The Shift in the Responsibility for Change!

Every once in a while an article, a talk, a debate etc. comes along which helps crystallise nagging concerns/thoughts that I haven’t been able to pin down. Well, this has happened recently upon reading the recent thought provoking IPPR article and listening to debate on “The happiness industry: How the government and big business sold us wellbeing”.

Based on Will Davies’ book of the same name IPPR curate a fascinating discussion between the author and a representative from NEF on the growing medicalisation and how our emotions, psychology have become monetised. We can now apparently measure our happiness and wellbeing! By offering strategies such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), Mindfulness and the plethora of “self-help” techniques around we are now apparently far better equipped to take control and “heal thyself”.

As individuals we of course ideally need to be independent, healthy, fully-functioning beings. Yet a primary contention of Will Davies is that the focus on the individual focus for change somewhat negates the need for the populous to put pressure on or for organisations and political institutions themselves to make changes which address root causes and not simply focus on symptoms. To give this particular Wellbeing area justice take a look at the IPPR article with podcast or video.

It set me thinking about other matters and work I’m either directly/indirectly affected by or involved in. Yes, in public service austerity and budget cuts remain all-pervasive, yet does this mean our models of transformation are going in the right direction or supported from the ‘correct’ perspective?

We talk a lot about changing the relationship between citizen and state, partly to break the so-called “dependency-culture” and partly because we require greater collaboration to meet increasing community needs with diminishing resources. There is undoubtedly tremendous potential in areas such as collaborative consumption but unless public institutions take the lead we run the risk of leaving a space within which, what I term, a mythical “free market” will be filled by profiteering conglomerates.  Far from being anti-business, I’m more concerned how we as public bodies support communities to be engaged and involved on an equal footing. In order to achieve this structural barriers need to be tackled alongside empowerment strategies.  Ideas explored more fully in Chapter 4 of an insightful paper by NESTA.

A strange and possibly trite indirect link here – I’m hopefully about to move house and as you know the paperwork to be completed seems endless. Proof of ID etc. for a mortgage is essential yet all the necessary documentation is on line meaning all the cost of production and effort to coordinate is placed on us as customers. Now, anyone who knows me will testify my belief in the power of cyberspace to be a positive force for good, nonetheless my current experience got me thinking about the inexorable move to Digital by Default a bit more.

Certainly as a strategy it will save money for local councils and for many make services easier and more available. To me though we have to avoid a consumerist approach and as referenced in an article entitled: “The Role of The Individual in ‘Digital by Default’ Public Services” local government must, as the LGA have stated –

  • Put citizens at the forefront
  • Give citizens real reason to participate
  • Co-design services that are affordable, are built around needs and make a visible difference

Self-service either externally or internally in an organisation has to avoid issues such as disadvantaging the ‘user’ in respect of overly shifting the burden costs and compromising service standards and the like.

Again the point being that we organisationally need to design with a citizen-led focus ensuring we avoid potential systemic problems like digital exclusion. Cost savings cannot be the only principal driver, it surely has to be about enhanced and improved pubic services.

On a digital note it is why I’m very excited and proud to be part of the #notwestminster ‘posse’. The latest phase of our work being coordinated by colleagues such as Dave Mckenna and others, focusing on “local democracy design challenges”. Dave’s blog explains where the ideas emanated from, how they have been built on an event earlier this year and a are being pushed forwards by a quasi digitally based movement rooted in local democratic engagement with the purpose to improve all aspects of collectively-based local democracy via a digital lens and grass roots development, buy-in and now active implementation.

To conclude…

OK, I could go on but let me try and bring these ramblings to a summation. The endless refrain right now is that public services must transform and constantly evolve. Hard to disagree with this on many levels. My concern is that we transform without a “public service ethos”. For me it’s a belief system, an approach to society and why many of us “got in the game” in the first place.

Public services have always embraced change that is not up for debate for me; it’s more about the basis and nature of the change. Local government has always placed tackling inequality, democracy and serving communities at the heart of what it does. Certainly many failures as well as successes can be cited, however the right raison-d’etre and ethos is still running through and being fought for by the public sector family.

Going back to where this piece began, the current dominant thinking about Wellbeing strategies and interventions (as an example) purports a very individualistic model. Dangerously for me, we run the risk of moving people’s dependency from a social interventionist sphere to a psychological dependency reliant on mechanisms like CBT or counselling without improving people’s quality of life and long term self-sufficiency. Neither positions are ultimately desirable, however the latter seems to be moving us further and further away from a strong ideological basis for tackling the larger societal and structural injustices that no individual citizen could hope to affect by themselves.

A generalisation but do we really want a USA-style “I’m in therapy” dependency culture?!

It may be viewed as counter-culture right now, nevertheless my belief is more than ever public services should adopt a  fully democratically mandated quasi-collective bargaining role in collaboration with its citizens.

Collaboration – Are We Passing the Test?

