News and Comment

Building a thinking laboratory: a new kind of local partnership

Wednesday 6 October 2010


As local public services face unprecedented challenges and a brand new organisational landscape, many are considering if their current approach to working together is fit for purpose. In this post OPM’s Sue Goss describes her experience of facilitating a new kind of local partnership: Worcestershire’s ‘thinking laboratory’, the Shenstone Group.

October 2010 saw the first meeting of the refreshed, enlarged and even more influential Shenstone Group in Worcestershire, which I hugely enjoy facilitating.

A different kind of partnership

The Shenstone Group is an off-line partnership of some of the biggest players in the county. Like many conventional partnerships, the group includes the leader and chief executive of the county council, leaders or chief executives of the district councils and the chair and chief executive from the primary care trust.

Where the Shenstone Group is unusual, however, is that our membership includes top executives from the private sector, including the chief executive of Bosch UK, the biggest private company in the county. It includes a local bishop, the editor of the local paper, the chief executive of the theatre, a GP, two headteachers and the president of the student union. Members of the group are chosen as individuals, on the basis of the contribution they can make and are not allowed to send substitutes.

We have labelled the group a ‘thinking laboratory’ with the intention of forming a leadership development process that would build relationships between key partners, and a steering and critical friend role in the Total Place pilot. With a support team that includes John Tizard, the Total Place lead, and Roger Britton, head of HR, I have been developing a process of learning, discussion and action that can underpin the formal decision-making structures of the county.

Creating thinking space

The intention behind the Shenstone Group is to create a ‘thinking space’ where the collision of ideas and perspectives from different sectors can lead to new and radical solutions. The meetings don’t resemble conventional ‘boardroom-style meetings’. Instead different members have taken responsibility for sharing their own expertise, and we have gone out to find – or bring in, where necessary – the data and evidence we need.

Last year, for example, we conducted ‘listening tours’ of the areas of highest need. Two or three group members visited each ward, meeting police officers, community workers, local residents and frontline staff. We invited a dozen young people who were ‘NEET’ (not in education, employment or training) to work with us for a day in solving the problems they had faced getting back into education and work. A local neighbourhood manager took us through the problems his neighbourhood faced. Our private sector members gave a presentation about how their firms made decisions to stay or to relocate. We gained amazing insights into the internal world of the health economy, of police and of the voluntary sector.

As a result, we came to realise that the shared understanding and relationships we were building weren’t just means to an end but an end in themselves: from the growing trust came concrete actions. Bosch has led the way by adopting one of the academy schools and working in a very fruitful partnership, and other private firms are following suit. The public sector agencies have agreed a protocol to ensure that cuts decisions are shared and aligned, so that no area, by mistake, suffers disproportionate harm.

Secrets of success

Thinking about the reasons why this group is succeeding and others remain talking shops, four things come to mind.

First, a lot of work went on in the early months to explain the concept, hold conversations with potential members and build a shared understanding of what we were trying to do. Even now, the ‘behind-the-scenes’ orchestration of the partnership remains vital.

Second, the meetings are about shared work: we don’t have papers, and the issues are not pre-digested by council officers. Each meeting is designed carefully to enable us to learn effectively – so we use speakers, presentations, videos, vox pops – and time is spent making sure each meeting ‘works’.

Third, individuals are asked to make a serious commitment to the group, to attend meetings and to take part in the work. Participants provide data, go on visits, host meetings and work between sessions.

Finally, having an independent facilitator leaves the leaders free to participate on equal terms and removes the sense that the agenda ‘belongs’ to a particular organisation.

If the first meeting of the new Shenstone group is anything to go by, relationships will only deepen and strengthen. Our new agenda is about creating the Big Society, protecting growth within the local economy, and ensuring that public service cuts damage as little as possible the life chances of local people. Can’t wait for the next meeting!