On innovation through partnership

During a decade in which austerity has been the prevailing narrative and the predominant challenge facing the public sector, reducing budgets and service cuts are affecting different parts of the public sector, and different parts of the country, to different degrees. In many areas this has led to the scaling back of non-statutory services. A casualty of this – either explicitly through disinvestment or implicitly through simply having fewer people and less time to get the job done – has been data analysis and partnership working. Yet, arguably, in times of austerity the need to work across traditional organisational boundaries should be greater in order to maximise the value of the public sector spend in a place. To what extent, then, are councils and their partners working collaboratively to tackle these challenges, and what space remains for innovation and new ideas? 

There are a number of key traits that people who are actively and positively engaged in partnership working within the public sector share. They have sufficient power and agency to be able to make decisions and respond to situations as they arise. Within this freedom afforded them by their managers or the organisation’s leaders they respect the hierarchical power and the need to secure political buy-in and sign-off to their work. In doing so they seek agreement on the ends to be achieved and the parameters of their work and discretion over the means with which these will be pursued. In return, they expect this flexibility and inventiveness to be shared by their staff.

These managers are clearly agnostic about methods and empower their staff to find new ways of doing things so long as it is in pursuance of the outcomes. In this respect they are clearly trying to liberate each individual’s talents and creativity. This is an important factor in recognising that all public sector workers are individual members of society in their own right; they are not asked to check their personality at the door and become a bureaucrat for the day when they arrive at work. They are asked to envisage the type of society they want to be a part of, and are actively encouraged to help bring this about.

Critical in this approach is the need to recognise that every individual – resident, citizen, service user – has a story to tell and a positive contribution to make. This rebalancing between what is often termed old power to new power values this voice. It sees this as critical in ensuring that citizens and professionals have an equal relationship and not one that is based on a philosophy – often implicit – of ‘professional knows best’.  Emphasising relationships and community values leads to a clear sense that people – citizens and professionals – are on a journey together for the benefit of local residents. And the glue that binds this together is a strong sense of place. 

Interestingly, when much evidence points to the need for diversity of opinion and perspective in driving innovation, many of the innovations that we have seen are founded on close personal relationships and the trust that comes after many years of working together with the same people. In fact, many organisations actively invest in these relationships and – despite austerity and doing more with less – see this as a vital component of the work. It would seem that at the cutting edge of innovation this diversity is needed, and new people will bring new ideas, but when it gets to the detail of making new programmes or ways of working stick, a high degree of trust and respect is needed. In one area this was described as a ‘gang mentality’ – we’re in this together. This is solidarity at its best and it cuts across organisational and service boundaries. But in order to accommodate a more fluid way of working at an individual and team level, organisations themselves need to adapt.  

It is clear that in these areas that are successfully reframing this relationship the hierarchy, expressed through structures and systems of local government and the wider public sector, is changing to accommodate these new ways of working. In particular, this is clearly easiest in areas with stable leadership, both politically and managerially. Political instability is one of the hierarchical factors most likely to undermine innovative working due to the high degree of uncertainty and risk that comes with it. It’s difficult for officers to plan with any sense of certainty and any failures, however small, will be used for political gain. This crowds out the innovation process.

Where there is stability the necessary relaxations to process are used to enable innovation and new ways of working. This is given permission from ‘the top’, with chief executives actively working in more open ways, developing a culture whereby staff are encouraged to try new things and where the status quo is challenged within a learning culture. 

Often we heard about programme management becoming less PRINCE2 and more iterative and responsive with people being held to account for delivery in weekly project meetings rather than through colour-coded spreadsheets. Energy is going into the doing rather than into planing the doing. Appetite for risk is increased in order to accommodate this flexibility, but those concerned know when to dial up or dial down the oversight in response to changes in context that might change the risk associated with a particular programme. Organisations that are prepared not only to share power with their staff and residents but also to relinquish power to them are working at the vanguard of public service partnerships and innovation.  

This is what public sector innovation at its best looks like. Individuals who bring their best self to work and feel they have the personal agency to act with the flexiblity to respond to changing circumstances. Teams and partnerships are on a learning journey together with a shared sense of purpose and an agreed outcome to improve things in their place.

Organisations that actively encourage both the above perspectives and accommodate the need for new ways of working. In doing so, when all three powers are in balance, the needs of the community are at the heart of the work and the debate and as a result the relationship between public services and the recipients of them is being rebalanced. This description has highlighted some of the components required to achieve this balance. It’s worth concluding with some thoughts on what this looks like in areas where the three sources of power are out of balance.

If there is not enough individual agency experienced by staff delivering services and the people receiving them then no amount of permission from the hierarchy will create the culture in which appropriate risks will be taken or new ways of working trialled. Staff won’t feel as though their creativity is valued or liberated. If there is not enough solidarity staff may not feel supported within their teams. Hierarchical permission and individual agency may flounder as staff won’t want to be seen as the only one taking a risk or coming up with ideas. Finally, if there is not enough hierarchy then there is the danger of chaos ruling in the pursuit of innovation. Existing processes won’t support innovation and learning from people and partnerships; there needs to be just enough structure to bring order out of the innovation process.

People working in the more successful public service partnerships have actively harnessed opportunities for change when they have presented themselves, whilst building on the foundations that are already in place. The most important foundations include good working relationships with colleagues, a strong sense of place and wanting to do the best for the area in which they work, and a passion for the role despite austerity and the contextual challenges facing the wider public sector. The opportunities for change have challenged the status quo and enabled new ways of working to be tried or new cultures and relationships to be forged.

These opportunities are one form of ‘social moment’ – leverage points that make change more likely. We have seen people harness the opportunity in local government re-organisation, in new legislation being enacted, in changes of leadership, in community pressure. The organisations that have been able to harness these opportunities exhibit many of the characteristics described and are flexible enough to harness them. The challenge lies is spreading this learning and ways of working across the whole organisation and partnerships, as all too often they remain pockets of innovation as opposed to mainstream ways of doing business. And this can best be achieved by aligning individual, solidaristic and hierarchical power.

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