News and Comment

25th anniversary guest blog series: Networks not monoliths

Thursday 6 November 2014

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Does every generation think it’s special and different and at the cusp of a new dawn or a brave new world? Maybe I’m getting old but we’ve been talking about radical change, fast-moving change, sweeping global change, technological transformation – oh and of course public service reform for a fair few years! Is this a special moment for the UK? Are the tectonic plates really shifting? And if so, how?

From the Big Lottery Fund perspective it’s a great question as we are engaged in conversation with our stakeholders about our future direction. And there are messages that come back loud and clear – trust the small and the local, let the practitioners decide, funders move out of the way, don’t trust government. But there’s also some schizophrenia in there – help us more (don’t get out of the way!), be a leader, join up the dots across the UK and beyond, help us influence policy.

So there’s the challenge, encapsulated for us in those seemingly contradictory messages. Be cleverer and smarter because you have access to deep data and interesting practice all over the place and we’d like to know about it, and at the same time liberate us from information demands that we can’t service. Actually it’s not a bad ask – we do indeed touch most neighbourhoods in the UK and if we can harness technology in a clever customer focussed way we could extract great ‘stuff’ for learning and sharing whilst also reducing our demands on grant-holders (think open data, think shared monitoring, think geeks).

Maybe these demands aren’t so much contradictory as complementary; it’s just that we haven’t configured ourselves to be that smart – yet. Too much process and not enough ingenuity? Are we a microcosm of many public services, or perhaps we are behind the curve?

More widely can we have those world class services delivered alongside – or perhaps more radically – as part of local power and control? I’ve long been rather keen on notions of networks rather than monoliths. In our own organisation we have started talking about what we might look and feel like as a house – one where the partitions are taken down, there are no doors, no locks and no bolts, windows and shutters are open, there is no fence around the garden and no gate to keep folk out, the structural walls are strong and the foundations rock solid.

What would it be like to be that porous? How would it feel to let other people tell us what our data means, where our funding could have more impact, and even work with us to design programmes? We do some of this already: in some of our strategic programmes such as Building Communities in Wales or Talent Match in England we have explored the principle of co-design. These approaches are challenging, force us to think about where and how we add value, and where we can get out of the way and let others get on with things. They demand not just a different ambition, but a different practice and culture on our part; a re-framing of risk, transparency and accountability. No small task to keep us busy for some time!

Dawn Austwick is Chief Executive of the Big Lottery Fund UK

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About the series

OPM is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, and as a public interest organisation, we’ve always contributed to the debate about the future of public services.

With this and the next general election in mind, we’ve asked a number of senior thinkers to give their views on the challenges and opportunities facing public services and society in the near future.

This is one of a series of guest blogs, which we’ll be adding to in the coming weeks and months. To read previous posts in the series, go to our news and comment page.