Lucy Ridley

Shared goals and differing approaches: top tips for managing contrasting stakeholders

How do you successfully manage a project which includes eight local authorities, professional artists, researchers, and care-experienced children and their families? Lucy Ridley, Blue Cabin Associate, talks about what she’s learnt while managing Blue Cabin’s latest research programmes.

For the past year, I’ve been project-managing two of Blue Cabin’s research programmes, which aim to find out how the pandemic has affected care-experienced children and young people.

The first project is Compass, which looks at the role of children in care councils, which represent children in care and care leavers; and the second is Time Together, which focuses on family time. Both have been commissioned by South Tyneside Council.

There have been so many different partners involved that at times it’s felt like spinning plates. Here’s what I’ve learnt along the way about making a complex project run smoothly.

Adapt to different approaches

This research has involved coordinating artists, researchers, staff from local authorities – both on the ground and at a strategic lead level – and of course, the children, young people, carers and families who have taken part in the project.

As you’d expect, there have been vast differences in approach between the parties and even between the different local authorities. When I have a meeting with an artist, it can be bright, colourful, and may even involve props. The next minute I might be presenting to a team of senior managers, or talking to a foster carer who wants to know what to expect from a creative session with their young person.

However, everyone ultimately has the same priority – to improve the lives of care-experienced children and young people – and my role has been to understand what everyone needs in order to play their part. The best way I’ve found of doing this is by having conversations. I always happily talk to people rather than send multiple emails, and that’s helped me understand exactly what each person needs from me, whether that’s information, advice, or practical support.

Accept that we don’t know all the answers

We set out to find out how lockdown affected children and young people’s experiences of family time with their birth families and how we can best support them; and also how it’s impacted the role of Children in Care Councils, and how we can make sure their voices are being heard.

We didn’t know what young people would tell us, and working alongside our academic research team has taught me so much about how to begin with a question, and, if necessary, how to adapt your plans along the way. For example, during an early stage in the research, members of Children in Care Councils told us that mental health was a big concern for them, so we shifted our focus to include this.

We’ve also worked with a team of artists who are brave, and experienced in their areas of work, and they’ve been happy to come on this journey with us and learn from the children and young people.

Empower children and young people

I feel very passionate about empowering children and young people to put their voices centre stage. It’s not just about asking the professionals about their experiences – although of course that is important – it’s also about listening to children and young people, who often have something very different to say, and I’ve met some fabulous young people along the way who have shared their experiences.

Create a safe place for people to share their stories

Making sure people feel safe and supported can really change what they’re willing to share with you. Two birth mothers have shared their personal stories which are so powerful and moving, with our researchers. Both women were pleased to have an opportunity to tell their stories and it was brilliant that they felt safe and supported enough by the team to be able to talk so openly.

Likewise, our artists have worked hard to build relationships with the children and young people, and to enable them to feel safe and supported. If we did the project again, I’d like to build in more time for this, giving longer for those relationships to develop.

Remember, we’ve all been working during a pandemic

When we started this research we thought it would be retrospective, looking back at the impact of COVID-19. However, we’re still in a pandemic and went back into lockdown during this project. So not only has this been a wide-ranging project, with multiple participants, everyone has also been juggling home schooling, lockdown, and increased workloads. I’ve been very aware of striking a balance between keeping things moving and not pushing too hard.

Find out more about Compass and Time Together here.