The aim of our series of interviews is to act as a source of inspiration and information about the role which ethnography and user research plays in helping to design solutions for complex issues. If you would like to be interviewed please do not hesitate to contact Richard Linington.

Today we have spent time with Dave Hill Executive Director for People Commissioning at Essex County Council. Dave is responsible for people facing services within the Council and has started to use ethnographic research to help understand and find solutions for the complex social challenges which the Council faces.

Hi Dave could you tell us a little bit about yourself and your role as Executive Director for People Commissioning at Essex County Council
Dave HillI am the Executive Director of Commissioning, in reality I am responsible for all services in the Council which are about people – all children’s services, all schools and all older people services. It’s nearly £1.2 billion of services which we deliver. My role here is to ensure good, safe well commissioned services for all of these groups. If it’s a person centred service of any description then I am responsible. We are working on 40,000 open cases involving adults and children.

Ethnography – a different way of thinking
I got interested in ethnography at Croydon Council because we were doing a project called Total Place. What it meant was looking at the totality of public services in an area and then coming up with different and innovative solutions to meet peoples’ needs. We did a whole load of ethnography in Croydon with an external agency.

When I joined Essex County Council I established a different way of thinking on big complicated projects. As a Commissioner I have developed a set of principles at the centre of the way we are going to do it here. Ethnography is at the very centre of those principles, which is a belief in innovation, a belief in a deep and immersive understanding about what people want from public services and a belief in the fact that service users mostly have their own solutions.

Ethnography supporting service (re)design
We have a formal programme with each bit of big commissioning we are trying to do. Recently with adults with learning disabilities we had a chance to completely redesign the whole service, which has an annual budget of £130 million. We commissioned ethnographic research for adults with learning disabilities and they have found it to be an amazing experience. It has helped to unpick their hopes and aspirations. We started to understand that small changes could have a significant impact on people’s lives, for example, being able to own a cat or having their own front door.

On the early years side we committed ourselves to working with 12 families with very young children. We wanted to understand people’s views of the work and what the future services could look like. We used this to set out stories and short videos. Creating videos with people is quite exposing. The most fasincating thing about the ethnographic research with families was that it revealed that parents were very lonely and that it is very difficult to make friends. It is very hard for parents to start new relationships with other parents. Some very moving stories emerged from the ethnography.

Moving forward – research to solutions
We brought together a wide range of managers, frontline staff and policy makers – a cross cutting team of all different levels to a half day event. Everyone watched the videos and read the narrative outputs.

You are confronted with the reality of people’s lives. Some of them are very tear-jerking. In mixed groups of people the external agency then presents examples of some of the most innovative social solutions from around the world. These show how people have addressed some of the social issues which we have observed.

Our people can then start to have conversations which are totally outside of their comfort zone. We start to then think about solutions for the social issues we face in Essex and co-designing solutions with service users.

The benefits of ethnography
When we do a focus group or consult people in a survey we occasionally get a gem back, but mostly we get the same old same old stuff back. It’s terribly formulaic and one dimensional. The ethnographic work has taken us into a different space entirely. Its unlocked possibilities and potential. Its started to liberate our staff who have been living through this. They are just wedded to ethnography. If I said to them tomorrow all ethnography is off they would carry on doing it anyway. I couldn’t put the genie back into the bottle. There’s something about how people become very persuaded by a level of in-depth understanding.

It’s that thing about belief really that ethnography and really deeply understanding people’s issues leads you to come up with solutions that are really going to profoundly address those social issues.

Do you have any advice to public organisations who would like to commission ethnographic research?
Because it is very challenging to the status quo as a piece of work I think you have got to have a fairly senior champion who is going to ensure that you are going to get to do it. I can imagine lots of people hearing about this, reading about this and thinking it is a good thing to do but never quite getting to the starting line on it. I think you need a senior person within the local authority to shepherd it through the process really.

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