Relationships Matter  —  for people and services

By Tom Beresford, Project Co-ordinator and Researcher, Innovation Unit; Jan Mitcheson, Deputy Director of Innovation, One Plus One; Chris Martin, Director for Integrated Commissioning for Vulnerable People, Essex County Council.

At their best, relationships enable us to be the best we can be. They are foundational to our physical and mental health, as well as our individual and social wellbeing, supporting us to achieve our aspiration, while acting as a safety net in our times of need.

Increasingly, we recognise that relationships — the theme of Mental Health Awareness Week for 2016 — are also vehicles in driving change that improves people’s lives. As the Mental Health Foundation’s report highlights, "extensive evidence shows that having good-quality relationships can help us to live longer and happier lives with fewer mental health problems."

So, what does this mean for public services which are forever in pursuit of great outcomes for adults and children?

The answer lies in how we design our public service systems, and the extent to which we invest in the building and nurturing of the great relationships that are crucial for supporting people to fulfil their potential, and overcoming the traditional barriers that prevent us from forming them.

From the transactional to the relational

It’s been long understood that the impact of any service intervention is dependent on the quality of the relationships involved. Yet the dominant narratives of efficiency, high accountability and target-setting can drown out and sometimes undermine the value in pursuing great relationships across services, often creating a transactional experience for service users.

By measuring what really matters — outcomes for the public — it quickly becomes clear that what is important in delivering them are the relationships themselves.

It’s time to acknowledge great relationships for what they are — an outcome with intrinsic value, but more pivotally an enabler of the change we want to see in people’s lives. Relationships matter, and services need to be able to invest in them to ensure that communities and the public have the skills and capabilities to thrive. Exploring what this means for the design of public service systems is exactly what Innovation Unit and One Plus One are doing through our work with Essex County Council to put relational capability at the heart of Early Years services.

What do we mean by relational capability?

Increasingly we understand that the more relationally capable a parent, the more likely they will be to exercise resilience in the face of adversity, to foster their child’s social, emotional and cognitive development, to engage productively with the world around them, and to model the behaviours associated with building health, meaningful relationships to their children.

Relational capability enables people to establish and sustain the kinds of relationships that make a positive difference to their lives and the lives of those they interact with. On the one hand it reflects what we as individuals bring to the table: our relational skills, beliefs, and behaviours, and how they combine to shape the quality of interactions we have. This is our ‘internal relational capability’. On the other hand, ‘relational opportunity’ recognises that the circumstances of our lives or the settings in which we find ourselves also influence if and how we engage in healthy relationships.

We also understand that a relationally capable practitioner is more likely to build effective relationships with service users, leading to better outcomes.

The Relationships Matter Project

Over the next 9 months, Innovation Unit and One Plus One, in partnership with Essex County Council, will be running the ‘Relationships Matter’ project. We will be working with frontline staff and service managers from across the system in Waltham Abbey to support Early Years practitioners to:

  • enhance their skills for relational capability
  • identify system barriers that hinder the development of great relationships
  • test small system changes that tackle these barriers.

We believe that the Relationships Matter project will help practitioners to develop and maintain more trusting, helpful and supportive relationships with families, increase parents’ confidence and agency in their parental role, and develop greater awareness in system leaders of the system conditions that support relational working.

We hope it will create the conditions for practitioners to fully deploy their relational capability and for the learning generated by this work to be spread across other parts of essex and beyond.

Our vision is a relationally capable community in which services, families and their wider community network can fully utilise relationships for what they are: vehicles for changing people’s lives.