Profile: Participle

With a new Government fired up about reforming the welfare state, the zeitgeist-embracing ideas of this radical service design group could move centre stage. Gina Lovett talks to founding partner Hugo Manassei about social renaissance

What’s wrong with the welfare state? The question is one that our newly elected, Conservative-led coalition Government has been asking recently, but fixing the concept is something that has been driving London service design group Participle since its inception three years ago.
It’s not difficult to see how the current welfare approach, the monitoring and ’fire fighting’ by social services, leaves little room for long-term strategies to address the complexities of societal issues like ageing, isolation and loneliness, chronic disease and ill-health, and climate change, says Participle founding partner Hugo Manassei.

Just 14 per cent of a social worker’s time is spent actively supporting, according to Participle’s recent work with families in chronic crisis – that is, families dogged by problems such as alcoholism, truancy and child protection orders. The majority of a social worker’s time – 74 per cent – is spent on administration.

What’s needed, says Manassei, is a social renaissance. ’We need to move from a “needs” focus to looking at capabilities. The centralised institutions we have need to shift to distributed networks – which technology can enable – and we need to move away from focus on the individual to social networks. All this “gatekeeping” equals bureaucracy and high costs. We need to move from a financial focus to a resource focus. If you just focus on money, you don’t get anywhere. Targeted services need to be services that are open to all,’ he explains.

Such thinking – embodied in Participle’s mission statement Beveridge 4.0 – guides each of its projects, initiated around challenges facing society such as ageing or unemployment. Participle, by the way, doesn’t have clients in the traditional sense, and doesn’t like to be considered a design consultancy. Manassei explains it engages key policy advisers from central Government – from the Department for Work and Pensions to the Department for Education – with a view to how social enterprises around societal challenges could be developed, how they might scale nationally, and how the philosophy can spread to different areas. ’It’s using the power of design, not design itself,’ explains Manassei.

The Participle team – headed by the high-profile trio of Manassei, former Design Council director (and controversial Designer of the Year 2005) Hilary Cottam and innovation luminary Charles Leadbeater – comprises anthropologists, economists, and institutional and financial experts, as well as designers. Unless you have such a breadth of talent and the engagement of top-level policymakers – those who can effect viable service models – you just end up with nice community projects, Manassei points out. The team immerses itself in the world of the user to understand the intricacy of the issues that underpin their life. It brings a ’naive approach and interesting angle’, he says.

’Many design consultancies do user-centred design, but it’s mostly gathering public opinion on specific issues. All our engagement with end-users and frontline staff is channelled into specific outcomes. We’re dealing with entrenched, seemingly intractable issues, so as well as anthropological-based exercises on understanding how people’s lives work, we go in deep, which means living with people for extended periods of time – up to six months on a housing estate, for example,’ Manassei explains.

The resulting understanding ’galvanises and strengthens resources in the community’, forming the basis for a prototype social business which can be then scaled up and replicated in other areas. Such a process has enabled Participle to put together a range of £1m social projects.
Its first venture on ageing – membership network Southwark Circle – has helped tackle the lack of purpose and isolation emanating from the vicious cycle of depression and dependence on state-funded care services. The resulting ’waste of social, economic and human potential’ enveloping state services has been the very foundation of the Southwark Circle network, now a self-sustaining social enterprise.

By sharing strengths and skills, members can help and get help, which gives them a renewed sense of purpose and lifts them out of isolation through building a local, accessible social network. The network, funded through its members, is now being replicated across rural Suffolk, as well as in the London Borough of Hammersmith & Fulham, with nine more local authorities currently at the business planning stage.

It’s an auspicious moment for Participle. ’Our work clearly sits within the zeitgeist of public service reform,’ says Manessei. And with the advent of the Conservatives’ Big Society agenda focusing on localism, mutualism, social enterprise and social innovation, Participle’s social renaissance looks ever more likely.

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