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200 years of tackling catch22s

A vintage plane, facing the camera.

With George Clooney starring in the high-profile adaptation of the novel Catch22, we reflect on our charity’s name and the systemic catch22s we all need to solve:

  • The young person who needs work experience to get hired, but needs a job to fund work experience.
  • The teacher who can see a child needs counselling, but finds the CAMHS threshold means a child needs to reach crisis point to be eligible.
  • The young gang member who wants to escape violence but only feels safe by carrying a knife.

These situations are all ‘catch22s’ – a situation for which the only solution is denied by a circumstance inherent in the problem. While our organisation has been helping to solve social problems and delivering public services for over 200 years, our name is relatively new.

The term ‘catch22’ was coined by Joseph Heller as the title of his best-selling 1961 novel. It tells the story of a World War II pilot, Yoassarian, who is the victim of a ludicrous army policy where he is sent to fly on ever more dangerous missions. In the novel, military rule states that people who are mentally impaired needn’t fly, and all they have to do was ask to be relieved of the duty. The catch, or catch22, is that anyone who asks is clearly acting in the interest of their own safety. In the face of such dangerous missions, this rational request was enough to prove the person was sane and therefore fit to fly.

“If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to…..

“That’s some catch, that Catch22,” he observed.

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, 1961

The services we provide are needed by people who are a bit stuck in their lives. But when we chose our name, we also wanted to illustrate that it’s often the system itself that creates the problem for the person or family, not vice versa. Catch22 captured all those important ideas. We help untangle the personal catch22s, but we also argue for reform to change policy and systems like those faced by Yossarian in Heller’s classic story.

In every public service, decision-makers and budget holders are being asked to do more with less. But they often need more resource and time, to save resource and time. Our sector needs to find new ways of using resources to maximise impact, improve outcomes and allow teams the freedom to do their jobs as well as possible in order to end these negative cycles.

Solving a personal catch22:

When you need work experience to get a job, but you need a job to get work experience.

We partner with Barclays LifeSkills in London, Liverpool and Bristol to help get young people into work. As well as providing work coaching and support with interview skills, we liaise with big employers who want to access a more diverse range of talent and support the young person for six months once they’re in a role.

Solving a professional catch22:

The social worker who knows it makes more sense and costs less money to help a mother before things deteriorate, but is only able to intervene when family relations are completely broken.

Our Fact22 teams work with children and families on the Children in Need (CiN) plan. Our social workers are supported by frontline family workers and volunteers, who are able to spend much more time with families than a social worker who is juggling a heavy caseload. This model frees up social workers to manage their high-risk caseloads while our teams focus on lower risk children on the cusp of the system. A FACT22 pilot halved the CiN re-referral rate and reduced social worker caseloads by one-third.

George Clooney’s new Catch22 series will dominate the headlines for a while, but those same traps seem set to persist. In over 200 years of helping people we have seen how public services can be badly designed and overcomplicated. Solving catch22s means putting people before paperwork, relationships over structures, and allowing skilled, confident people to do the right thing.

– Chris Wright, Catch22 CEO