How do we discover what matters most to people to help them thrive?

10 min readJul 5, 2020

Going to the Disruption Summit reminded me of a workshop I went to last week about how local government could be more pirate. One recurring theme was how we can disrupt our organisations by better discovering what matters most to the people we serve. It made me think of how we in Camden try and do that. Made me think how services aren’t always the place we start when we think about how better insight can help change what we do.

1. Start with what matters to people in their everyday lives to develop outcomes for the place

When we engage our residents, we need to start with better understanding their lives and the places they live in . What helps them live a good life, what gets in the way, and what they’d love to do to get involved in improving their neighbourhood. These can be about material needs, like finding a good job, but it can also be about deep rooted feelings of insecurity and isolation.

We developed our strategy Camden 2025 with partners, residents and everyone who cares about the borough. For the first time, we ran a citizen assembly to enable residents to deliberate about the issues that mattered to them and what they wanted to see in the borough. This shaped a strong vision for the future that everyone committed to.

2. Use your understanding of people’s needs to align outcomes to your resources

Discovering what’s important to our residents is also fundamental in how we use our resources & funding. This is even more important when our budget has been reduced by nearly 50%. Through the Camden 2025 process, we have looked at the challenges and opportunities faced by people in the borough, as well as considering which parts of the Council’s current services work best. This approach, which is known as outcomes-based budgeting, has led us to develop a detailed, evidenced-based analysis of how the Council can achieve its key outcomes with fewer resources. It has also led us to continue to focus on areas which we know have the greatest impact, such as investing in early intervention and prevention, continuing to innovate and focusing on value for money.

An example of this is in adults social care, where our social workers are switching the conversation from talking about what people need to qualify for one of our services to understanding what really matters to them, what they’d like to do to improve their quality of life and who could help them in their community. This is part of our strategy that is focused on building on the strengths that exist in individuals, families and communities. We want people to live independent lives in well-connected communities. From having these strengths-based conversations, we can help live as independently as possible, we can work with our communities to set up Greenwood, a new centre dedicated to independent living, run with people who can most benefit from living independently. It means we can design accommodation that better meets the needs of homelessness families, we can support people to travel more independently, and how care technology can help improve social contact and enable people to have more control in their lives.

3. Move from building services to building movements

Camden 2025 was more than just a vision, it was a call to action. Our borough has a proud, rebellious spirit that has seen communities come together to tackle problems and design out issues.

We’ve built momentum by taking the issues agreed in Camden 2025 and built coalitions around them. Coalitions of people & organisations who want to bring their skills to help tackle these issues in a way that our communities can get involved in.

An example of this is where, to help develop a strategic approach to improving air quality, we developed a Clean Air Action Plan where universities helped residents become citizen scientists and where we connected schools, businesses & residents to test healthy school streets. We’ve taken this further with our work on climate change.

The decision to hold the Citizens’ Assembly on the climate crisis was made in April as part of Camden’s “climate emergency” declaration. Camden’s Citizens’ Assembly on the climate crisis was the first in the UK and ran over three sessions in July with the aim of developing proposals that would be presented to full Council in October and inform a new Climate Action Plan for Camden.

The Citizens’ Assembly concluded in July, with Assembly members agreeing seventeen climate related proposals across themes of “home”, “neighbourhood” and “Council” that recognised to tackle the crisis it is truly a shared endeavour.

The Assembly proposals ranged from the specific, for example, “pilot a community heating project” to the general, for example, “green the Council’s operations”. They also ranged from those that are already proposed within existing Council programmes, for example, “introducing more segregated cycle lanes” to those that will require additional resource to deliver, for example “fitting solar panels on as many homes as possible” and “mobilising community groups to address the climate crisis”.

Proposals also highlighted the need for improved education and communication about climate change and its prevention. Areas of focus included the school curriculum, food and low carbon lifestyle choices. The Assembly felt that the Council had a public duty to provide this information given its climate emergency declaration. All the proposals will be a core part a new Climate Action Plan for the council.

The Citizens’ Assembly marked an increased ambition for wider collaboration between the council and Camden residents and partners to address the climate crisis. We are now working together to prepare for the next steps. The Assembly was more than just a one-off event and the need now is for the council to get the tools to be able to keep momentum and lead the change. One such tool would be a ‘Think and Do Tank’ with the aim to ‘bring together local business, artists, thinkers and do-ers to take forward initiatives’. Such an approach to social innovation is firmly in in line with our ambitions for an Inclusive Innovation Network.

We’re also taking a similar approach with Health & Wellbeing, where we’ve got a group of people to go out into their neighbourhoods to understand what the key issues are that affect people’s wellbeing and then test out ideas that can help tackle these, as well as inform our future health & wellbeing strategy.

