Working together for a bigger impact

Our views are powerfully shaped by the place that we work out of. That gives us a perspective, an angle, even a set of prejudices that it is hard to break free from. And there is a lot of good in that – a loyalty to our organisation makes a difference to what we can achieve, a loyalty to our sector makes us strong when times are tough.

The trouble is though that we then end up only seeing things through the lens of our own organisation. Our focus is all on ourselves. We see where our project is slighted, where we are hemmed in, where our institution is unfairly treated. We rarely see ourselves as others do.

I have been very lucky in having worked across a variety of settings. In central government I worked both as a civil servant and then as political special adviser. I could see things from the civil service point of view and from that of the politicians. I have worked in think tanks, so understand the frustration of only ever being able to suggest, never to do – but I have also felt the exhilaration of being able to say what you want (subject to funding!).

More recently I have been working very closely with the private sector as an economic and public policy consultant. The private sector have of course driven me up the wall in different jobs – moaning, not delivering, always pushing the boundaries to maximise profit. But working with them you can’t help feeling the pain of the private sector, trying to make money but never sure what on earth the rules are going to be. National government, Whitehall, regulators, the EU and even the G20 change them all the time.  And don’t get the private sector started about councils!

Now I am off to head up thriving think tank come consultancy, New Philanthropy Capital, and I will be steeped in the issues of the 3rd sector, of civil society and of those who fund them. When I ran local government think tank NLGN, an abiding theme of the local councillors we worked with was how much they disliked the voluntary sector. ‘Whoever voted for them, they asked and how many of their activists   were failed councillors? Did these groups not realise that councils had to balance different objectives and that they had duties beyond making life easier for charities?’ And I suspect I will hear a lot from that sector now about the ignorance and bad behaviour of councils.

Faced with all this we then ignore these tricky issues and tensions  when we blithely say that in the search for better service delivery, better community cohesion and better ‘place-making’ it would be great if we had more joined up working.

Often this plea is aimed at the various arms of the public sector acting in a locality and that is a reasonable ask. They all work for the same government so why can’t they sort out their processes, targets, reporting requirements, funding cycles to make it easier for those at the sharp end to put together coherent and effective programmes?

But many of the issues we want to solve demand a lot of cross-sector, not just cross-government working, and that is much harder. Here accountabilities are different, motivations are not the same either and incentive structures vary completely. And in truth many organisations – even within a sector – see themselves as competing just as much as they do cooperating.

Some places and schemes get this right however and we have to continue to search for the holy grail of what makes something work at some place at some time and why we can’t reproduce that elsewhere. Localism is often pushed forward as the complete answer to this entire conundrum. But, whatever it means, localism may only switch the place that this debate goes on to a lower level and contains in it a danger that the overall – or collective – good of an area gets ignored as lots of local actors simply fight it out.

Finding ways to avoid this must be at the heart of any reforms. Those designing outcome-based contracts or even social impact bonds need to keep this in mind and not just become obsessed with the effectiveness of a single institution. Total Place was an attempt to begin this journey – and community budgets may move it on in some areas. But in an era of cuts, while the need is for close working together, all the pull will be ‘each man for themselves’.  So it is even more important that the agenda of how we create true effectiveness is kept at the fore.  That is what we need to work on over the next few years.

This blog was originally published on The MJ, the online management journal for local authority business, and is re-posted here with permission.