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?