On partnerships for transformation

At first glance, this might be seen as an odd time to be looking at innovation in public sector partnerships as councils and the wider sector has experienced almost a decade of significant, sustained funding cuts. Yet although necessity can be the mother of invention, it does not always follow that a necessity driven by austerity leads to innovative responses to the resulting challenges. The timing could perhaps never be better to explore whether having less resource to tackle increasing need crowds out innovation both within organisations and between them. 

Central to this investigation is the assessment of whether local partnership working and collaboration across the public sector is seen as a critical response to, or a casualty of, a sustained period of austerity. On the one hand, the case for taking a system-wide view to address complex social issues is clear supporting the case for partnership working as a crucial response to these issues. On the other hand, ‘working in partnership’ is often seen as nice-to-do, supporting the case for it being squeezed out as fewer staff try to deliver more with less. At the point at which partnerships and collaboration are arguably most needed, therefore, they are also most vulnerable. 

The bleak financial and operational landscape has often led to a retrenchment of services, shifting resource away from preventative to responsive, from discretionary to statutory. Where areas have strong social capital, the community may have stepped in and helped filled the gap – volunteers running some libraries, for example. In other areas there are simply gaps where services were once provided. A narrowing of focus on the most essential services in a locality reduces the capacity to take a system-wide – and often preventative – perspective. 

The wider context of continued uncertainty is generated and sustained by another general election, Brexit, the inequality and technocratic nature of devolution and talks of further changes to local government funding. Compounded by the increasing complexity of the social, economic, political and environmental challenges local places are being asked to respond to and we are left to wonder how any sort of long-term thinking, collaboration and innovation could survive such crushing here-and-now realities? 

When a situation is undesirable Adam Kahane suggests there are four available options: fight, adapt, exit or collaborate. In this case the challenge is how to respond to the constraints of austerity. Fighting the situation is all the more difficult for the political and organizational relationships involved, though in the loosest of definitions this might include lobbying, fighting government decisions, and highlighting the impact of cuts.

Adapting to, rather than exiting the situation has seen some councils merge their management or service delivery functions whilst retaining local democratic accountability and sovereignty. Others have driven through efficiency, commercialisation, outsourcing or service reviews designed to take out costs whilst, wherever possible, retaining an acceptable standard of service delivery. This adaptation sometimes manifests through innovation, sometimes through salami-slicing budgets, sometimes through major corporate change programmes.  

Exiting the situation is a more radical option: we have yet to see the financial failure of a council. Some have merged into new unitary councils, not as an overt response to austerity but always predicated on achieving cost savings. And some councils have completely withdrawn from particular service domains, such as youth services.  

The last option is to change the situation by collaborating with others. Whilst the capacity needed to invest in collaborative working arrangements and relationships is often the very thing that gets squeezed out, cutting out functions or refocusing existing staff, a time of reducing resources is more than ever a time to collaborate. In so doing organizations can seek out efficiencies and redesign more effective service delivery. At a system scale this could include the potential to invest in early interventions and prevention to reduce demand (2020 public service report).

There remain many places that are actively supporting new ways of working and innovating around service delivery, seeking the opportunities in such a challenging context. They formed local coalitions to work towards clear outcomes for their populations. In some cases this was the result of innovative approaches and/or new ways of working across organizational boundaries. In others it was the result of long-standing investment in the relationships between those in each part of the system. Some explicitly engaged local people and rebalanced the provider-consumer dynamic, others actively worked to develop a more risk-tolerant, trust-based culture. 

There remain, therefore,  places where innovation happens, where relationships are invested in, where staff – and citizens – are seen as equal participants in conversations about their needs, where interesting work is being enabled and where the challenges of austerity are being addressed. There are no secrets or shortcuts: it requires hard, diligent work, getting the basics right and building out from there. 

The original of this article was written as an introduction to the report “Transforming Together’, available on my publications page.

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