Voyage of discovery

With its Voyage of Recovery just completed, David Gilliver talks to Phoenix Futures chief executive Karen Biggs about overcoming polarisation and embracing change

When Phoenix Futures won ‘best employer’ at the recent Third Sector Excellence Awards, one of the reasons cited – alongside the organisation’s commitment to volunteer involvement – was that 11 per cent of the staff and 10 per cent of management had graduated through the service themselves. ‘That’s part of who we are,’ says chief executive Karen Biggs. ‘We came from a self-help origin, and the fact that graduates of our services and service users are deeply involved in the culture of the organisation we take for granted. You forget that that’s impressive to other people.’

She’s been chief executive since 2007, overseeing 700 staff and nearly 90 services across community, prison and residential settings, following a 17-year career at Stonham Housing Association. Much of her time there was spent running supported housing services for prolific offenders, and a feeling that she was ready for a change coincided with being headhunted for the Phoenix Futures job. ‘When I saw the other candidates I thought I didn’t have a chance,’ she says.

It was meeting Phoenix’s service users, however, that convinced her that the position was something she wanted. ‘As part of our recruitment process we get our service users to take people around – they spend a good few hours with them before they see us or the board, and that was the experience I had. They gave us a tour of the house, talked about their programme and their life, and I thought, “if this is the core of the organisation – if the people going through that programme are so aware and passionate and active – then I really want to lead it.”’

One aspect of the staff involvement that impressed the awards was the organisation’s annual ‘innovation factor’ competition, which encourages employees to come up with new ideas, with a cash prize for the best. ‘Lots of third sector organisations say “we’re really innovative” so we challenged ourselves to prove that,’ she says. ‘We knew that people from across the organisation had really good ideas, but we didn’t always get to hear them.’

The fact that the ideas are implemented by the organisation also encourages people to think big, she says – ‘we get lots of little ideas where we’ll say “just go ahead and do it”’. The first winning entry was the Phoenix Forest, where a tree is planted for everyone who’s stayed drug or alcohol free for a year after completing treatment. ‘We do an annual planting and it’s a mark on the landscape for recovery – there’s all sorts of symbolism from that, because you normally plant trees for people who are dead. They’re tiny trees at the moment but there’s a lot of them. I didn’t think we’d ever get a better idea, but we did.’

The follow-up was the Voyage of Recovery, which saw groups of service users taking part in a sea voyage around Britain (DDN, March, page 15). ‘The idea doesn’t have to – and this one certainly doesn’t – save the organisation money, but it has to be able to deliver what we do in a different way and pursue our mission,’ she says. ‘The panel said, “clearly it’s the best idea but we can’t do it – it’s going to cost us £70,000 and it’s a hundred service users currently in treatment going around the country.” But I thought we can’t not do it because we’re scared of it.’

The 1,800-mile sea voyage has had a profound effect on the lives of those who have taken part, she stresses. ‘I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been told, “it’s an experience I would never have expected, it’s given me the courage to go on with the next part of my life”. A guy in his mid-30s told me told me that not only had he never been on holiday – that isn’t uncommon among our service users – but he’d never left Birmingham his whole life, and he had the courage to say, “yes I want to do this”. That tells you so much about the disadvantage we deal with.’

The trip was ‘by no means a holiday’, however. ‘They’ve had to work really hard, but just to go and do something different was really important. I feel it’s our responsibility to be able to give our service users experiences that they’ve never had before, because that could be the key to unlock the potential for recovery – that’s a good enough reason.’
The effect has also been felt further afield, helping to raise awareness in local communities as service users raised money for their leg of the voyage through activities like packing customers’ bags in the supermarket. ‘As they’re doing that, with a Phoenix t-shirt on, people are asking “what’s Phoenix?” We’re reaching people we would never have reached and raising the profile of the services.’

A core belief of those services is that people have the potential to rebuild their lives, she states. ‘We first meet people because of their drug and alcohol issues, but if we just did treatment we’d only be doing half the job. Giving them experiences like the voyage, but also the employment stuff we do, the housing stuff, that’s what makes the difference.’

From being abstinence-based in its early days, Phoenix Futures now delivers both abstinence-oriented and harm reduction services. Coming from outside the sector – ‘I still feel like the new girl,’ she says – the polarisation between the two was something she didn’t understand.

‘I genuinely didn’t get it. I’d worked in an organisation that delivered services for people fleeing domestic violence as well as for perpetrators of domestic violence. I thought if you can do that within one organisation why can’t you deliver two different types of treatment that ultimately are aimed at the same thing? Yes, we came from an abstinence-based organisation but we’ve grown and developed – we did some of that organically and some of it was a strategic decision. I think as a sector we’re starting to get over [the polarisation] but it’s been quite hard. It’s because people believe so passionately in what they do – that creates that ideological drive that sometimes is really helpful but sometimes isn’t.’

On the subject of polarisation, as the cuts and restructuring continue, there’s been criticism of services transferring from the NHS to the third sector, with RCGP chair Clare Gerada stating that ‘if we only have the third sector and general practice we won’t achieve anything’ (DDN, July, page 18). How does she respond to those views?

‘I think we’ve got to be really careful that that doesn’t become the new big fight, because that would be so self-defeating,’ she says. ‘But my response is the same – you need a multiplicity of providers. There are some things that I think the bulk of the third sector are good at and some things that the bulk of the statutory sector are good at. For Phoenix I’m really clear about what we do, and I think we really stretch the organisation – geographically and in terms of the settings we provide services in – prison, community, residential and then branching out into the employability, housing and family stuff. For me that’s enough.’

Phoenix looks to its partners for clinical provision, she explains. ‘If we go into tenders we look for good partners who share our vision and have high levels of clinical governance. Sometimes it will be a third sector organisation and sometimes it will be a statutory organisation, and we’ve got some nice arrangements with mental health trusts. I’m not saying it’s really easy, because there’s a dynamic that happens in those services between statutory staff and third sector staff – NHS and Phoenix staff – but for me that’s where that dynamic should happen, because they’re working out on the ground how to move people through a treatment pathway more quickly. That’s where the real impact’s going to be.’

Her vision for Phoenix Futures is not to be the biggest but ‘one of the best’, she states. ‘I want us to be really clear about what we’re good at and to deliver good, local, responsive services so I can be sure that if one of my family members needed these services, it wouldn’t matter where they lived, we could provide a service that met their needs. And we wouldn’t say, after six months, “goodbye – go and find someone else to sort out your housing and family issues, and you need a job but someone else will help you with that.”’

Phoenix Futures’ aim is networks of local services, some delivered by themselves and some in partnership, that ‘really settle people on their recovery journey’, she says, with the organisation clear about the point its job is finished, the person has the confidence to out on their own, and the  community – whether a recovering community or the local community – takes over.

She’s expressed concerns in the past that the transfer to Public Health England would divert money away from specialist services for vulnerable groups, but feels that the sector now needs to accept that change is happening. ‘I think it’s a challenge but I think we need to positive about it. Our day job is motivating people to change, and we can’t be frightened of change.

‘It’s going to ask us to demonstrate and explain our services in a different way and think about ourselves differently – how we contribute to the overall health and wellbeing of those local communities. If we think we should be funded because we have a right to exist then we’re not going to get anywhere. I think there’s a real risk that we don’t respond as a sector to that challenge, but it’s there to play for really. And if it creates a different response from the sector –  “let’s think about how we deliver a service that’s integrated into our local communities, so we have closer ties with housing and we’re able to involve families and carers more in the treatment of their loved ones” – then that’s not a bad thing, surely.’  DDN