Back in February and March 2015, the SpeakUp Forum played a central role in establishing the cross-sector East Sussex Better Together (ESBT) Engagement and Communications Advisory Group (E&CAG). From September 2016 to March 2017, the SpeakUp Forum have been instrumental in bringing about its closure! We perceive this closure as a real success story, which showcases collaborative decision-making, honest reflection and learning, adaptation, and SpeakUp’s central role in leading such processes.
In September 2016, the SpeakUp reps on the E&CAG added an item to the SpeakUp Forum bimonthly meeting to discuss the E&CAG. They gave an update to SpeakUp and highlighted some key concerns about the group, primarily: 1) The remit of the group was very narrow i.e. to consider communications and engagement about the ESBT programme, rather than consider the ESBT programme itself. Although this remit was made very clear in the group’s Terms of Reference, participants still regularly came to the group with expectations and hopes of being able to influence the ESBT programme, and then felt frustrated and disappointed; 2) The group had an ongoing open invitation to Voluntary and Community Organisations (VCOs), both large and small, across the ESBT area. In practice this meant that at any meeting there were such a range of VCO participants that the agenda ended up being inappropriate for everyone – either people could not keep up, or discussions were far too basic; 3) Even within the remit of the group, VCS participants felt they were primarily just being given information, rather than given an opportunity to co-design events or genuinely influence communications/engagement strategies and activities.
The SpeakUp Forum discussed these concerns, and reflected that these E&CAG experiences mirrored those of other ESBT groups. SpeakUp recognised and highlighted that a key part of resilience is to explicitly reflect and learn, and that this was an opportunity for SpeakUp to take a leadership role in encouraging cross-sector learning. As such, two actions were decided upon: firstly, the SpeakUp co-chair of the E&CAG would formally raise these issues with the public sector co-chair, so that they could decide together how to take them forwards constructively; and secondly, all SpeakUp members agreed to raise these issues honestly and clearly during the SpeakUp refresh process that was to begin shortly. Both actions were implemented. The SpeakUp refresh process is described in more detail here, and SpeakUp’s refreshed model clearly reflects the honest conversations that happened within the process and SpeakUp’s resultant commitment to improving cross-sector working, developing leadership, and embedding reflection and learning processes in our collaborative systems.
Raising SpeakUp’s concerns with the E&CAG co-chair contributed to initiating an open and honest series of discussions and decisions by the E&CAG. Firstly, these concerns were discussed with the whole group, and it was confirmed that many participants shared them. As this coincided with the launch of a broad County Council project to review Health and Social Care partnership/engagement arrangements (the Planning and Partnerships Project, P&PP), the first action the E&CAG decided upon was to feed these concerns directly into the P&PP. The agendas for the following two scheduled E&CAG meetings were then designed explicitly to take the concerns forwards and facilitate informed discussions about the future of the E&CAG.
The first meeting (January 2017) further explored the broader ESBT/partnership/engagement context, with an agenda that included locality engagement, accountable care, and the P&PP. The second meeting (March 2017) began with another progress update from the P&PP, where E&CAG participants confirmed they were happy with the way their concerns were reflected in the project’s findings and recommendations. The agenda then moved on to direct discussion of the future role of the E&CAG within this broader context. The group reflected on the E&CAG to date and acknowledged that the group had not been as effective as it could have been due to the three concerns initially raised by SpeakUp, but also recognised that there had been some useful information dissemination and some useful contributions regarding event planning and engagement.
The group then explicitly deliberated on three options for the future of the E&CAG: i) Disband the group; ii) Continue the group during a transition phase; or iii) Continue the group but re-constitute it to be more effective. There was a consensus among all those present that the E&CAG had been superseded by other structures and processes, and that the group should therefore be disbanded. It was also agreed that all E&CAG members would be invited to join the P&PP Task and Finish group, and that valuable lessons had been learned from the E&CAG that would be taken forwards.
Thus, SpeakUp contributed to a process of honest and explicit reflection and learning, that allowed for a collaborative decision to be made in an extremely positive and proactive manner. One SpeakUp member described the process as “liberating” – to actively and collectively take the decision to end a partnership, rather than for it to simply fizzle out, and to record the learning along the way. Another member also expressed their view that “There is no question in my mind that if those concerns hadn’t been raised through SpeakUp, this group would have still been going”.