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  • Oxford Together Stories

Fixing It, Doing It, Just Going For It

I think the connection with people who are both struggling and doing all right and helping and offering to help is absolutely life-affirming, you know.

I’ve been working at Oxford City Council for the last four years. My background’s in housing and community development. More recently, since January this year, I’ve been in the council’s new transformation team, which is all about introducing new ways of working, responding to change more quickly and in more of a flexible way. As the Covid crisis became clear, my team had started delivering a programme of training around things like putting your ideas into action and how to run an efficient team meeting and involve everybody in decisions, and aspects of agile project management – responding quickly, trying small things out as quickly as you can. So in contrast to the old methods, where you have a plan for maybe a couple of years to deliver a project, it’s saying, right, what are the most important things to start trying, and what might work to make the change, how can we try something out really quickly, say in the next two or three weeks, and how do we get the right people together, try that, come back in a little period of time and see how it went and where to go next. It’s actually exactly how Oxford Together works.

Then the community's department at the council started moving towards setting up these locality hubs. My team, the transformation team, were asked for each of us to be attached to one of the locality hubs. There wasn’t very much clarity to start with about what the locality hubs would be doing, and what our involvement would be, because it all developed so quickly. It became obvious that the biggest need was to respond to the requests for help that were starting to come in. The main requests were for help with shopping, picking up prescriptions and food boxes; food boxes always being very much in demand. But there were a lot of people comparing notes, and it was clear that there were different practices emerging. There was a strategy document from the council, a protocol I think, on how the locality hubs would work, but a lot of that was about the physical side of health and safety, how to get the food boxes in and things like that. There wasn’t really anything at that stage on how to co-ordinate requests for support. Within the first week of the locality hubs’ operations, it became clear that there was a need for more detailed procedures. A couple of people had started writing bits down, but I just volunteered to pull everything together into a sort of practical procedure for dealing with the referrals. 

One of the things that became obvious that was really very laborious and causing a lot of duplication in the whole process, was this thing with the contact centre at the council, filling in a form that generated an email, people transferring the information from those emails into a spreadsheet, ringing people, updating notes. There was lots and lots of re-keying and duplicating and the different locality hubs were keeping records in different ways. In the end it was better, much simpler and more practical and quick, to use Oxford Hub’s online form and adapt it. We needed to be able to transfer the council contact centre from the old form which is what they’re used to, using for everything else they do, to a completely new kind of form, and train the hub staff. By the 10th of April we had that plan of how to do it, and then it went live on the 20th of April. I don’t think I’ve known a big process change that fast with the council before. And quickly, they (the Contact Centre managers) let the people who were confident and managing it take calls, while the training staff worked to support the ones who were less confident. It was a really efficient way of getting a lot of people trained, there were a few hitches technically, but they were surprisingly quickly resolved. 

By the time they were setting up the locality hubs, Oxford Hub already had several thousand volunteers around Oxford. I don’t think they were yet dealing with large numbers of requests, but they’d got their technical systems already really well set up, so there was already the Google document with the procedures, the Google map with pinpoints where all the volunteers are. And the system that they’ve used to keep track of the requests and cases was in place and working very well from the Oxford Together point of view. I think there was a good support structure network, considering that a lot of people were working at home, and were not with a physical team. The technology wasn’t easy at that stage, but the sort of ethos and atmosphere was very very motivating – lots of reassurance. There were people from Oxford Direct Services, who would normally do maintenance type things, people from the finance team and people from all sorts, but all people who were willing to do it and whose managers thought they were able to give a good go of trying something completely different. 

I think it is working, it is doing what it needed to. I rang a couple of people where I saw on the system that the details were quite worrying. One, for example, where the referral mentioned that they were having trouble breathing, feeling very isolated and anxious, and had been told not to go to hospital, but were feeling very anxious about that. I was worried. But by the time I rang, she’d had two paramedics out, she’d had the county council in touch to say that they were allocating a social worker, the person who rang her about delivering a food box had established she had an adult son living with her. So, that was very reassuring, to find that the systems had worked, and a case that looked on the face of it really worrying had actually had all the right response and support provided. 

Now the locality hubs’ focus has changed, to proactive contacting of people who haven’t asked for help yet, going through lists of vulnerable people. So a lot of welfare checks, and a lot of getting in touch and making connections with local community groups about what they were doing. I know there was a connection with the Mosque in East Oxford and a coordinated response to getting food to people during Ramadan. Now they’re starting to think about what their purpose might be going forward, how much presence they need in the future, how their role might be more about supporting local groups, rather than providing things directly. Oxford Hub have been really good at sort of prompting that thought process, moving into something more sustainable, and the council leadership have been very keen to start thinking about that – how to move the focus of the locality hubs into something longer term.

I’ve absolutely loved being part of it. I felt very valued. Nothing has felt more like a really useful job than what I’ve been doing over the last six weeks. I think the connection with people who are both struggling and doing all right and helping and offering to help is absolutely life-affirming, you know. Seeing how effectively the council and Oxford Hub can work together to make something happen really quickly and to do good things by trying it out and then when something goes wrong, fixing it and doing it and just going for it. I hope that I and the organisation have learned from that and that we won’t revert to very long, drawn-out processes of signing everything off. We know now that we can do things in collaboration with others quickly and well, and that things will go wrong, but never the most important things if we have a clear purpose. I think at the council there are a lot of people who’ve worked much longer hours and much harder than they would otherwise because of the sort of sense of necessity and desire to do something really good working together.

Having a mix of different people involved with completely different perspectives is what’s allowed that creativity, I think. Permission to be creative from all levels, everybody taking part and the different perspectives of all the different people. And getting the communication channels right to enable people to spark off each other. On the personal side, my street took part in the May Morning event which was just lovely. I played my saxophone and my neighbour played her French horn and we sang, and it probably wasn’t beautiful, but it was really, really lovely, people taking part in something together.

Edited by Sofia Smith-Laing


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