The same…but different? Reflections on ‘stepping back’

What does the workplace look like when you return to it after time away? As she resumes her role as CYCJ’s director, Claire Lightowler reflects back on her year of thinking, reading and writing about youth justice, her motivations for doing so – and what it’s taught her about the way we work.

It’s been an interesting experiment – both personally and for CYCJ – to retreat from being CYCJ’s director, away from the day to day responsibilities for a year to do some much needed thinking, reading and writing. In essence, slowing things down to reflect on what path we should be on and whether we’re on the right one. It’s also interesting to be coming back to a world that has moved on and to a team that has changed, under the excellent leadership of our deputy director, Fiona Dyer. Without Fiona’s leadership, everyone at CYCJ stepping up to support her, and Fiona and I respecting and trusting each other (her in my ability to let her lead and me in her ability to lead) doing this wouldn’t have been possible.

We are both conscious that we now also face the challenge of me stepping back and respecting what has changed and why; acknowledging that to some extent our roles have inevitably now changed for good. This plan is for me to continue to devote more time to strategic thinking, longer term research and change projects, and international change; and for Fiona to continue to offer leadership to policy and practice in Scotland.

In the hectic modern world, operating in the complex context of care and justice, and sitting in between the worlds of policy, practice, research and people/society, it is not easy sometimes to think deeply and carefully. I have been surprised by how difficult I found my year away from the busyness and immediate gratification of completing a task or emptying an inbox, working on a small number of things meant that progress sometimes felt slow. I initially found it hard to stop looking at what was going on day to day, but the real challenge for me was to accept that for a year I should not get involved in trying to influence things, that was no longer my role.

I was reminded of something mentioned to me a long time ago (by a leadership coach from Kinharvie) about purposefully stepping back so you can step back in again, with clearer purpose and energy. It was challenging deliberately distancing myself from the CYCJ team and partners, sometimes it was lonely, sometimes the weight of the things I was thinking about were difficult and painful. Sometimes I didn’t want to think about it all, and sometimes I spent the day avoiding doing so. Often my head hurt. For a few weeks in the midst of it all I doubted whether what I was working on would be good enough, whether we’d invested all this resource and it wouldn’t change anything. But this was never all I thought, and I never thought it for long…

I was also ever conscious that whatever challenges I was facing were nothing compared to what some of our children and their families, friends and communities experience. Also, I was always clear that there was a truth about how Scotland responds to children in conflict with the law that hadn’t been clearly documented or articulated. The desire to rectify this kept me going. I hope what I’ve done contributes to a better understanding about how Scotland is responding to children in conflict with the law, and what can be done to improve how we do this. More to come on this later in the year, so watch this space.

I am hopeful that, along with a determined CYCJ team and a range of supportive partners, this work will help to inform thinking and change things for children, their families and communities. But that is to be proved and involves some variables over which we have no control. However, what I know for certain is that both I and the team at CYCJ are clearer about what we think needs to be done and what this involves. In and of itself I think this means the year has been well spent.

I am conscious of individuals and organisations, myself and CYCJ included, constantly seeking to do more and more, without taking significant time to think about why they are doing what they are doing and whether these are the right things. I’m also aware that people are so busy they don’t feel they have time to read other people’s work, so we all continually duplicate work unnecessarily or spend time hitting problems that could have been avoided if we’d spent half a day properly reading and thinking about something. In this busy world I’m wondering whether it is not just good but essential practice for people (perhaps particularly those with strategic responsibilities) to take a year, six months, a couple of months away from the day to day work to think, to read and to strategise. Perhaps not just as individuals either, perhaps whole teams should do so together. I know this feels like a massive, perhaps unrealistic time commitment, but I am increasingly conscious of the time (potentially years and years) we waste by not doing this.

So, now I am starting to step back in and noticing some significant changes from last year. The age of criminal responsibility has changed from eight to 12, there are positive developments in progress about the disclosure requirements for children, there has been renewed attention about children who are detained of their liberty and closer examination about how to better meet their needs and what needs to be done to respect their rights. However, so much remains the same. I am confident Scotland can do better, and determined that we will.

I look forward to working with you all in 2020 to achieve it. Do get in touch, I’m keen to practice talking to people again…

About our blogger

As Director, Claire leads CYCJ in its work to improve children’s lives through improving policy, practice and knowledge about the issues related to offending by children and young people. Find out more. 


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