Prototyping: Supporting Working Families in Essex


Complex challenges do not have clear pathways to solutions and require creativity and experimentation.  PPR helped to create the conditions which are known to be necessary to enable innovation at pace.

What was needed?

How might you go about solving a complex issue like ‘improving support for informal childcare’?  You might get a load of council leaders in a room, heads together, door shut, coming up with a solution that might work.  Or, you as council leaders could open the door and ask –

‘What is really needed?’

‘What do you want to see change?

‘What matters to you?’ 

‘What are you worried about?’

‘What are the opportunities here?’

And ‘what might that look like?’

Essex County Council’s (ECC) Working Families portfolio is tackling a number of complex challenges, one of which is ‘how to best support working families with informal childcare’.  Supported by PPR and given the nature of the issue, a test and learn, prototyping approach was adopted to get closer to community-focused solutions.  The work involved the people who are most impacted, getting their insights and ideas which is crucial for a test and learn approach.  

Who was involved?  

Based on local data and insights, as well as service need in the area, Basildon was chosen as an area of focus.  A cross-sector Prototyping team was created with a diverse group of members from local VCS, Barnardos, Home Start, Adult Community Learning, primary schools and local parents.  This team was supported by, and connected to members of ECC (from the Working Families working group, comms, research and policy advisors).  

What happened? 

Over a period of 49 days, the team used cross-sector collaboration, involving parents and collective planning to develop a number of prototypes.  After an intensive launch workshop, team members explored case studies, local challenges and opportunities to come to two ideas – ‘Parent-Pal’ and ‘Family Friendly Employers’.  

Prototyping is a test and learn approach.  It shifts our behaviours away from meeting after meeting discussing and debating to thinking more like designers.  It enables teams to seek early indications that something is likely to work or not.  It involves iterative designs of ideas and here the team responded to feedback from working families.  By asking those closest to the issues about some possible support solutions, the team were able to develop a deeper understanding of the challenge and how their idea might work towards developing alternative informal childcare options as well as improving employee opportunities in the area.

A straightforward and easy process?

No!  But it could be.  Like a muscle that needs to be exercised, this way of working needs to be practised.  PPR believes that once you have been part of this way of working, you’ll never go back to the ‘closed door, closed conversation’ approach.

The prototyping process generated such a wealth of information that before the team knew it they had ideas that cross cut other complex issues.  The process supported deeper understanding of each other, of local problems and local possibilities.  The team built relationships and partnerships, brought together diverse skills and increased the likelihood of success. And underpinning this approach? Families were key ‘team members’.

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