The word ‘collaboration’ is once again doing the rounds in local government circles helping to drive transformation; well, to be honest did it ever go away? We have had Total Place, Whole Placed Budgets over the past decade to name but two high profile initiatives. Personally I thought Total Place in particular was a missed opportunity.

What do we mean by collaboration? My simplistic definition of collaborating is where publicly funded organisations, private sector agencies and third sector organisations are broadly working together with the same service users to deliver something of public value. They are working consistently together, rather than just consulting each other on an ad hoc basis. In this piece I’m focussing more on the organisational aspect and less on the changing relationship with the citizen – controversial I know 🙂

Image result for collaboration

The potential benefits of increased collaboration are numerous:

  • New or improved services
  • Wider geographical reach or access to new beneficiary groups
  • More integrated or co-ordinated approach to beneficiary needs
  • Financial savings and better use of existing resources
  • Knowledge, good practice and information sharing
  • Sharing the risk in new and untested projects
  • Capacity to replicate success
  • Stronger, united voice
  • Better co-ordination of organisations’ activities
  • Mutual support between organisations

Ultimately collaborative working should enable you better to meet your beneficiaries’ needs, in our context citizens and local communities.

There seem to be key components to successful collaboration, however do we pass the test in local government? Here are some themes and questions to see how we’re doing:

Appreciating the Service User’s Perspective

At the heart of successful collaboration has to be the service user’s perspective, if we agree:

  • How are you using outcome measures to trigger conversations about collaboration?
  • How much value do you give to the voices of service users in service design and policy design and in the way money flows?
  • Who have you invited to witness the collaborative working? Who holds a ‘whole system perspective’? How much power are you giving them?
  • What more could you do to promote consistent and regular service user participation in the system, at a local level, beyond holding elections?

Building services or new ways of working are essential, the degree to which we currently do this is eminently questionable to me.

Creating Common Purpose

Creating common purpose or ‘strategic vision’ is often dependent on a number of other activities – explaining what is important, and promoting collaborative working at the front line etc. So:

  • How often have you explained ‘why’ the collaboration is worth it recently?
  • How have you challenged and supported service professionals to adapt to working more collaboratively?
  • What more training might you offer to help people understand the need to work in this way?
  • How are professional competencies, professional development, and selection criteria geared to working collaboratively in order to improve services?

Creating a common purpose is in many ways the easy part, the key aspect is how it is inculcated into everyday business.

Insist on Whole System Approaches

In collaboration the use of power is very important. It includes the power of convening, of setting rules of engagement, of deadlines, goals and tight processes, even, occasionally, of imposing ideas. With this in mind:

  • What more could you do to insist on collaborative working?
  • Have you put in place enough people to work out the details so that organisations can join up and ‘stuff’ doesn’t get in the way?
  • Have you monitored your partners’ behaviours and challenged those who are not operating collaboratively?
  • What other sources of authority can you create for working collaboratively including financial sources?
  • Alternatively, to what extent are you over-emphasising this strand without giving attention to ‘creating common purpose’, ‘sharing power’, and ‘walking in the service user’s shoes’?

Sounds a bit ‘dictatorial’ no; I would put a more positive spin and say it is more about strong and effective leadership.

Sharing Power

Sharing power is surely about tolerating failures along the way and not blaming people for making mistakes. It should be about sharing risk on behalf of partners, ensuring there is local ownership, promoting inclusiveness even when you disagreed with partners, and promoting a sense of participation and agency. So then:

  • How could you share power more, to enable the complex system you lead, to adapt without you dictating the details?
  • In which domains do you need to be prescriptive and in which can you promote local autonomy? (e.g. process, recruitment, performance)
  • To what extent are you involving a community of practice in design and oversight, not just in implementation?
  • How are you handling not being ‘in control’?
  • How can you buy political space to give the time and authority to others in the system to change how the system is run, as opposed to limiting others’ room for manoeuvre?
  • How can you build on existing strong relationships?
  • In what ways are you supporting relationship building within the collaboration?

Tricky stuff, and one more thought – if the departure of key leaders is a significant risk to the collaboration, how can you use the citizen or service user’s perspective, ‘common purpose’, sources of authority for collaborative working, and power sharing to help the collaboration sustain?

To Conclude…

There have been and continue to be significant barriers to successful collaboration some of the main ones being: power struggles, institutional inertia, sharing resources, lack of passion and changes in leadership.

The ‘common purpose’ for collaboration can be significant, with financial gains to be had, alongside improved customer experience. The trouble is that collaboration is often fraught with challenges. Power struggles, systems that are not designed for collaboration, leadership instability, impatience for quick results, all threaten collaboration. Therefore, in the face of such challenges, the four central themes of appreciating the service user’s perspective, creating common purpose, insisting on whole system approaches and sharing power, become essential as an antidote to such barriers.

So, how do you and your organisation stack up?