More pondering and reflecting – this time about different types of collaboration

I’m the a place at the moment where I am purposefully reflecting on stuff – I get times like this which basically means I need to start creating greater clarity for myself as i’m approaching a critical point in my thinking.  These posts tend to be longer and less structured as they are literally me talking to myself…

This post is more of a personal post but I do value comments and challenge from others in this process which is why I blog openly and honestly here.

A key area which has taken a lot of my time in my professional work, here in Devon and through LocalGovDigital and in my voluntary work situation (being a School Governor) is collaboration and what this truly looks and feels like.

Let me first start with my non professional situation and share some learning and reflections from my role as a school governor.

So I’m the Chair of Governors at Countess Wear Community School, Exeter. Our last OFSTED (2015) was a solid Good and highlighted some key areas for development as you would expect. I became Chair in September last year. I’m very proud to be the chair and am very proud of the school, its staff and importantly the children who are fantastic learners. As a school community we are very proud to have achieved Good, Outstanding would naturally be better but it is such a big step in all areas and we simply aren’t there yet, but that is the journey we are committed to.

Now if you don’t know, the landscape for schools is an interesting and challenging one and one which does not get the same level of attention as say the challenges around the NHS but fundamentally schools are facing similar pressures and similar challenges. In practical terms this means the Governments intention to see all schools become academies.

Now personally speaking I have opposing views and beliefs to the direction of travel outlined by the Government but as a Governor I have a responsibility, no wait, I have a duty to ensure the very best outcomes for all children. It is simply not acceptable to allow children to go through a school that isn’t performing well. Every day matters, these children only get one chance and outstanding teaching does transform lives. This needs and must be supported by outstanding leadership and governance. I can’t limit the choices of the school simply because i don’t feel comfortable with them – I have to take a strategic view on what is right for the school, this means challenging my beliefs, assumptions and preconceptions. This is hard to do, but as a non professional leader in a school I need to ensure that I can provide effective leadership and governance. If it were easy then wouldn’t all school governors be outstanding all the time?

Now as a school we have been through a process recently looking at collaboration and what it means to us, we are an active part of the Exeter Consortium and Teaching Schools Alliance (I’m also on the management board as well). But the challenge of this type of option form of collaboration means that not everyone benefits and importantly not all children benefit as schools can choose to engage or not. There are no formal structures or accountability wrapped around this collaboration (it’s membership driven) So you can’t hold people to account for their involvement and engagement and subsequently their school improvement and therefore the outcomes for children. Now local governance should be doing that in each school, but this is where the challenge of voluntary governors. I’m not suggesting governors should be paid, but I do think we need to rethink what strategic school governance means and how that needs to happen in a system which is rapidly changing around us.

During our process of understanding what collaboration means a number of things started to emerge for me. Firstly once you start asking people (staff, children etc) what matters to them you have a duty to do something with it. What I reflected on was that our school has a unique character, its values and ethos are a critical part of what contributes to the success and we need to protect that. Given the current landscape schools face real dangers of being forced to convert to academy, which then leaves it to that academy to determine how the school is run. Not all academies are the same but some have a view that a universal and consistent offer is the best approach. We know and understand our school and how it meets the needs of our community and we want to ensure we protect that into the future.

As we move forward what also emerged is that it is equally important to ensure that when we collaborate we think very carefully about the partners we collaborate with and find those who fundamentally share the same core values. We believe we have done that and to help us we are centering that around the Cooperative values which we feel aligns with the core values and ethos of our school.

But what we also know and recognize is that we will have to convert to an Academy at some stage – we just don’t want to be forced to do it. So we will do this on our terms and shape it around what we believe and know is important to us. We are lucky to have found partners who share that ambition and direction. In doing this we will create a structure which will fundamentally hold each school to account in a robust framework and will start to professionalize aspects of school governance and school improvement in to the operational aspects of school to school support – this is where the Cooperative values strengthen that approach.

I would highly recommend people consider becoming a school governor, it is highly rewarding and at times demanding but I’ve personally found the experience similar to a professional action learning course. It certainly has helped me understand what leadership and governance is when you are out of your specialist area.

Key lessons and learning:

  1. Meaningful collaboration takes time, you need to find the right partners and most importantly you need to know what you value so you can anchor yourself to it in negotiation and discussion.
  2. I’ve said this before but trust is a currency and requires time to develop
  3. Being purposeful and values driven focuses you on what really matters
  4. Forced and standardised collaboration removes purpose and disempowers people within a system. But this does not always mean you will fail.
  5. Not all standardised approaches are always bad, its about understanding context.
  6. Diversity of opportunity needs to exist but needs to be supported by more hardwired collaborations for real accountability.

