Prompting action around a social challenge



ThePublicOffice has helped Essex County Council (ECC) to run a micro-grant scheme in libraries. The scheme borrows from popular challenge prize methods, but keeps things stunningly simple. The value created for the money spent has exceeded everyone’s expectations.

ECC’s experience shows that anyone might run an effective challenge programme with a modest budget and lean operational support, provided a few important principles are kept in mind.

Learn more about the design and the impact of the scheme in this cool little film.

A big challenge

Commissioners at ECC were reviewing its entire early years system, when a striking finding emerged. Ethnographic research showed how socially isolated new parents and parents with young children could be. Without friends or family, everything about parenting is more difficult – including having the confidence to approach the services and support that exist for you.

Commissioning leads were troubled by the findings – social isolation hadn’t featured previously in their thinking about or planning of support for children and families. They needed new ideas and were open to exploring new methods for making changes in localities.

A different approach

Working with commissioners, we quickly hatched a plan to issue a challenge to staff in all libraries to come up with new ideas for encouraging parents to connect with each other. We borrowed from existing methods for running challenge prizes – a tried and tested method for prompting change – but we kept things really simple.

In a nutshell, we asked staff across Essex’s 74 libraries for their ideas, and issued micro-grants of up to £200 to support the best of them to happen.

Within a month of starting the scheme, commissioners had prompted lots of new activity to support parents to connect with each other in 17 Essex localities.

Our design principles

These were straightforward but critical to the success of the scheme:

1. Clearly articulate the challenge: Provide participants with a clear and precise understanding of the  challenge (expressing it as a ‘how could we’ question is helpful). And take time to clarify the challenge if necessary.
2. Offer incentives: Competition and the promise of reward is critical to how the method works. Even small or non financial awards incentivise action and encourage people to make a priority of addressing the challenge.
3. Remove barriers to participation: It should be easy for people to participate – don’t stifle creativity or drain energy before you’ve started. This means making the application process straightforward, with no complicated criteria to decipher or forms to fill in.
4. Support collaboration: Provide opportunities for participants to come together to discuss the challenge, share and develop ideas and reflect on what they’re doing and what’s working.

The scheme started by sharing the challenge with all library staff. We encouraged lots of discussion around the research evidence and insights, giving people the opportunity to really get to grips with the challenge and reflect on how it played out in their localities.

When we outlined competition conditions, we said there would be no restrictions on how the money might be spent; the ideas must simply respond well to the challenge. We asked for statements of intent to be no more than two paragraphs. The aim was to put as few barriers as possible in the way of people’s creative thinking or their enthusiasm to try something new and different.

We then awarded seriously tiny grants to 17 libraries. We met as a group with grant recipients three times during the first six months of the scheme, sharing insights around the challenge, exchanging ideas and learning from each others’ experiences.

Impact for citizens and the workforce

The teams have tried all sorts of different approaches to help parents meet each other and make social connections. There were 3 main types of approach:

  • All teams had thought strategically about the challenge of reaching parents, and were partnering with others to connect with people (birth registration, midwives, health visitors, children’s centres and more).
  • All were making simple changes to behaviour to help parents feel welcome and to facilitate connections between parents.
  • All noted how – when they shared what they were are up to with others in the community – the clarity of the ambition unlocked even more additional support. Many libraries have not yet spent their entire £200 grants. Often the specific things they intended to purchase have instead been donated.

A list of ’10 Things you can try today’ has been compiled, sharing the learning and quick wins with other library teams across the County.

Additional unexpected benefits

The scheme has shown that simple ideas and small changes can have a big impact for citizens. But that’s not all. We didn’t anticipate how powerful the micro-grant mechanism would be for unlocking energy and encouraging staff to act on their own initiative. At the outset, one Library Manager had said:

“We are never short of good ideas. We’re just not sure they’re wanted. Are you sure we have permission to do this?”

Staff in Essex libraries soon felt very differently. They knew they had permission to explore new ways of doing things and to follow their own hunches for what might work in their locality. They knew that directors and managers were encouraging and rewarding creativity and innovation.

“This is a new way to work – this is how we work now,” said another Library Manager at the end of the scheme. “The ideas are endless.”

ECC colleagues are now thinking of new and different opportunities to apply what they have learnt about using challenges and incentives to unleash new ideas and activity to improve citizen outcomes.

We’ve loved designing and running the micro-grant scheme. If you’d like to know more about how to run a scheme to address your own priorities or challenges, read our Learning Report or get in touch with ThePublicOffice.

Perrie Ballantyne