Collecting stories to shift internal perspectives

Published by Tony Quinlan on

Having spent last Thursday and Friday walking the streets, collecting stories from council residents, I was fascinated to see this article in the Guardian today. It’s been an interesting exercise – and crucial in many ways to helping the council in question to change its perspective on its own services.  And a very positive and aware step on their part.

It’s a variation on our emotional audits, but collects real-life stories to set council services in the context of users’ lives.  In contrast with many residents’ surveys which depersonalise the information, pre-judge the responses and issues they are surveying and allow little room for new information or issues to emerge.

(And including open sections for "Other comments" or some such doesn’t count – in the context of a highly structured questionnaire, people have been channeled down a "Read and respond" process.  Shifting into a "What else is going on my life that’s relevant here" mindset just won’t happen.)

From the Guardian article:

Ruth Kelly, the local government secretary, published the findings of a national survey showing the public’s widespread dissatisfaction with their councils ahead of a local government white paper, which will call for more powers to be devolved to neighbourhoods.

The survey showed that a majority of residents (58%) were unhappy with the way their local authority was run, with many complaining that they were not kept abreast of decisions made on their behalf. Nearly half of the 4,000 people polled said that their local council failed to do enough for people "like them" (49%) while a significant minority (43%) felt that their concerns were ignored.

But the survey revealed that, on the whole, almost three in four residents had little idea of what their council was doing.

That last point is well made.  From the council’s point of view, it’s "obvious" what they provide; but from those who told us their stories, very few could distinguish between what the council provided and what were local services from other organisations.

It’s also important to note that, often, people are reluctant to talk about their experiences.  "You can’t be seen to be critical of the council" was a not unusual response, particularly from those who depend on council services to a greater extent.  The assumption that the council has immense power over people’s lives is strong – and precludes accurate, honest and direct feedback from those with most to offer a council willing to listen.