Take 5: tips for working with places
- 5 October 2015
- Posted by: Helen Nicol
- Category: Archive
If we are to achieve the Prime Minister’s vision of a smarter state we need to encourage more collaboration between departments and local authorities and a whole government approach to public services. By joining up different parts of government in ways that make sense for how people live their lives, we can achieve better services and better outcomes for the individual.
An example of this is the Troubled Families programme which has shown that effective collaboration leads to better local services and better national policy. Its success has been applauded by families, local partners, by Departments and at the highest levels in Government.
Civil servants provide places redesigning services with valuable knowledge of central government priorities and ways of working. At the same time, places have the service delivery experience and knowledge of local needs which can be used to improve national policy making.
But turning government on its head and opening up policy making in this way requires a new way of working. It means meeting places where they are, being comfortable with a bottom-up approach and showing flexibility and resilience as you negotiate a new set of relationships while not losing touch with your home organisation.
Over the past two years, civil servants in the Public Service Transformation Network have been co-designing service reforms with places through secondments and looser joint-working arrangements. Looking back, those civil servants would have appreciated some advice before they began, so they have shared quotes for five things other civil servant should think about as they work more closely with places.
1 Trust: If you build a good relationship, wonderful things can take place
‘It can take time to build trust. If you build a good relationship wonderful things can take place. If you don’t, a place can become secretive and nothing will happen.’
The starting point is to build trust. This means listening, taking time to understand the place, local organisations and leadership, politics, history of partnership working, culture, and experience of and capacity for, delivery.
Don’t go with a package of proposals – central government doesn’t have all the answers (and neither does local government), so start with a discussion of each other’s priorities and develop the solution together. Change has to be driven locally to be sustainable.
Building effective relationships is an integral part of building trust within a local place. Civil service hierarchy means nothing outside Whitehall, you must earn your authority and the respect of others and influence by building constructive relationships and making yourself matter. Don’t try and take all the credit for success, it’s a team effort.
2 Flexibility: learn to be comfortable with some degree of ambiguity and uncertainty
‘Be prepared for some ambiguity during the initial discussions about how to work together’
There is no one size fits all approach to working with places so work creatively to find out where you will add value. Remember, there’ll be an initial stage where you’re exploring what is going on – this may take some time. Be comfortable with some degree of ambiguity and uncertainty.
You will work across a number of other local groups, including those from business, voluntary and community sectors. A flexible approach will be necessary to give a voice to these different interests.
Embrace the differences in working in local places. Decisions are made differently and often require much closer working within the local political structure than civil servants may be used to. Seek the advice of senior officers, including the chief executive, and take into account the level of accountability and scrutiny local leaders are under.
Look both ways – you need to think about the needs of both the place and your home organisation.
3 Honesty: Be honest about what you can and cannot deliver
‘Don’t be afraid to be honest. Being up-front from the start can avoid problems later on.’
Be honest about what you can and cannot deliver. Be prepared to say no if the arrangement does not benefit both parties – your knowledge and links to central government need to add value, so don’t fill a role which doesn’t use them and just become an extra pair of hands. Frame your initial discussions with this in mind – avoid an open-ended “how can I help” conversation.
Keep asking yourself which hat you are wearing – are you representing the place or the department? Be constantly aware of your actions and stay alert for conflicts of interest.
4 Clarity: Be clear about what your collaboration needs to achieve
‘Be clear about what collaboration needs to achieve’
After initial discussions, establish and maintain clarity about what you will do, what will be delivered and how long it might take. Start with a shared outcome. At the heart of working with local partners is that both parties are trying to achieve the same thing. Starting with the shared outcome can focus collaboration around specific goals, build trust and foster creativity and innovation.
Know how and when you are going to exit, for example after a specific job, outcome or objective is delivered.
Be clear about where the burden of financial costs associated with your involvement will fall, whether that is with local partners or your home department. Nobody should be taken by surprise.
5 Sustainability: Use your networks to build supportive alliances and identify champions
‘You can’t achieve sustainable change unless everyone involved – central government, local government and other partners – owns the change’
Whether it’s a secondment or a looser joint-working arrangement, you won’t be in this role for ever so you need to make sure the work is sustainable. Get senior buy-in from the start, both in the place and in central government, and use all your networks to build supportive alliances and identify champions.
And, remember that collaboration can be clumsy. Your partners will have different expectations, capabilities and their internal processes will move at different paces. So think systemically and act long term, because a short-term win for part of the partnership can undermine progress for the whole.
Anton Draper has written an illuminating blog, discussing his experiences of working with places utilising the tips.