On Accountable Objects: Designing and Deploying Accountability Tools for Charities

Matt Marshall

4 Understanding Accountability Work

4.1 Introduction

This chapter concerns the first phase of the research, which consisted primarily of a long period of ethnographic fieldwork with an orientation to work practice (Crabtree et al., 2012) and the labour required to produce Accountability as part of everyday work in a small charity.

This first phase of research benefited the overall process in a number of ways. First, the ethnographic method and orientation to work practice allowed me as the researcher to develop a degree of Vulgar Competence in the processes and on-the-ground work that any technological intervention would need to be based around, and support. As such, the design requirements discussed at the end of this chapter are the result of analysing actual work practices of the organisation. Additionally, the length of the initial fieldwork period discussed in this chapter illustrated to me a wider, much more complete, picture of the charity ecosystem; who the various actors are, and the various forms of accountable practice that a charity and its workers must employ to navigate this. Finally, I believe the initial period of fieldwork with my frequent visits and the work I performed as part of it lead to buy-in from the charity when it came to discussing, designing, and implementing technologies together at later stages of the research.

As such this chapter discusses the work practices of a small charity as they intersect with producing Transparency and Accountability. Attention is paid to the different forms of work that the charity undertook and in what forms these were accounted for to others. These are then analysed to produce high-level design requirements which influenced the later design of technologies which were deployed into this space.

4.2 Participants and Setting: The Patchwork Project

This research began in earnest with my reaching out to a Youth Work charity known as The Patchwork Project (hereafter Patchwork or sometimes referred to as “Patchy” by locals and workers). I had briefly met two of the workers during some previous research that was performed during my MRes (Marshall et al., 2016) and their contribution left a substantial impression on me due to their interest in my research and what I perceived of as a very reflective discussion of their work. I was keen to work with them again and, thankfully, after a meeting with them over lunch they agreed to let me engage with them through fieldwork.

Patchwork are a small, hyper-local, charity and their work is inherently tailored to the needs of their immediate community. Since these needs shape the work and thus everyday work practice I feel that discussing work practice without providing a brief overview of the organisation and setting would provide an incomplete picture. Therefore I wish to briefly discuss the history of Patchwork and the community of Benwell.

In 1994, The Independent included Benwell, Scotswood, and Elswick together in its list entitled “No-Go Britain: Where, what, why”. The reasons they cited were “Crime, arson used to intimidate witnesses, feuds between rival families involved in drug dealing” as well as citing unemployment statistics of 24%, 28%, and 26% for the three areas respectively (The Independant, 1994). Colloquially, the area is seen as abandoned by the city council, and owes its reputation to the conditions that arise from lack of adequate services and funding.

Interviews with the staff revealed that The Patchwork Project began life as one of several projects originally operating under the banner of the Benwell Young Person’s Development Group (BYPDG).1 The group formed in 2001 (Find that Charity, n.d.a; The Patchwork Project, 2016) as an informal umbrella group to support the young people of the Benwell and Scotswood area of Newcastle, which was experiencing a withdrawal of local authority funding and feeling the effects of the resultant lack of service provision. Initially the group was very disparate and the various arms operated independently from each other, with residents providing community transport, toddler and infant care, Scouting troupes, and a football club as well as the youth work. The Patchwork Project began life with residents taking groups of children out for activities such as site visits and days at the local pool. The project manager described the efforts as “Very amateurish. It was great.”. According to the informant, the group was later formally constituted as a charity in order to “access funding and structure” although “only Patchwork was its responsibility. The rest of the activities were mostly just doing their own thing. The charity was started to support Patchwork”

The project manager describes how the success of the project lead to the entirety of the BYPDG becoming known by that name, and eventually the other activities either split off into their own local charities (e.g. the football club) or wound down due to the community members who drove the efforts retiring. Some elements of other activities were taken up by Patchwork such as the toddler group, but lack of available volunteers lead to this winding down as well. Michael stated that Patchwork continued to operate by itself within the structure of the BYPDG as a project but registered as its own charity in 2014 and taking over from where the previous organisational structure left off (Find that Charity, n.d.b) and also registered as a Company Limited by Guarantee in order to “protect the trustees in the era of risk assessments and individual responsibility”.