4. Challenging ourselves and others to be brave & radical

We know that on our own, and even through deep engagement with residents, we as a council can’t solve complex issues like the climate emergency or in work poverty, but we do have a role as a facilitator, as an orchestrator and as a challenger.

An example of this is our work on Employment Support. We started with the question of how we could support more people in the borough into good work — and the place we went to answer that question was our residents. We started with a significant piece of discovery work that asked the question of what prevents people being in good work, both getting into work in the first place, and then being in good quality work once they are in employment. Hearing from residents about their experiences of the challenges getting into work really expanded the scope of our work — we are now taking an approach that tackles not only the support that people need to prepare for work, but also the role that businesses must play in creating jobs that are ‘people ready’.

5. Investing in insight & data to discover what matters to service users

We aim to design services or products that are meaningful and relevant to the people that may use them. To do this, huge importance is placed on user research; understanding who the audience might be and what their needs and motivations are.

An example is with the how we’re personalising our website to user need to better support citizens, pre-empting what they may need based on their individual circumstances.

Our web site research included talking to over 1500 people to understand what a good (and bad) customer experience is for our citizens. We found that 81% wanted to interact with us via our website but also 67% rarely or never use This gave us our remit to make improvements. Understanding what matters most to citizens, we produced a content strategy to reflect this which led us to reduce our web pages by 80%.

With regards to design, we started with a complete blank canvas and asked residents what they would expect to see and do on our website. We also asked how they felt about Camden as a place and how we could best reflect this in our designs. Words such as unique, vibrant and quirky were used multiple times. We had to balance this need with accessibility needs too and worked with the RNIB to carry out testing with users to ensure that the website achieves an AA accessibility standard, not just for blind people but partially sighted people, deaf people and people with learning disabilities. In this way our website was truly co-designed with our citizens.

We designed prototypes, testing and learning from our experiences. This iterative process involved over 200 members of the public who not only tested the design but also the functionality and navigation of the new website and key changes were made as a result of this user research process.

Using data to help predict and improve performance

Data is at the heart of disruption, in business models and in public service delivery. We are leaders in Camden in our use of data and evidence — from using dashboards to run our landlord services to using data science techniques to predict housing rental arrears. That said, we all still have a long way to go and we are at an exciting, yet daunting time where citizen trust in the public and private sectors around the use of data is a very confusing landscape. We are taking an ambitious and leading role in working with our residents to tackle this in a number of ways, from establishing a data charter to investing in the skills needed for civic and data literacy. STEAM is preparing our young people with skills for jobs that don’t exist yet and responding to the data literacy required in a world of automation and artificial intelligence.

Investing in our residents’ first-hand experience

We also know important insights from residents themselves is. First-hand experience really focuses our conversations when we are thinking about options going forward to hear how this might have worked for someone with direct experience of the challenges we’re trying to tackle. These residents were what we call ‘community researchers’ — people we employ to help us do the best work we can with our communities — paid as recognition of the value they bring to these conversations.

6. Learning from the “Chalcots spirit” — empowering staff to work with residents to solve problems together

However much an organisation puts in place strategies & plans, its values are put to the test in a crisis. Chalcots was that moment for Camden, where just after Grenfell happened, we had an estate which was deemed unsafe and we had to evacuate overnight. As a council and a community, we mobilised quickly, working collaboratively to help residents in need. That reminded us that we need to support staff to be able to bring their whole selves to work on a daily basis and work with residents to solve problems, where we talk less about transactions and more about relationships.

We are doing this through family group conferencing where we support families to plan & make decisions for a child who is at risk and involving parents who’ve previously had their children taken into care working with us, even extending this to community group conferencing. The magic of Family Group Conference comes from its roots as a method of re-establishing a conversation between indigenous people and the government in New Zealand. Its success in the UK speaks to the universal value of widening the circle of support on a problem and focusing on the strengths of the group. The quality of the conversation is important. In Camden we attend to that by acting with confidence and meeting people in community spaces, working relationally and with a culturally appropriate approach.

We are also doing this through our new landlord service where staff are moving from addressing specific issues they are responsible for (i.e. repairs, debt, etc.) to better understanding the wider issues tenants face in order to help broker support for them.

We want to go where the energy is, so we can be responsive to change and help everyone feel ownership over issues that affect whole communities. We are doing this through our Safer Camden work, where in response to a murder of a teenager in a local neighbourhood, we are mobilising different actors to work together to improve the place. We’re using different types of data & insights to get under the skin of the issues, coaching community-led teams to be more responsive to issues on the ground, supporting people to test & learn ways that help the place and people feel safer and build a greater sense of solidarity & belonging — from community clean-ups to young people running activities to divert people from crime.

How do you discover what matters most to your users or residents?

What have you learnt? How has that changed the way you deliver services?




Head of Policy Design, Scrutiny & Partnerships @newhamlondon #localgov Co-founder of #systemschange & #servicedesign progs. inspired by @cescaalbanese