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.

 

The first signs of autumn and looking ahead

As I’ve been cycling to work this week, I really noticed the colour of the leaves had changed and some trees had such vibrant colours that it warmed my soul on such a chilly morning commute. Its moments like that which you remember…I must take a photo before it changes too much.

I know that I’ve not blogged as regularly as I used to and I’ve been thinking about how I can start to rediscover or rethink my approach, until then, the sporadic nature will continue.

I wanted to share some thoughts and reflections around what has happened since coming back to work from a refreshing summer break.

I wanted to just share some of the activities that have stuck with me the most and things that have happened since returning from summer…it isn’t comprehensive – didn’t have time to pull that list together 🙂

  • The main change is that one of our organisation change team (Julie) is working with me to better define the digital transformation picture for the county council…that has provided some really helpful support in a range of things.
  • I’ve started Digital Coaching sessions with one of our Cabinet members (Cllr Barry Parsons), which simply formalises an informal catch up session approach we previously had been doing over the early part of the year. We spoke about making the conversations more visible to the organisation and making them more relevant and strategic so that is how it started – simple really. The first conversation started well with some really productive discussion around digital operating models, government as a platform, Buurtzorg and the Simon Wardley Value Chain
  • I’m also working with procurement colleagues to start to engage suppliers around our digital direction and strategy. I’ve been invited to a provider marketplace day in November which will provide an opportunity to share some of our thinking and direction.
  • I’m working with our Social Care colleagues to work-up the details of a strategic Digital session where we can explore what digital means and the opportunity across social care.
  • We had a visit from colleagues at Suffolk County Council to share digital transformation lessons and will be exploring further opportunities for collaboration
  • Mike Bracken came down and spoke to our Corporate Leadership Team and Heads of Service around Digital and the approach of the Government Digital Service around change and transformation. That visit triggered a range of responses internally (all positive) and has unblocked some minor barriers and opened up new conversations which is great.
  •   I had a couple of visits to London for discussions with Local CIO Council, Socitm and other colleagues including some fellow localgovdigital folks (Dave Briggs, Paul Brewer, Ben Cheetham and Phil Rumens) around Place as a Platform. It was a fascinating session and we still have quite a way to go before we really avoid putting technology first in our discussions about Digital…the example from Adur and Worthing by Dave and Paul demonstrated that it is all about rethinking the fundamental operating model of the council.
  • A visit to the treasury with some other colleagues to have discussions and explore the technical architecture of a digital platform approach to Libraries working  – this was something which our Head Libraries (Ciara Eastell) had asked if I could support as she is the current President of SCL (Society of Chief Librarians)
  • I managed to fit in two coaching/mentoring sessions with my Chief Executive and Mike Bracken..I’m finding the coaching/mentoring sessions really productive and helpful and they are having such a positive impact on how I see myself and it has improved my confidence and I believe (although others may disagree) my outputs as well.
  • A fascinating and insightful provider perspective day as part of the Far South West Commissioning Academy – This process really highlighted to me the challenges of procurement and commissioning and the impact on relationships and trust in this process. I’d always suspected as much but to hear the details and insights from providers really validated that.
  • Further mind-boggling fun with the Design Council and in particular an awesome master class from Becky Rowe from ESRO – we shared our thoughts and reflections on the design council blog here
  • Following the design council session we (myself, Kevin Gillick and Jo Prince-White) ran a couple of prototype user insight sessions for around 30 colleagues from across the council – it was a fascinating process to rapidly pull the workshop together and the feedback from the participants was great so we plan to run some more plus other workshops as we continue our learning through the programme.
  • Outside of work – this week I was Elected Chair of Governors at my local primary school. I’m really proud to have this role and it is an exciting time for the school, we recently had a OFSTED inspection and were graded a solid Good and the report outlines some outstanding aspects which we are very proud of as a school. I now look forward to continuing to work with the other governors and the school and most importantly the children to improve outcomes.  I’ve been fascinated by the work of primary schools in particular for a while now and the work they do is such a great insight into how organisations can approach change as well as. In the last few years I’ve witnessed more design thinking in a primary school than in the wider public sector. I suspect the autonomy and relentless focus on children’s outcomes is a great place to start. In a recent conversation with the Head Teacher she outlined an approach to a piece of work around well-being with staff and every step matched the Design Councils principles of “Human centred” > “Being Visual” > “Iterative and collaborative”. It really is fascinating to see this in a different context. OR maybe my connection to design thinking is helping me see the wonder in everyday decision making of good and outstanding leaders.

