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In our latest spotlight on the work of Homeless Link’s Partnership Managers, Steven Barkess who covers the West Midlands and North-West of England reflects on the role of the 'critical friend'.

Looking forwards into 2024, I have been reflecting on my role and work as a Homeless Link Partnership Manager for the West Midlands and the North-West. Many within the sector will agree that last year changes to policy, legislation, funding, and concerns about the financial impact on local authorities, caused anxiety, added pressures and more focus on the future of ending homelessness and how we can do this collectively.

The role of a critical friend

When thinking about these challenges it has encouraged me to consider our role as a ‘critical friend’, a phrase which is often used to describe key elements of what a Partnership Manager does. As a membership body with a broad membership, we are often contacted for advice and support and due to the nature of our membership these enquiries are equally as broad. Often the solutions and answers to many of the enquiries lie within the local partnership or network, and it is at this point that we become the ‘critical friend’.

We often thing of as a ‘critical friend’ of having these values:

  • Being honest and open
  • Impartial and objective
  • Reflective
  • Prompting and challenging
  • Collaborative and non-judgemental
  • Advocacy
  • Identifying areas of change and development
  • Supporting people to find their own positive solutions

Often the solutions and answers to many of the enquiries lie within the local partnership or network, and it is at this point that we become the ‘critical friend’.

Creating space for reflection

By creating a space for people to talk openly about the challenges they are facing and asking them to reflect on what possible solutions are out there we can divert the thought process from a negative to a positive response. This is not only true for one-to-one conversations but also true throughout all our work. The leading and delivery of forums, mediation and rebuilding partnerships, facilitating events and workforce development all require the above values and principles to ensure we do our job well.

Throughout 2023 there were several examples of how I have played the role of the ‘critical friend’. Most recently, I was called upon to support a West Midlands-based local authority to review their equality impact assessment, which I had originally provided advice on back in 2020. By being an impartial and objective observer, I was able to reflect on current challenges and policy implications being faced by the sector and was able to support them in developing their priorities and making the necessary additions to this assessment, such as incorporating a focus on youth homelessness and gender informed approaches, which are both now seen as priority areas towards ending rough sleeping and wider homelessness prevention.

Another example of this occurred in December of last year whilst I was chairing a county-wide homelessness forum. It was identified that challenges remained around staff retention and recruitment. As an impartial and objective observer, I was again able to consider this from all perspectives and by using the values listed above, able to prompt conversation about areas of change within workforce development. Asking prompting questions challenged people to consider their own solutions. Through advocacy I was also able to put forward the wider views of the workforce to leaders in this space and highlight the importance of this being embedded within the culture of an organisation and not simply a one off, tick box exercise.

A further example of the role of ‘critical friend’ can be seen within a case study produced about support provided around housing first back in 2019, which you can view here. This case study demonstrates the long-term positive influence provided by engaging with a ‘critical friend’.

Looking forward

As we move into 2024, I look forward to continuing my work with colleagues, both internally and externally. I’m particularly excited about nurturing existing relationships and creating new ones to better support people experiencing or at risk of homelessness, and seeing how our role as a critical friend and advocate for the sector develops.

Supporting local partnerships

Ending homelessness requires many people to work together across the voluntary sector, local government, health services and private sector. Homeless Link have pioneered and continue to support local partnerships across England to improve collaboration.

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Steven Barkess

Partnership Manager (West Midlands & North West)

Partnership Manager (Central)