News and Comment

Systems leadership – now we need to bank the learning…

Tuesday 31 March 2015


As the election campaigns kick off I’ve been looking back over the past five years and wondering what will happen over the next five.

Since 2010, most of my work has been supporting systems leadership – working with leaders who are collaborating across organisations to achieve difficult outcomes with shrinking resources. And despite (or because of?) the financial challenges, something very exciting has begun to happen. Health and social care are beginning to integrate. Sub-regional and regional partnerships are driving economic growth and creating jobs. Organisations are sharing services and sharing assets. We are learning very practical things about how to change complex systems and leaders are emerging with the confidence, generosity and foresight to work collaboratively. Organisational boundaries are becoming more open, and more porous. We are even developing a robust evidence base about how systems work, and effective practice in how to develop system leadership skills; through interactive and creative programmes.

But we have yet, in most areas, to see results. We are perhaps on the cusp (my experience teaches me that it will take another five years for the learning to spread), for new ways of working to become mainstream, for obstacles to be overcome, and confidence to grow. In the few places like Manchester, where real change is now visible – they’ve been collaborating for decades.

What usually happens when government’s change, is that all the previous projects are pulled up by the roots – initiatives are abandoned (old thinking), training and support agencies are shut down (‘bonfire of the quangos’), leadership programmes are abandoned (waste), and the civil servants who have learnt the most move on (‘need for fresh blood’). Old concepts have to be renamed – ‘total place’ becomes ‘community budgets’ – LSPs become health and wellbeing boards and Local Economic Partnerships. After about two years, something very similar to what went before is painfully restarted, often minus the learning, and new initiatives spring up that resemble the old ones, although couched in new language.

Between 2015 and 2020, for whoever wins the election, there will be no realistic alternative to collaborative working across systems, no viable way to deliver health and social care without integration, and no sensible approach to jobs that doesn’t work across the whole local and regional economy. New communities cannot be created unless transport, housing, leisure and the environment are linked. Mental health problems or obesity, for example, can’t be tackled unless local government, health and communities work together. This time, with money tight and crises looming, we can’t afford to lose two years.

Which is why it’s so important not to lose the learning from systems leadership, and why across public services we need to bank, and share, the experience of the past five years – both good and bad. We need to involve chief executives, senior managers, politicians, community leaders, clinicians and professionals as well as HR and OD specialists, so that we can mainstream innovative approaches, learn from mistakes, and don’t have to return to ‘year zero’.

There have been excellent publications produced by the Leadership Centre for Local Government and by the Virtual Staff College. My contribution is a short paper, Systems Leadership: A View from the Bridge, which is a very personal account of what I have been learning and how to make systems leadership work in practical terms. The paper has been shared widely with OD and HR colleagues and I hope it can form the basis of a wider conversation, so that the next five years can build on the discoveries of the last five.