Questions, questions…

| Helen Sharp

“The answers you get depend upon the questions you ask”

A commissioner’s role is a curious one – we need to ask questions but we need to make sure we’re asking the right questions. It’s here that we can so easily falter.

Traditional commissioning required me to start with: “What are the issues?” “What do you need?” “Where are the problems?”

However, in this age of austerity, we can no longer afford to focus on what isn’t working and then plug the gaps with services; focusing on what’s missing is leading us down the wrong path. I now prefer to use an appreciative approach because appreciative questions focus on what’s working, what’s best in our communities; they help to unearth the broad range of resources which people care about and which we can build on and learn from. The conversation is often a positive one, full of energy and passion and it’s much nicer for everyone.

So I now start with: “What do you value?” “What matters to you?” “Who do you turn to?”

And I always follow with “why?” Without the ‘why’ you’re left with a list of lovely, important things – but it’s the why that connects them and gives you insight into what these lovely things mean to people and the motivation behind their value. It’s this information that is so vital to a commissioner.

Let me explain: young people in Lambeth told us one of the things they most valued in their local area was, “my bus stop.” When we asked, “why?” they said, “that’s where I meet my friends and I can get away from my home and do my own thing.” So, what really matters to these young people is not the bus stop itself, it’s the relationship with their peers and their sense of autonomy.

But beware: we’re so used to gathering information on deficits that it’s easy for us to slip back into that default. And it seems to be human nature to dwell on issues and problems so if you’re not careful, you can get caught in negative discussions and come away with a wish list and reams of insight into what’s not working. It takes quite a lot of concentration and confidence to keep everyone on the positives.

So think carefully before you ask questions of the community. You may only get one stab at it and as the scientist Thomas Kuhn once said:

“The answers you get depend upon the questions you ask…”

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