Moving onto the professional world, more specifically LocalGovDigital. Although professional, its still voluntary.

It actually feels a long time when Sarah Lay and I kicked this off and supported by the LGA brought a collective group of people together and out of that collective frustration we started LocalGovDigital.

An aspiration we have always had about LocalGovDigital is that the outputs should support and encourage meaningful collaboration and grow networks and relationships. Whether it’s Unmentoring the Local Government Digital Service Standard, or organising events like Not Westminster or LocalGovCamp (in Birmingham on 3/4 June).

We have always said that we will support things which push the sector forward and we don’t want to see that restrict our ability to promote what maybe perceived as conflicting “offers”. We want a diverse system and we want to see choice and opportunity. This is why we are involved as a partner in the Public Sector Transformation Academy. The Public Service Transformation Academy is a social enterprise, led by public service consultants RedQuadrant, the Whitehall and Industry Group, and partner organisations who are thought leaders in commissioning.

All of this and we are still only a voluntary group of people who share the same values and passion.

What we hope and believe we do is foster a cross-sector approach to delivering better public services locally. Others are welcome to disagree but we have tried to stay focused on delivering things, yes we have individually all been happy to talk and contribute to online discussions and debates which have not always gone down well. But do I believe what we do helps to improve the sector, you better believe I do…it is why i am passionate about being part of such a fantastic group of fellow practitioners, the visible and invisible ones.

The one thing we have always lacked is that all of this is optional and therefore we can’t really say this is meaningful collaboration. The successes have primarily been in bringing people together, acting as a connector and amplifier of people and stories.

We have tried to develop more meaningful collaborations across councils, agencies and wider and have had some success in this such as the Service Standard work. But these collaborations don’t YET have the accountability to hold people to account for their outputs and actions.

Some people would propose that a single centralised body –  the LocalGDS debate, where I believe there is no right or wrong answer, there is just opinion –  is the single answer and I disagree with that being the only solution and that is ok too.

What i’ve learnt from my school experience is that different places and people assign value on different things and that is ok. So what is needed is a collection of collaborations and structures which are value driven and purposeful. I believe LocalGovDigital is one of those collaborations, we came together as a group because we believe in the same things, we believe that we didn’t want to have things done to us and we believe we could make a positive contribution.

Where we need to go next is how we can start to develop deeper and more meaningful collaborations to really transform services. Without the formal structures of some organisations we are lucky to be able to explore what this means without thinking we will lose something, we are actively speaking to people about how different collaborations can be formed which might start to generate those collaborations. What we know is that these won’t be for everyone, but they will be for some, and that’s ok.

Finally and more specifically the paid work, collaboration in this context is different, it naturally feels like it has to be more structured…not sure why really?

One of the things which has been key to me is about how we build relationships and connections with a variety of other organisations/local authorities – I mentioned this in my previous post about Leadership. So to save you having to read all of that here is the relevant bit:

As well as sharing our learning and seeking learning from others. Examples of this include, Nottinghamshire County Council, Buckinghamshire County Council, Suffolk County Council, West Berkshire Council, Cornwall Council, Bristol City Council to name just a few. This sharing of learning has taken many forms and most recently the learning between us and West Berkshire was a shared conversation between myself, my Chief Executive, Phil Rumens and his Chief Executive via skype, the main purpose of that was to connect the chief Executives and we have already set up a regular catch up. What this has not achieved is any real hard wired collaborative action between any of the councils. There are also more opportunities we have engaged with over the last couple of days which will enable us to share our learning even further, more on this in good time.

Key lessons and learning:

  1. Voluntary grassroots action won’t create system change alone, but it can highlight and demonstrate that change is possible
  2. Values and purpose are essential in collaborations, are we clear what the people/organisations in this space value and what there purpose is?
  3. We have to stop believing our own world view is the only one that matters and start connecting and enriching the picture around us. Give things up and let go of things and see what happens in return.
  4. There is no single model of support, people and places are different, lets create better systems of support which recognise and value that. NB: this is not a statement about technology!

So my reflections have come to a natural conclusion and I can now personally find greater clarity and that helps me…however if you have any observations, comments or reflections please feel free to share or challenge me.

 

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