1: How did you get involved in Cities of Service and what was the attraction?
I first came across Cities of Service when I was out in Louisville, Kentucky as part of my Winston Churchill international fellowship, and was really impressed by the way small amounts of money could be applied to really local challenges, and be able to demonstrate impact.
When I saw that Cities of Service was coming to the UK, and especially when Kirklees was successful, I knew I had to get involved. So much of the Cities of Service ethos suits my way of approaching projects and ideas for change: using volunteers to lead the way and show what can be achieved, allowing innovative ideas the time to grow and develop – then scaling them up, and most of all the idea that there are always people who are willing to apply their skills and strengths to local challenges if they are asked in the right way.
2: What was your previous role?
I was Communities Manager at Leeds City Council. I worked particularly on community relations and community partnerships – and so I really got to know the city of Leeds from the point of view of the thousands of people at community level who give their time and energy to local action. It was an excellent training ground for Cities of Service in many ways: working across sectors and hierarchies, being able to bring people together to meet local challenges, and to be able to spot the opportunities for mutual benefit between state and communities.
3: What previous volunteering experience do you have and what was your first volunteering experience?
I’m currently a trustee of two charities – one small one and one quite large one – and they each present a different challenge as a volunteer. With a small charity you sometimes need to be a lot more hands on, and help the staff make the most of their paid time and with a larger charity, you are most often thinking ahead a few years, trying to anticipate the way the landscape will change and maximising every opportunity for your service users. What I appreciate about both charities is the way they bring together people with different perspectives and sets of expertise and how we work together for the best outcome.
As for other volunteering roles, I have to admit I’m a serial volunteer. I think it’s because most of my early experiences were so positive and really helped me grow and expand my horizons. It wasn’t the first experience, but perhaps the most transformative was when I was a volunteer at the France ’98 World Cup with the Football Supporters’ Federation. I wrote off to them a couple of months before the World Cup began, and basically said “I’m a football fan and I speak French, I’d love to help out in any way I can”. I was really lucky that my letter arrived at almost the same time they received notice they’d got funding to run a Fans’ Embassy service. A basic advice and information service, run by football fans for football fans… and the only thing they were missing was someone who spoke French.
Within hours of the start of the World Cup I had been on live TV and radio, I’d met Ambassadors and Cabinet Ministers and I was interpreting between the police and fans and local authorities. It was exhilarating: better than any job training, and way more fun than if I’d just had a ticket to the game. I made lifelong friends and learned so much.
Since then it’s always been my advice to people who might not be able to afford to do something they’re passionate about: find a way to be useful and make sure you offer your services – you could have a huge impact, the rewards can be immense, and you certainly never know what it might lead to.
4: What are you most excited about doing as part of your new role?
For me, the exciting part of being a Chief Service Officer is the opportunity to help innovate and unleash some of the creative talents and ideas that I know people have – but don’t always get the chance to develop because our day jobs are so demanding. There is something really special about being able to help make things happen by spotting the potential – and then sometimes it almost just lifting it out of its current limitations, and letting it blossom. For other things it’s about forcing a different perspective on to the problems.
You know the old adage about herding cats. How it’s impossible. Well it’s not. To herd cats, you have to tilt the floor. And I’m really hoping that that’s what Cities of Service can do in Kirklees. There are literally hundreds of amazing projects and ideas going on here but their collective impact is often minimised by not being joined up, by not applying our best techniques and analysis to really get to the heart of the change we want to see. Judging by what the movement has achieved across the US, I’m really excited to see where it could all lead.
5: What has been your experience so far/ what is your standout moment so far?
It has been a great first two months in Kirklees. It was always going to be difficult to come in from another local authority area and to try and get up to speed in meeting people and learning about projects and programmes at the same time as developing a new programme. However, I have to say everyone I have met has been fantastic.
Really though, there couldn’t have been a better week to start my journey as Chief Service Officer in Kirklees than that first week of July when Tour de France fever was sweeping across Yorkshire. In the week leading up to Le Tour there were special events across Kirklees, and on the day itself it was the thousands of residents and visitors lining the iconic climb of Holme Moss that really stole the show.
And forget the yellow jersey, my CSO mind was constantly picking out the light blue t-shirts of the 5000 volunteer Tour Makers who dotted the route, giving hours of their time to make sure the 2.5 million people who turned up were safe, happy and most of all knew which side of the road to point their cameras at. (“No, the French side of the road” I overheard more than once.) Speaking to some of the Tour Makers, I asked them why they’d got involved. Some were cycling enthusiasts, most weren’t, and the overwhelming answer for all of them was the same: “I wanted to be a part of it, and I wanted to be able to say I helped make it happen, even in a little way”.
6: What is your favourite thing about your city?
Kirklees obviously isn’t a city – but what I love about the district is its diversity: both geographic and demographic. There are some simply breath taking views, lots of fabulous villages with their individual quirks and characteristics as well as all the benefits of big towns and an unmatched cultural offer right across the district.
