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  • James Rowlands

Reflections of an ex commissioner

Well, this is my first ever blog. I’ve decided to start by writing about a big change. At the end of March, I left a job which had dominated my life for the last 5 years, stepping down as the community safety lead and commissioner for domestic, sexual abuse and violence against women and girls across Brighton & Hove and East Sussex. I’ve left to pursue a PhD (hopefully), and in the meantime, I’m building up a consultancy, sharing what I have learnt in a 14-year career. Despite taking some time out, and also keeping myself busy with a few projects, I’ve had a chance to start reflecting on my experiences, as I let go of an old life and adjust to the new.

So, after five years as a commissioner, what has stuck with me?

‘Putting victims at the centre’ is a phrase that easily trips of the tongue and finds a way into countless strategy documents and action plans. This isn’t the place to write about if and why that aspiration does or does not translate into practice. But in my experience the most powerful conversations I’ve had have been with victims and survivors, or in the case of Domestic Homicide Reviews, their families. The format has varied, from consultation and engagement events, to open days, through to something as simple as a passing conversation. But each time someone shared their story, or talked about what they had found helpful, or what they wanted to see change, it was a privilege. Those conversations were grounding: they made me question my assumptions, but also encouraged and inspired me. In any role, it’s all too easy to get lost in process, or to succumb to the art of the possible. As you get more senior, conflicting demands, politics, ever fewer resources, or just getting to the end of the day, can take centre stage. Speaking with people was a tonic to all that. Ultimately, however much they might have put me on the spot, those conversations made me better at my job. In that moment it meant being accountable. Because if you can’t explain what you are trying to do, and why, to someone whose has got lived experience, well, that’s a problem. So, my advice with that in mind: If you are a commissioner and don’t think you need, or don’t have time, to go out and meet those we serve, think again and then find a way to make it happen.

The cry of ‘what about the men’ will be familiar to many people. @Jessicae13Eaton has recently written powerfully about this question. For my part, it was a regular feature of the last five years. By bringing this up, I am not disputing that we need services for men. If anything, a good part of my career has been dedicated to trying to meet that need: I set up Dyn Project in 2004, in my most recent role I worked with partners to develop services for men, and currently I serve on the board of Respect. But too often the question seemed to be hinged on the idea that everything’s a zero-sum game. Yes, we need to meet the needs of men affected by violence and abuse. Yes, there are barriers to men reporting. Yes, services for men are underfunded. But since when was all that not true for women? If we are going to meet the needs of men, we need to do that in way that doesn’t come at the cost of services for women. Putting a commissioning hat on, the problematic reaction to this cry has been to insist that specialist services become ‘gender neutral’. That’s not just simplistic, it’s also profoundly ignorant of history, given that most women’s services were built for women by women long before statutory funders came along, and because their users tell us about the importance of women only spaces. What’s more, gender neutral services won’t meet the particular needs and expectations of men. Ultimately, ‘gender neutral’ commissioning does nobody any favours. If you are commissioning and don’t do your homework and understand that, there is a real risk of reproducing, or at least colluding with, some of the very gender inequalities that are the cause and consequence of the violence and abuse we are trying to address.

While I am writing about gender, I’ve grown used to being in rooms where I am in the minority. That’s because I’m a man working in the field. Usually I have been one of the more senior people in the room, often one of the ‘decision makers’. I have spent a lot of time reflecting on how I behave in that space. @MichaelGLFlood writes a lot on this – I remember reading something he wrote once: ‘for men to undermine our own gender privilege is hard. We’re embedded in patriarchy, daily invited back into sexism, and receive privileges whether we want to or not.’ Never a truer word said. It’s all too easy to sign up to something like the White Ribbon Campaign and talk the talk. I’m not criticising that work; I think the effort to engage men in ending violence against women is critical. But I do wonder how often those efforts really get under the bonnet. How many of us – and I am talking about myself, as much to the men out there - can really say that we try and recognise gender expectations and how they play out? How often do we challenge those expectations in our day to day work? That includes holding back rather than jumping in, listening to women’s lived experience and recognising their authority, as well as being open to feedback if challenged, sitting with our discomfort, resisting the urge to be defensive, and if need be, changing our behaviour. We have to earn trust. That includes building up a track record by walking the walk. When I finished in my most recent role, a senior colleague from the local voluntary sector told me that whether or not she agreed with my decisions, she had always felt that my actions came from the right place and that we had a shared goal. I didn’t always get it right, but that feedback was worth its weight in gold. So, my challenge to men out there, whether you are a commissioner, elsewhere in the sector, or working alongside it in a statutory service, is to take the time to think about how you are in that space. The work has to start with ourselves.

Talking of self, working with domestic and sexual violence often feels quite lonely. It doesn’t matter what your perspective is – from commissioner, to a senior manager or a front-line practitioner. Too often the system seems stacked against you. In part that’s probably a reflection of how much the system can seem to be against the people we work with. It’s also the reality of working in a sector that is under resourced and on a social problem that, however far we have come, has so much further to go. The one thing I have learnt is to recognise is the toll that can take. A big part of my job was about momentum. Bringing people together, making connections and running multiple projects at the same time, some of which were simply about keeping the system going, while others had long-term transformative goals. It took a huge amount of energy to do that, and it was often hard to see any change. All the while I had to stay positive, despite facing many negatives that people will probably recognise (lack of resources, pressure to feed the corporate beast through performance monitoring, every day crises and the constant anxiety that something might go horribly wrong). At times it was exhausting. But throughout the last 5 years, it has been a source of comfort, support and downright relief, to find all sorts of amazing people in all sorts of roles who are trying every day to make a difference in whatever way they can. Don’t lose sight of your allies. It’s too easy to divide the world into camps, or to convince ourselves that only our service is on the side of the angels. Find common ground, however different people’s roles and perspective, because those allies will keep you going.

And with that, my first musings on the blogosphere come to an end. If you’ve made it this far, thanks for reading. I’m fairly certain there will be more to come…

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