How to design relationship-centred services

December 8, 2021   By David Robinson

The Relationship Project’s David Robinson shares a framework for making relationships essential to public services, not a ‘nice to have’.

I have been a community worker in East London for more than forty years.

When I’m trying to get to the bottom of people’s problems, again and again I’ve found broken or non-existent relationships at the heart of the issue. Equally often, I find that repairing relationships and building new ones is part of the answer.

Covid and lockdown has shown us all that our health and happiness, as individuals and as communities, is built from the aggregation of our personal relationships. In our work on the Relationships Project, we have seen how attitudes and behaviours have become more trusting and collaborative, kinder and more emotionally responsive.

This gives us a chance to create a future built on strong relationships. What’s holding us back?

In local government, meaningful relationships are often regarded as a ‘nice to have’. We even have a phrase for it. We talk about the care worker or the teacher or the receptionist on the front desk who “goes the extra mile”.

But the evidence shows that strong relationships are not a bonus in a flourishing neighbourhood, a thriving school or an effective health service. They are the essential principle around which we organise everything else.

We need to change relationships from being ‘the extra mile’ to ‘the first mile’.

A framework for designing relationship-centred local services

How can we do this?

Services might be designed in a number of ways.  At one end of the spectrum the design process is remote from the target user. At the other, it facilitates without controlling

Some services, like refuse collection, are well suited to remote design

Others, like good social care, can only be effective when the design process actively engages and collaborates with the service user. They are most likely to be most effective and sustainable when the process is led by the end user.

Remote design

In the remote design model decisions are made on behalf of, and interventions done unto. In this mode, power and knowledge flow in one direction.

Relationships — where they exist — are transactional, unequal and hierarchical. Power is guarded, preserved, held tight.

Example: The council commission an independent organisation to run a sewing group to combat loneliness and social isolation.

Transactional design

Transactional design is based on the designer’s understanding of user experience, preference, need and priority.

Relationships are formed between designer and user, but they are temporary, transactional and unequal. Power is still held and maintained by the designer. Information passes through the filter of the designer’s beliefs, biases, and experiences.

Example: The council officer conducts a survey to see what people want and then commissions an organisation to run a sewing group

Collaborative design

Collaborative designers work side by side with the intended users.

Here we start to develop a two-way relationship based on a degree of mutual exchange and reciprocity but there remains a power imbalance in this relationship. The commissioner sets the brief and direction and the designer has the final say in how the service turns out.

Example: The council officer discovers what local people are interested in and what skills they can share. Together they set up a sewing group

Community-led design

In the community-led model thedesign process, end-to-end, is led from within.

Skills, assets, knowledge and connections are leveraged, shared and strengthened. Decisions about the shape, function and trade-offs of the output are made by those that use it. The chances of sustainability are enhanced because the necessary skills, resources and energy already exist within the community in which it is used.

Example: A group of local people discover a shared interest in sewing and enough equipment to share. They decide to get together every week. The council may be asked to work with the community, perhaps providing a room or some other form of support, but the community is in the lead

Learning from Lockdown

Mutual Aid was an example of community led design as neighbours came together to deliver support and develop new initiatives.

This activity was not dependent on external structures or processes, but it worked best where the council played an enabling and supporting role granting permission, both literally and metaphorically, for a relationship of equals

Amidst the grief of the last 18 months we learnt about the value of strong relationships and the power of community led design. We must now build on these lessons

This blog is based on David’s remarks at an Innovation Exchange event for New Local members.

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