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.

 

Coding clubs

As a parent of two young boys who love computer games, the Wii, minecraft (pocket edition and full PC version), lego, swimming and generally most outdoors things. Also as a School Governor at a Primary school I was really interested to stumble upon the website for code club and instantly thought it was such an amazing idea, that i should help ensure that one is set up at my local primary school.

I was reminded of the work the Emma Mulqueeny does at Young Rewired State and thought there is a similarity and perhaps a cross over but that doesn’t matter as the main thing is that kids are getting the chance to learn and practice coding.

Anyway I’ve contacted the IT Co-ordinator at the school and have already searched the site and found three possible volunteers – so will see what we can set up. I think this would be a great opportunity  for the school and the kids.

[Edited – 4th September]

I forgot to mention when I originally wrote this that this is also a really good example of the Education capability as it starts to build awareness, understanding and competency into young people and the wider community.

Beware the labels you apply to yourself

Earlier today I went to a meeting in my capacity as a school governor and like you do in meetings where you’ve never met people before you often introduce yourself and explain a bit about your background and skills etc.

Well I broadly introduce myself as someone who is interested in Social Change but works (in a professional sense) in and around the areas of Web, Communications and ICT as well as social enterprise business models and I’d like to help my school and the wider learning community improve outcomes for children – nothing too complicated but saves me going on an on about what I believe in…wouldn’t want to bore people I’ve not really met yet, plus we were limited for time.

It was a very interesting meeting and had a very wide range of skills and interests in the room from Head Teachers (Primary and Secondary) to School Administrators to Solicitors to Architects to Procurement people and well me!!

The first thing that made me chuckle and got me thinking about the label I had given myself was that the projector didn’t work  – so one person commented “ask the IT guy!” Well obviously I got up and pushed some buttons and looked like I knew what I was doing but it was someone behind me who actually turned the plug off and then on again which actually resolved the problem – that old chestnut!

But what I found interesting about this was the assumption that I knew how to fix it, just because I said I was interested in ICT meant I knew how to fix projectors  to other people 🙂  ICT is a very big domain and most (not all) people think it is all pretty much the same…

The funny thing about this to me, is that I do not consider myself an IT guy, however that is informed by my interaction with far more technically gifted people than I, but sometimes (and generally too late to change anything) I forget that simply saying IT to most people means that you can fix the computer, as well as probably being able to build one, fix the projector and sort out the broadband or wi-fi problems as well….Lesson learned and note to self: change my introduction and be more specific when describing my interests.

However I will get my chance to contribute in an area I feel confident in as I was the obvious first choice for a sub group around communications and websites.

So not all bad….but I fear that I will become the “IT go to guy” from now on…

 

 

 

 

Ignorance is no defence

To start with, I will make a confession, before I started looking at Social Media (about 2-3 years ago), I wasn’t that familiar with the fine details (or small print) of the policies and terms of conditions of service that I was always subject too.

But wanting to ensure that I stayed within “the law” so to speak, I started reading them – and over time – this helped me understand that the best approach here to creating a social media policy was the one that built on the existing policy framework. Also I didn’t want to do something wrong and plead ignorance…

Ignorance is no defence!

…So it is actually well worth understanding the policy framework you work within.

A question posted on the Communities of Practice by Michelle Ide-Smith got me thinking about this exact situation earlier today – the question was:

Does anyone have a social media policy which covers the use of social media in a personal capacity by officers who are also parish councillors?

For example how might you deal with a situation where an officer is critical of a council policy on a parish council blog, whilst acting in their role as a parish councillor in personal time. But the opinions that they put across may conflict with their role as a council officer.

My response to this question was pretty straight forward really, I didn’t really think too much about whether or not the question related to social media but was actually focused on the fact that someone might have a dual role. This clearly in my head meant that it is likely to already be covered by the existing employee code of business conduct.

My council’s employee code of business conduct has a range of policies sitting underneath but one of them is the policy around Business Pecuniary Interests – it is also clearly sign posted and referenced in Section 1 of the councils Social Media Policy – Personal and Professional Responsibilities

My council has strict procedures in place to ensure that the private business interests of elected members are clearly recorded in order to avoid any conflict with their public role as decision makers. It is keen to have in place equally robust and transparent processes for officers. This would include external positions such as School Governor, Parish Councillor, or where you might be engaged by another company, as a member of staff, partner, director, substantial equity/share holder or consultant etc.

I’m pretty sure that this is standard Local Government policy practice so is likely to apply in Michelle’s scenario above.

As an employee of the council I had to declare the fact that i was elected as a school Governor, however as a school governor I also have to declare conflicts of interests in that position as there is also guidance on that side, which is aimed to keep the Governor body robust and transparent. I’m not directly familiar with Parish councillors but if it is anything like a county councillor then they will also have a code of conduct, referred to above, which will also include conflicts of interest.

Our policy states that when a member of staff declares this interest – The line manager in signing the form is confirming that they are aware of the potential conflict of interest and

  • EITHER….. the line manager does not consider that it has a material effect in relation to the work of the employee within the council;
  • OR….. the line manager will work with the employee to ensure that an actual conflict of interest will not arise (this may involve re-distributing work for example).
  • OR….. if a line manager cannot identify an obvious way to avoid the employee having a conflict of interests, then an approval may have to be withheld until a solution can be identified that negates the conflict of interest or in extreme circumstances the council may potentially require employees to relinquish certain responsibilities or interests to remain in the employment of the council.

In this context, it is irrelevant whether or not we are referring to social media – it is about professional behaviour, whether the medium of social media allows for additional amplification only goes to reaffirm my point about understanding the policy framework you current work within.

I also accept the many cases that say we should simply trust all our staff to act professionally, after all, we have been doing this without social media in these kinds of situations anyway haven’t we?

But we might also have a role in ensuring that we all understand the policy framework we operate in – Doing this will go along way in enabling people to feel empowered and offer a great deal of value in whatever role they play at any given time

Gaming to re-engage boys in learning – Ted Talk

As a Dad to two boys as well as a Parent Governor at my boys school and as a fan of Gaming to help change the world, this video was pretty much certain to be on my watch list.

I’ve been fascinated with the subject of gaming for a little while now and in particular around the subject of citizen participation. A previous post titled “World of Govcraft” and its follow-up “More World of Govcraft” were inspired by Joanne Jacobs and another Ted Talks video with Jane McGonigal.

It is a very interesting video and also touches on a subject which is close to my heart (male teachers as role models) if you are interested in Education and Learning then I recommend spending the 13 minutes it takes to watch it.

Ali Carr-Chellman pinpoints three reasons boys are tuning out of school in droves, and lays out her bold plan to re-engage them: bringing their culture into the classroom, with new rules that let boys be boys, and video games that teach as well as entertain.