Patchwork’s stated aims of the charity on both their website (The Patchwork Project, 2021) and the Charity Commission (Charity Commission for England and Wales, 2021) are as follows:

To help and educate young people between the ages of 5 and 25 years resident in the West End of Newcastle Upon Tyne and the surrounding area, including those who are involved in the Criminal Justice System or at risk of becoming involved in the Criminal Justice System, without distinction of sex, sexual orientation, race or political, religious or other opinion, through their leisure time activities so to develop their physical, mental and spiritual capacities that they might grow to full maturity as Individuals and members of society and so that their conditions of life may be improved. (The Patchwork Project, 2021)

The organisation also specify a discrete set of needs that they seek to address with their daily activity on their website:

In-keeping with this I saw that the primary service users of Patchwork were constituted of people aged around 8 to 25 although it must be acknowledged that Patchwork will also offer support to individuals outside of this range if they feel it will support a young person. A consistent example of this that I witnessed often was a member of staff supporting a parent or family member of a service user with activities such as applying for unemployment benefits or identifying documents (ie driving license, birth certificate, passport). Patchwork’s service users typically come from the immediate surrounding areas of Benwell, Scotswood, and Elswick although families often move around and occasionally a young person will move to other areas of the city but still travel to Patchwork for sessions. A large number of the service users and their families are from Eastern European ethnic and racial background since the local area houses a number of immigrant families; primarily Czech, Slovak, and Roma although I often witnessed arguments amongst the young people I worked with as to where these cultural distinctions were drawn. The other large group that makes up the bulk of the service users is White British and there are also a few families from the Bangladeshi and African diasporas in the area. Michael, the manager at Patchwork, affectionately introduced their core demographic to me as “Slovak, Bangladeshi, and White Scum – as perceived by the government anyway!”.

The way Patchwork engage with their service users is often very bespoke to a given circumstance and they will tailor support to a person or family as required. However they build the relationships with people through three core modalities: drop-in sessions; working with discrete groups; and “detached” work which involves operating without the use of a building2. This set of approaches ensures that they may reach new people and build longitudinal relationships with young people across time. Drop-in sessions are generally held from the morning to afternoon as the project opens and group work will begin in the late afternoon and early evening as the schools empty and young people return home (or gather in the street). Groups are given a particular time slot (e.g. Wednesday evenings) and sessions are generally expected to last until around 19:00 or 19:30 in the evening. Detached work does not occur every night but often takes place around once or twice a week depending on priorities of the workers on a given week and generally lasts a lot longer, often going until around 21:30 at night. During the school holidays the regular schedule is suspended and Patchwork will engage with the groups to construct a schedule of full-day or half-day activities across the break which limits detached and drop-in time.

There are a number of activities through which Patchwork will work with groups and individuals. Groups will often go out for bike rides, climbing walls, visits to locations, cook outside in the park, do crafts, or go swimming (among a whole host of other things). Further to a regular cadence of activities a group or individual might be encouraged onto and supported through a Duke of Edinburgh award (The Duke of Edinburgh Award, 2021), or another programme through Patchwork. This will often involve workers taking weekends to take young people hiking or camping, and teaching orienteering sessions in Patchwork 1 on a group’s scheduled session. Patchwork will pay extra attention to young people who are either in more explicit need or more engaged. An example of this I witnessed was Patchwork hiring some young people to work as gardeners at their allotment (Figure 4.1) in order to spend more time with them and to teach them the value of applying themselves. Another important aspect of Patchwork’s work is to support individuals and families who are currently within the criminal justice system. This involves prison visits, transporting people for court dates, providing formal wear, and other forms of bespoke support.