The one thing I feel I’ve done very little of though is broader LocalGov Digital stuff, However my thinking around this is that unless you have a focus on local delivery and change you can’t effectively engage on a broader level as you end up disconnecting on both levels.  This is all part of the system leadership challenges we all face.  But my aim over the next few weeks and months is to properly re-engage with colleagues in that space as I missed LocalGovCamp which I was gutted about.

But I’m even more passionate and committed to providing support and leadership where I can to help Devon and the whole sector transform.

I’ve said it before in my last post but it is worth repeating here….

The primary purpose of public services is to improve people’s lives not to effectively manage the money, that is an enabler much like digital is, information is, data is and of course the people in and around the system are enablers.

 

The 2.0 club, future of local government and white board paper!

On Tuesday I attended a meeting with colleagues at the Met Office and Gov 2.0 radio crew (John Wells and Allison Hornery).

It was a great opportunity to meet John and Allison face to face for the first time as well as have some interesting conversations and discussion. I really enjoyed listening to them and they reminded me of some simple truths as well as enlightening me with some insights.

It was also a great opportunity to meet Michael Saunby from the Met Office (a real geek as well, in a good way) – he was knowledgable, passionate and his enthusiasm was infectious. His attitude inspired me to be that bit more bold, bit more persistent and to continue nudging people across the council.

So what did I take from the session, well more than I expected really, so I’m going to take each thing in turn.

The power of story telling

Now working in communications you’d think story telling was something we did all the time, well I don’t think we tell stories in the way they need to be told in order to really create some social impact…in some cases we do, but on the whole we report council news, release political updates, report policy or issue statements. We are changing this and I’m almost being unfair on what my colleagues do, but I hope that this post will explain why I’m saying this.

Local government is considered the most efficient part of the public sector, it may not feel that way to some working in it, but Its approach to overheads, shared services, senior salaries and procurement put central government’s approach to shame.

It’s also considered the most trusted part of government. It is the most obvious place where genuine and meaningful democratic discussion and debate with citizens and users about how the wider public service offer can best be delivered. But this is in the context of severe budget pressures, modelled up to 2018/2019 where the sector is pretty much going to be in a position to only fund social care!!

One of the key challenges we have in addressing this future is by fundamentally rethinking how we deliver and ensure services are provided where they are needed.

This is where story telling comes in for me, the shift that will take place over he next few years will be radical, rapid and far-reaching and doesn’t just require a change in thinking about responsibilities and services from the public sector but also citizens, communities and individual people need to rethink their role in society. We need to find, share and tell the stories of our communities, of our services, of our people to influence a wider shift in society to even consider being able to address the future challenges.

When John was sharing his insights on story telling and gov2.0 in its broadest sense he reminded me of the 3 components of social impact driven out of the book “the tipping point” by Malcolm Gladwell (The Tipping Point is that magic moment when an idea, trend or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire.) John pointed out that you need:

  • knowledge (mavens)
  • story tellers (salesmen)
  • networkers (connectors)

Without these three components (and the book cites many examples of this) effective large-scale social impact isn’t really achievable.

We need to decide what role we play in any given situation, sometimes we will be more than one, but my view is that as a sector we certainly can’t be all three. So we need to ensure that we connect with the right networks, understand where the local knowledge hubs in communities are and who the local story tellers are…So coming back to my comment about whether I’m being unfair on my colleagues, I know that they understand this wider context and challenge and we are changing the way we work so we can start to contribute to telling these stories. So it isn’t unfair, more of a healthy reminder to us all.

We underestimate the role of citizens and education in shaping the future of public services

I’m not one for staying focused on the doom and gloom of the future – where some may see a dire situation, I see opportunity.
I hear lots from people across the public sector referring to engaging with citizens, co-designing services and all of the other collaborative methods – but we don’t hear much about citizens designing services with themselves at the core of the delivery – I know there are many examples but the overall focus still seems to put local government and other public sector organisations in a default position as service provider – but with a new redesigned view of it.

Looking ahead however that simply isn’t going to cut it, local government can’t be considered the default service provider – citizens, communities and individuals will need to think long and hard about the real needs they have and how these can be met. Even commissioning isn’t going to go far enough in my view…the future will be very, VERY different.

The reason I also refer to education (schools) is that as a father of two young children, I started to think about what opportunities there were in education to create and foster a new level of social awareness and responsibility – I mean beyond the basic citizenship stuff you hear about – I mean developing core competences such as resilience, responsiveness, creativity and social entrepreneurial skills. I also have to think long and hard about my role as a parent and what behaviours I model. As Spiderman said “with great power comes great responsibility” :).

