News and Comment

How collaboration can help address local delivery challenges

Wednesday 26 October 2011


I recently had the pleasure to be involved in a two-day workshop hosted by the Institute for Government, part of a wider set of initiatives which make up ‘Transforming the Civil Service’ programme.  Although the event focused on Whitehall, the issues of running effective services (and other interventions) for the public good are as, if not more, relevant to local leaders.

The event looked at reducing re-offending, and local adaptation to climate change. From the insights generated on the two days it is possible to draw out a number of key lessons that can be applied locally in any process of reviewing and redesigning local services in a time of austerity.

Involving the people that ‘do’

The first, and perhaps most important, point to highlight is the importance of the knowledge and understanding of those who work at the front line. We explored this in 2002 in our report for the Cabinet Office: Involving the front line in policy making. Essentially those doing the work often have profound insights as to what works, and why – important perspectives to feed into any service redesign. We would also suggest that service users are a part of this front line and can have equally powerful insights.

Seeing the whole situation, anew

Making the most of these front line insights, and those of others, builds on three key ideas – the first is that all those participating in a situation will have views and experiences that should be valued and will help ensure a more complete picture of the situation.

Second, the idea of taking a ‘whole-system view’ of the situation – if we can step back, we will be able to see more of the wider connections in a situation, and the environmental context.

I have deliberately used the word situation, rather than problem – this relates to the third idea: we should enter a situation with as open a mind as possible in terms of what we think is going on (and what may or may not be the issue or solution).

When invited to advise on local service change we often find that the situation is more complex than first described, and that underlying cause and effect may mean the way forward lies in a different place to that first suggested. For example, the authority where an initial request to help embed local area agreements (LAAs) helped highlight how managing voids on estates could significantly reduce local street crime. Total Place and now Community Budgets are approaches that put some of these ideas into practice in real localities, holistically identifying better ways of addressing need and saving money at the same time.

All these ideas are drawn from the broad domain of systems practice – an approach that is holistic, recognises different perspectives are valuable, knows complexity can be seen in different ways, and that by taking a step back can we begin to explore and assess what is really going on, and thus what the best responses might be.

I look forward to seeing how the insights of collaborative working are used in the transformation of the Civil Service and in meeting the challenges faced by local authorities.