The personal and professional - why we must tackle two types of Catch22

By Chris Wright

| 24 May 2019

The young person who needs work experience to get hired, but needs a job to fund work experience. The teacher who can see that a child needs counselling, but finds the CAMHS threshold means they must reach crisis point to be eligible. The young gang member who wants to escape violence but only feels safe by carrying a knife.

These situations are all ‘Catch22s' - a dilemma for which the only possible solution is impossible, precisely because of the dilemma. Our organisation, Catch22, has been helping to solve social problems for over 200 years, but our name is relatively new.

The term was coined by Joseph Heller as the title of his best-selling 1961 novel. It tells the story of a WW2 pilot, Yoassarian, who is the victim of a ludicrous army policy to fly on ever more dangerous missions.

"If he flew them he was crazy and didn't have to; but if he didn't want to he was sane and had to". In short, he's stuck.

In my nine years of leading Catch22 I've been asked a lot about our name. We wanted something catchy (!), which encapsulated the reason we exist and the people we're here for. Our services are needed by people who are a bit stuck in their lives, especially young people. We also wanted to illustrate that it's often the system itself that creates the problem for the person or family, not vice versa. Catch22 captured all those important ideas.

A decade on and Catch22 continues to tackle the most challenging issues in social care, education and justice. We help untangle the personal Catch22s, but we also argue for reform to change policy and systems like those faced by Yossarian in Heller's classic story.

The social care workforce is full of excellent people supporting others to break free of vicious cycles for good: linking them up with good, supportive people, helping them find a safe place to live, and a purpose in their life. But too often this work is hindered by the system.

In every public service, decision-makers and budget holders are being asked to do more with less. But they often need more resource and time, to save resource and time. Our sector needs to find new ways of using resources to maximise impact, improve outcomes and allow teams the freedom to do their jobs as well as possible if we are to end the cycle of Catch22s.

George Clooney's Catch22 will dominate the headlines for a while, but the concept it describes seems set to persist. In over 200 years of helping people we have seen how public services can be badly designed and overcomplicated. Solving Catch22s means putting people before paperwork, relationships over structures, and allowing - and supporting - skilled and confident people to do the right thing.

Here are six ways we can solve systemic Catch-22's:

  1. Get the basics right
    Giving people the space, time and licence to focus on doing the basics well means that practitioners liberated to focus on the frontline work that changes lives. Brilliant basics mean good admin, reliable IT and useful processes that keep us consistent without weighing us down.

  2. Recognise that relationships beat structures
    We all know what makes the biggest difference in young people's lives: strong and consistent, relationships with people who do what they say they're going to do. Professionals don't have the monopoly on meaningful relationships - we must make better use of a wider community, and break down professional silos.

  3. Move beyond tokenistic co-production to true collaboration
    This is about more than ‘participation' and ‘co-production'. A young person who is hungry, unwell or looking for a job doesn't care about the system behind the service they need. We must look to create a space where people can work together to find the right solutions that make the experience of using services smoother.

  4. Give teams the space to unleash greatness, and don't mandate mediocrity
    The UK has some brilliant schools, youth justice work and family interventions which change people's lives for the better. But we also have many transactional ‘ok' services. Why? We need to treat the concept of ‘failure' differently to acknowledge that unleashing greatness comes with risk.

  5. Let robots be robots, and humans be humans
    Excellent automated systems are good at dealing with large volume predictable tasks and data. Used well it can liberate us to do the things that robots will never be able to do: build trust, empathise, personalise, and respond sensitively to complex, dynamic situations.

  6. Incubate, accelerate, amplify
    Small social enterprises have great ideas and scalable models but lack the capacity to bid competitively, or to be seen and heard in the right places. They should not be left to sink or swim. At Catch22 we've worked with eight organisations to give them a ‘leg-up' and the infrastructure to test and prove their ideas.

Chris Wright is chief executive of social business Catch22

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