Where my desk is in the Civic Centre in Huddersfield, I have a great view across to the hills and also to an inner city block of flats. It’s my test measure for the Cities of Service programme – would it work for those in the more rural areas, would it work for the people in the inner city?
7: What has already got people motivated/proved successful in your city that stands Cities of Service in good stead?
What has been fabulous for me is the number of people from across the Council and the third sector who have just grasped the Cities of Service methodology instantly – and come to me with ideas that they have that would fit. It just proves the point that what I’m really here to be is a catalyst. The skills and ideas are out there – it’s up to me to unlock them, and help them come to fruition. And to continue the metaphor, to then bear as much fruit as possible.
Kirklees has a good track record as being a small council, not afraid to innovate and trial new things. As an area, it also has a proud tradition of “service”. It is funny that that word is not one we would usually use here in Kirklees, but in its description – it is very much something that is recognisable to communities here – ways of helping each other out, being neighbourly and acting together for community benefit.
8: What have you learned from your US partner city?
I’m matched with Laurel Creech from Nashville Tennessee, and I do really feel lucky. Not only is the Impact Nashville Service Plan one of the best from all the US cities, Laurel herself is an inspiration. Unfailing positive, she has a great ability to interpret the operating context here in the UK, as well as to use examples from her experience of actually delivering her service plan.
I think the best thing that she has said to me about the service plan is: “keep your measures measurable and your aspirations aspirational”. Because impact, and impact measurement is so key to the Cities of Service method, it is vital that we choose the right things to measure so that we can keep track of the impact we’re having. And she’s also right in the sense that we need to keep stretching our sense of what can be done.
9: Who inspires you?
Kirklees’ famous daughter Baroness Betty Boothroyd has always been an inspirational figure to me. She’s someone who commands respect – not through her title or job role – but through her warm personality and incisive mind. In a world that tells women that we can be “as good” as men, for me she has always been someone who sets the bar for everyone to be “as good” as women.
As Speaker throughout my teens and early twenties, she was a familiar sight mediating the boisterous House of Commons debates, and I was always struck by the way she would speak: with authority, kindness and humour. It is so important to have role models, but I think particularly important to have female role models especially in non-traditional roles.
10: What’s the biggest challenge to getting people involved and how can they get involved with your city’s programmes?
For our first 2 headline initiatives we have chosen to work on areas where there is a gap or a strain on the existing volunteer base.
For “Out and About” which is about preventing and alleviating loneliness in our older population – we really want to target younger older people, those 55+ to be the volunteers for this. However, whilst older people are a mainstay of many voluntary sector organisations, the traditional reliance on over 60s is being challenge. This generation of younger older people are experiencing the most time pressures on them of any generation of older people since the Second World War. People are routinely working past the age of 65 for the first time, and many who are grandparents are taking on responsibility for child care due to the high costs. Many are also caring for other relatives or friends.
For years, many charities have relied on the voluntary workforce provided by recently retired, professionals, often thought of as a ‘reserve army’. Rather than accept that these traditional volunteer numbers will dwindle, our Kirklees challenge will be to make a compelling and flexible offer that will retain the skills, and maximise the potential of younger older volunteers.
For our “MENtors” initiative, which will provide a mentor for young men who are facing a difficult transition to independent adulthood, we are also looking to fill a gap in the existing volunteer base. Traditionally, men of all ages are underrepresented in volunteering statistics and research into the specific barriers faced by male volunteers, includes the lack of male-focussed opportunities. For the young men who will be the beneficiaries of MENtors many of them cite not having a single older male influence in their lives, and certainly not someone they can talk their problems through with.
So our challenge will be to recruit male volunteers, and specifically, volunteers who can relate to the situation the young men are in; we are thinking this will probably be volunteers who themselves may have faced adversity in their past.
We will start recruiting to both the initiatives in early 2015, and we’re working on developing a campaign just now to recruit participants and mentors. Before that is launch, if anyone wants to register their interest, please do get in touch, you can tweet to @ImInKirklees or email us on firstname.lastname@example.org.
11: What’s the biggest thing that people power can change? / Why are volunteers the answer?
In my experience, the biggest difference that ‘people power’ makes is the momentum it brings with it. It’s almost impossible to overstate the difference that even a half-decent idea can have, when there are people behind it that believe in it. Add in to that belief, the conditions for people to collaborate and to combine their ideas and expertise – that’s when the really exciting stuff starts to happen.
I’m a big fan of the Margaret Mead quote: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
Too often, in our time-poor world, we skip those chances to get together with others, and discuss what change we’d like to see, and what we can do to make it happen. It’s amazing the energy that gets released when we do. So I’m really passionate about making those opportunities for people to come together.
Talking about the differences volunteers make – the answer is in the question. It’s voluntary. People are choosing it, people are choosing to give it their time, their passion, their belief: and that is immensely powerful.