How We Did It: Poverty Truth Commission

September 20, 2022  

The cost-of-living crisis is a live emergency facing councils and communities up and down the country, and councils are searching for innovative ways to tackle the challenges.

In the latest of our ‘How We Did It’ event series, we looked at one possible tool – Poverty Truth Commissions. Claire Vibert shares her experience of setting up and running a complex, collaborative commission in Trafford, Greater Manchester

Watch or read our interview below.

What is a Poverty Truth Commission?

A Poverty Truth Commission, in a nutshell, is a process that tries to put people who are experiencing poverty in their daily lives, at the heart of developing solutions.

It’s a project that takes place in a specific local area, and it’s time limited. It works by recruiting two sets of commissioners – in Trafford, we’ve called them community commissioners and civic commissioners. The community commissioners are local residents who have lived experience of poverty. Civic commissioners are local leaders in the public, private or third sectors, key decision makers in that local area who can affect change.

How does it work?

The Poverty Truth Commission runs by fostering good relationships between the two sets of commissioners, to enable a deeper understanding of poverty within the local area and how it affects people’s lives. The aim is to lead to better policymaking and better ways of working within delivery organisations.

It’s not a consultation, so you don’t start with questions. You start with the people and their relationships and their experiences. And then you build from that. It’s very much up to the commissioners themselves to set the agenda and identify the specific topics that they want to tackle.

We spent a few months recruiting our commissioners and setting up the commission. Now that is all in place, my role involves planning and facilitating the commission meetings, keeping the commission moving, and continuing to build relationships with our commissioners. We’re also looking outwards from the Commission to try and make sure that the work that we’re doing is having an effect throughout the borough.

What is the council’s role?

There isn’t an exact template that every Poverty Truth Commission follows, but in most places, the council does have a role. In Trafford, they really were the driving force behind setting up our commission.

Before the project team was in place, there was a working group with council officials, elected members, local organisations, and third-sector partners. The council funds the project together with Trafford Housing Trust, but the project team is employed by Stratford public hall – a local community hub – which is funded to deliver the project.

Throughout the process, we’ve worked really closely with the council, and we’re feeding directly into the anti-poverty strategy. We have regular meetings with the policy team. We also have two representatives from the council sitting on the civic side of the commission itself – one of the deputy chief executives and one of the executive members. So, the council plays an integral role, both in managing the project and also participating in the commission.

Why did the council not decide to run the commission themselves?

My sense is that having that separation between the council and the Poverty Truth Commission helps because we’re slightly at arm’s length. It allows the commission to progress in quite a natural way, and the commissioners themselves to be in charge of the process.

We also work with the council if they have something specific that they are looking at in terms of poverty strategy and our community commissioners can come in and talk to them on a particular issue, but the actual Poverty Truth Commission itself needs to be a more natural process.

That said, I know that in some areas, Poverty Truth Commissions are run from within the council, so it’s not a one size fits all.

What goes into setting up a commission? What are the timelines?

Obviously, the process started before I was in post, when the council and their partners started to think about hosting a Poverty Truth Commission. If you’re thinking of running a Poverty Truth Commission in your area, absolutely engage with an organisation called the Poverty Truth Network – they oversee what commissions are going on across the country and can advise you on setting up a project.

It’s not a consultation, so you don’t start with questions. You start with the people and their relationships and their experiences. And then you build from that.

I started in my role about a year ago. We spent a long time recruiting our commissioners – longer than we anticipated. Getting the right people on board is really important and does take time.

Once we had our community commissioners in place, we felt very conscious that we needed to spend time getting to know them and letting them get to know us and feel comfortable in the environment of the Poverty Truth Commission. It’s quite a vulnerable position for them to be in, sharing their personal experiences. Having good relationships and an environment of trust between the facilitation team and commissioners was crucial.

Most Poverty Truth Commissions hold a launch event of some sort, and we held ours in May. We aimed to make it very much about our community commissioners and their experiences. It was a way for them to share their stories with the community and with the civic commissioners for the first time. And it allowed them to take ownership of the Poverty Truth Commission and to make it clear that our commission is about them, their experiences, and making their voices heard.

What has happened since the launch?

We’ve been holding regular meetings of the Poverty Truth Commission, bringing our commissioners together and working towards our final report and recommendations for the end of the project next Spring.

So far, we’ve spent a lot of time exploring issues of poverty, talking about personal experiences, and building relationships. Now we’re starting to hone in on the specific issues that are most pertinent to our residents. We’ll form task groups, split the commissioners into three groups, and they’ll go off and work together on the issues that they choose. I can’t preempt what they’re going to do but they could, for example, look at housing or access to food. And obviously, the cost of living is very much on everybody’s mind at the moment.

