; we will be evaluating the pilot later this year.
Adam returned to his base at Caxton House with a real feel, understanding and appreciation for the work we do across Newcastle and Gateshead and was inspired to start organising the day I would spend in London; what a day it was!
I travelled down to London on Monday night and having decided on the green dress, made it to Caxton House for 9am and started the day in a meeting with Iain Duncan Smith’s private sectary in what could only be described as a very austere office. Kate Davies was open, honest and incredibly personable and spent the morning talking to me about the minister, how important her role is in filtering information and how IDS does indeed have a firm eye on social justice for the DWP – our pilot may succeed yet!
From this meeting I met with Reuben Holmes who is currently working on the second version of Work Programme and who was very interested in the notion of ‘service navigation’ which is the foundation of the Fulfilling Lives programme where we are able to allocate a service navigator to a client who can provide long-term, consistent support throughout a client’s journey of services and recovery. In addition, we discussed the amazing work the Changing Lives Employment Team carry out here in the North East and following this meeting, Val Nevin (Changing Lives Assistance Director) has had direct contact with Reuben Holmes and we are hopeful that the vast experience we have can be used to influence a Work Programme 2 that will better meet the needs of those clients it aims to help.
After leaving Reuben, we had a quick lunch break and walked the short distance to Downing Street…a nervous tummy ensued. I had remembered by passport and handed it over the very imposing guard; however there was a technical glitch – my name wasn’t down and I wasn’t getting in. There were a few intense minutes waiting at the gate watching the reporters leave one-by-one after the story that David Cameron would not be serving a third term in office, but eventually the gate opened and I was permitted entry. Following a second security check we crossed the cobblestoned road and I walked up to the black door as it was opening and entered into the large lobby. Emily Ackroyd, the Prime Minster’s advisor on Welfare, showed us to our meeting room; Margaret Thatcher’s study. Emily explained that since Mrs Thatcher’s time in office the room at been decorated by Cherie Blaire, and pointed to the six large book cases, each with a small bee engraved, donating the 6 B’s or Blaires.
We sat at an incredible table, which I learned had been used at a G8 Summit, and began to talk about the reason for my visit. I expected my meeting with Emily to be very short; however she was very kind to offer over an hour of her time and allowed me to talk, in detail, about the work both Changing Lives and Fulfilling Lives are doing locally and nationally. Emily was particularly interested in the various pieces of work we are involved with, including the development of PIEs (Psychologically Informed Environments) and also the difficulties we face in relation to housing and clients with multiple complex needs.
We ended my visit to No.10 with a walk through a number of the rooms, passing the Cabinet Office where PM David Cameron and other ministers were meeting, seeing the UK’s collection of moon rock and walking down the stairs of the famous Huge Grant dance in Love Actually. Sadly, I was not allowed to take my mobile phone in with me so there are no pictures, but it is an experience that will stay with me forever.
I returned to Adam’s office to observe his very lengthily Prioritisation meeting and ended the day around 5pm, exhausted, elated, but full of energy for all I had learned and all the ideas of how we can work even harder to meet the needs of the most chaotic and vulnerable in our communities.