About 12 years ago I used to work as a sustainable development project officer and the majority of what people were saying then is what we should already be doing (the difference now is technology really isn’t a barrier any more), I just hope that as a society we actually make the right choices over the coming years and look at our own impact not just in environment terms but what impact we have in and on our communities.

A lick of paint simply isn’t enough

So two things have happened recently that have really confirmed this view in my eyes.

1) We recently put some white board paper up in the office as we weren’t allowed a white board…that single act of creating a visually creative space changed the way I viewed our space at work and has already reaped benefits which simply weren’t there before…there is something about having space to draw, doodle, share ideas and sometimes technology isn’t the answer as there are lots of online tools that could have done this for us.

2) During my trip to the met office we got to visit the Think Space room which basically was a boring meeting room refurbished into a truly creative space, comfy chairs, white boards, flip charts, mini pool table…the kind of place that invite and stimulate conversation, which it did, we only went to view, but spent nearly an hour having a reflective conversation as well as a really good discussion about innovation and change.
My point here is that we need to do more than simply paint an office – we need to also create the right environment to allow people to be creative, innovative and think differently. This is a challenge when the current thinking is we need to get as many people into our offices as possible to help us reduce the amount of properties we operate from, therefore saving money!!

As a school governor of a primary school I’ve been lucky enough to experience a school where each class has a role play area, not just the young kids (key stage 1) but throughout the whole school. The benefit of this is that children learn best through play, acting out experiences and making sense of the world around them. It truly is a wonderful thing to see and to hear about.

My point is that the physical environment is a key part of this and we shouldn’t underestimate the role this has in enabling people to discover and imagine a new future.

This also goes for our community spaces, not just the offices we work in…I sometimes wonder whether we have lost our natural desire to be explorers, innovators and community driven people. But maybe people simply feel disconnected to those things by the sterile nature of our streets, towns, villages and office spaces.

In a previous post I referred to a video of John Tolver (CTO of the City of Chicago) and the difference in his role where he takes a truly enterprise wide view of technology…it goes beyond his organisational barriers and into the wider community. His role and the people who created it, realise that fostering a new society as well as transforming the council go hand in hand.

 

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.

I’m now a School Governor…and how not to run a campaign

Before the schools broke up back in July, the school that my two sons attend had elections for the School Governing Body.  I put myself forward and wrote a brief description of why I wanted the position – To be honest it was  about personal development and an opportunity to inform and influence how the school is run. I’m assuming this is the standard reason most people would put themselves forward as a governor – and if I’m honest I thought that I’d be unsuccessful – but always worth putting yourself forward..sometimes you’ll get lucky!

In a vain attempt to try to influence the voters (other parents), I launched a very poor and uncoordinated campaign on twitter (didn’t bother with Facebook) using the hashtag #voteforcarl and unfortunately it failed as I made some simple school boy errors:-

  1. I didn’t research my market.
  2. I didn’t compliment with any offline materials or supporting literature.
  3. I didn’t inform any other parents that I was running a campaign and would value their support.
  4. I didn’t bother continuing the campaign after one day – I personally got bored with promoting myself (there is a lesson in there!)
  5. I failed to follow or even encourage other parents to follow me…
  6. I really wasn’t that bothered if I failed to get elected (don’t get me wrong, I’m very happy to have been successful, but there are other things in life that I can worry about!)
  7. I may have actually forgot to use the hash tag #voteforcarl!! Can’t remember and searching for the hashtag yields no results!!

How I got elected is a mystery, maybe the strange world of the playground and the fact that whilst I may not know many parents, they may actually know me or even my wife who is a Teaching Assistant at the school or my two sons, who are quite popular – if the truth be told…So If you ever want to get elected into a post, please don’t ask me for help or advice, there are many experts out there and I’m lucky this time that I didn’t need to engage with one of them.

Whatever the reason the other parents voted for me, I feel an obligation to them – to do what i can to improve the school (it is already a good school) ok, so maybe to ensure we maintain standards and excel where possible, i’m not sure yet.

So I now embark on a learning journey about the school, being a School Governor and all the details that most parents don’t need to know about but probably should. I’m hoping that I can get access to Modern Governor from Learning Pool as it looks like an excellent resource for someone like me.

I do actually have (and some of you maybe surprised here) some ideas that I think will help improve the school and its role in the community that I need to work up and of course I’m keen to meet all of the other School Governors.

I may blog from time to time about my experiences as a School Governor in a broad sense as I am aware that it is a naturally sensitive area.

This is not the post to talk about School Governors and the Big Society – that will be another day!