We’ll go away and look in detail at those issues, and work up some proposals and recommendations, not just for the council to act on, but also for organisations right across the borough. We expect our civic commissioners, whichever organisation they’re from, to go away from the Poverty Truth Commission and do something as a result, whether it’s something tangible like making changes in the way they deliver their service, or something a little bit less tangible, like a change of mindset about how they approach the people that they work with daily.

That’s where we’re up to at the moment. I think most Poverty Truth Commissions follow that general timeline.

How did you go about recruiting the community commissioners?

At the start of the project, we spent a bit of time looking at data and demographics, trying to get a sense of what our ideal community commissioner group would look like. It was very important that we had a group that, as far as possible, represented people experiencing poverty in Trafford. Like lots of places in the country, it’s a borough that has huge disparities in terms of wealth and deprivation. We were very conscious of the specific wards that we wanted to be well represented, and also of the demographics of our group.

The way we went about it was to engage with as many local community organisations as we could, whether it was churches or food banks or mosques or youth groups. We were going out right across the borough, pounding the pavements. We talked to people running local organisations, explaining the commission and who needed to be involved to make it a really good project for Trafford. We felt that by going through those trusted partners, we’d be more likely to find people who would be right for the project.

What were the challenges involved?

We’re very conscious that we’re asking people who are perhaps quite vulnerable to share a lot about themselves. We needed to be very conscious of their state of mental health to make sure that we weren’t asking too much of people who perhaps weren’t in the right place to participate.

It’s also a big commitment. You have to be very clear about the level of time needed, attending regular meetings for half a day a month, but a lot more in between. It’s a lot for anyone to take on.

We did it by going through community organisations to get introductions with potential commissioners. We then spent a lot of time with people one to one, building up their confidence, and helping them to think about how they might share their stories. Gradually we brought them together in pairs, and then small groups, and then a whole group of community commissioners, well before we actually held the launch event.

We’ve seen some fantastic relationships grow between our community commissioners. The mutual support that they give each other in the commission meetings, and the friendships that they’ve formed outside, have been really great.

It was a challenge to make our recruitment demographically representative, and we really struggled to get men to participate. We found women were much easier to reach out to, and we do have more women than men in the group. We knew we would never get a perfect representation of Trafford residents, but we have managed to get some men involved now, which is good.

Towards the end of the recruitment, when we could see the gaps, we felt we didn’t have enough people from BAME backgrounds within our group. We worked with some of our civic commissioners to help us to find people to take part.

One of our civic commissioners is a head teacher at a local primary school, and he’s a very trusted person in the area. He introduced us to a few parents from his school who now participate in the commission. So, it took a lot of time.

How many commissioners do you have?

We have about 15 community commissioners and nearly 20 civic commissioners, which is quite a lot. I think quite a few Poverty Truth Commissions end up with less than that.

We were keen to slightly over recruit because we know it’s a long project. There’s a risk of people dropping out, whether it’s just disengagement, or they move, or for various other reasons. So, we were quite keen to have as many people as we could practically manage, to mitigate against those risks.

We spent a long time recruiting our commissioners – longer than we anticipated. Getting the right people on board is really important and does take time.

As you’ve described you have civic commissioners, some of whom might have a lot of power within an area, and community commissioners who may feel that they don’t have that same kind of power. When they are all in a room together, how do you ensure equity during those conversations?

It’s partly about starting from the position of the community commissioners having real ownership of the process. All the pre-work we did with them has really helped, because they could come to the meetings feeling very confident that they know each other, and they’re used to talking in that particular place. They’re used to us as a facilitation team as well. Having that all set up beforehand really helped once we started to bring the civic commissioners in because the community commissioners already felt very comfortable.

It was also using the launch event as a way of setting that position out – this is us all sharing our stories, we are the community commissioners, this is our commission, these are our voices. I think that that really helped set the tone for how the project has gone on.

Since then, we’ve tried really hard in our commission meetings to spend time in small group work and partner work. For example, we did a session where the civic commissioners gently interviewed our community commissioners, to tease out information about things that they were particularly interested in.

We’re also trying to do different styles of sessions. Next week, we’ve got a creative magazine-making session, which we’re hoping will create some equity within the room because everybody will be engaged in the same task.

We’re trying to make it as informal as we can, avoiding business language or agendas or things like that, while still managing those conversations.

How do you manage the civic commissioners?

I have to say that our civic commissioners have come to this with an open mind and with a lot of desire to make it work. Again, it’s about engaging with them beforehand to make sure that they understand the process. We don’t want them to come into a half-day meeting – which is a lot of time for somebody to give up – and go away feeling like it was a waste of time.

They might have just spent the time sitting down having a cup of coffee with somebody. They’re building those relationships, before we move into the nitty-gritty of the project that comes a bit later on.

It’s all about getting that buy in beforehand. For the most part, we’ve found that our civic commissioners have been very open-minded and committed to the project.

Claire Vibert is the coordinator of the Trafford Poverty Truth Commission.

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