Anytown council's social care commissioning manager wanted to work more closely with people who use services throughout the commissioning process. She knew that previous commissioning work had not involved people who use services well in the process. Because of this it missed out on an excellent source of expertise. She wanted to use appreciative inquiry as a way of understanding people's aspirations.
Appreciative Inquiry is a way of asking questions and exploring the future. The basic idea is to build plans with people around what works, rather than trying to fix what doesn't work. It is the opposite of problem-solving. Instead of focusing your energy on fixing what's wrong, Appreciative Inquiry asks people to tell stories of what works. This can be fun, engaging and energising, and it can involve and connect lots of people, including the people who often get left out. It builds capacity, creates a shared vision and leads to action. Its flexibility makes it suitable in many different contexts. It's good at involving people whose voices are not heard very often, connecting people who do not normally meet, encouraging people to be positive and helping people to identify and appreciate success.
They started by identifying each other's abilities. People were asked to remember a time in their lives when they felt they had done something worthwhile or something they were proud of. Then they were asked to imagine an ideal future for themselves in five years' time. People had to think about practical things like what they were doing, where they were living and who they were with. After talking and thinking about this example they were asked to work backwards and think about how they reached this place in their lives. Each stage was discussed in detail until they reached their real, present time.
Finally, people were asked to repeat this on a larger scale and think about how the area could be different in five years' time. Again, they explored what this might look like and then spoke about how to get to that stage and what they could contribute to it.
The two exercises enabled those people involved to consider a different future for themselves and talk about their aspirations. The commissioner then worked with people involved to develop a set of shared outcomes from these.
This outcomes framework was used to commission a new service for the area. The commissioner shortlisted candidates but people who use services then interviewed them and chose which provider they preferred. The winning provider turned out not to be the commissioning manager's first choice, but was selected because of the leadership space it created for people using services.