In the first of a series of guest blogs by our partners, Leila Baker, Head of Research at the Institute for Voluntary Action Research (IVAR), reflects on IVAR’s work with Commonweal Housing and how they are supporting Commonweal to reflect on progress, challenges, learning and adaptation throughout our work as an action learning charity. 

Over the past 18 months I have been working alongside Commonweal Housing to help them enhance the way they use learning and evaluation to inform their work on housing solutions for social injustice. This work has coincided with the culmination of the charity’s ten-year Re-Unite project . In many ways, Re-Unite was a formative project for Commonweal – it was one of the charity’s earliest projects, and while it was successfully replicated it also faced considerable policy challenges. Now, as the charity steps back from Re-Unite, and moves on to new projects, they want to be sure that they are taking what they have learned with them. In this blog, I reflect on insights from our work with Commonweal and how it continues to strive to drive forward its development through learning.

 Learning and evaluation

Commonweal has always commissioned evaluations, fostered close relationships with partners and drawn on the wisdom of advisers and trustees to help work out how to act on what they are learning. Over the past couple of years, staff and trustees have pushed themselves to reflect on the ‘conditions’ that they have in place to support action learning. This has enabled them to cement some of these conditions while adjusting others.

My sense is that we have arrived at two broad understandings about Commonweal’s approach to learning and evaluation. First, that Commonweal is right to engage field experts as evaluators and will continue to do so. However the charity could push harder to capture lessons from the process of delivering projects as well as assessing their impact. Why? Because it is process learning that will help Commonweal and its partners to work out whether and how projects can be ‘replicated’. Process learning is where evaluators can keep track of the ways organisations adopt and adapt project models or principles so that they work in different contexts.

One of the reasons why being an action learning organisation matters greatly to Commonweal is that all of its projects will need to adapt to change.

Second, that a form of ‘engaged evaluation’ is best suited to Commonweal: this enables the charity to build close working relationships with researchers and evaluators over the long term and tap into their knowledge, networks and intelligence. The charity has begun to address this by inviting evaluators to be proactive and put forward their views about how Commonweal might replicate projects as well as their feedback and constructive criticism on approaches to replication already underway.

Navigating policy upheaval

One of the reasons why being an action learning organisation matters greatly to Commonweal is that all of its projects will need to adapt to change. These are long-term projects that are vulnerable to alterations in the population, social need, policy, regulation and funding environment. Re-Unite was no exception. During the course of this project, the regulatory landscape changed considerably, and replication saw the Re-Unite idea being heavily modified by partners. Not only did the women and the organisations that worked with them experience the double squeeze of slashed welfare and public spending but they also lived through multiple policy changes. For example, the introduction of Transforming Rehabilitation, reduction or end of Supporting People, changes to guardianship, adoption and legal aid policies, have all  affected both individual women and  what women’s  organisations can  achieve.

Dealing with such dramatic alterations in the policy landscape would pose serious challenges for any project and any organisation. Commonweal’s flexibility was a key asset in this struggle, however. Having a clearly drawn model, underpinned by a consistent set of principles, from which partners are free to deviate is helpful. This allows for organisations to adapt the model to their organisation’s experience and capacity as well as to the local context. We wondered whether this flexible approach had helped reinforce the resilience shown by the partners who found ways to get on with delivery despite the wrecking ball of policy change. Partners have clearly stated that peer learning and networking could help them to navigate policy change and attempts were made to provide opportunities; some Re-Unite partners thought that more use could have been made of the Re-Unite network.

With Re-Unite, Commonweal Housing has chosen to play a long game – a 10 year project timeframe – that allows specialist organisations to test, adapt and embed new ways of providing housing to tackle social injustice. One of the questions IVAR was asked early in our work with Commonweal was, are we right to stick to such a long timeframe? Our response has been ‘yes’ because housing takes time to put in place; stability is an important component of such housing and because the projects Commonweal gets involved with are never easy or straight forward – they all need time to get right. Overall, the very fact that Commonweal are so keen to continue learning and improving their work will be critical to their ability to continue to help tackle social injustice into the 2020s.