Insights on the required infrastructure, by Anna Randle

Last June we published this blog setting out the aims of our research project on system infrastructure, funded by Lankelly Chase. Building on our work exploring the vision and behaviours for system change for people with multiple and complex needs (Behaving like a System, published last December), in this project we are identifying the ‘hard-wiring’, or supporting infrastructure, which is required to enable the vision and behaviours to be realised across local public services.

Behaving like a System?

The Preconditions for Place-based Systems Change

In this blog, and via many other forums, we have presented the argument that place-based system change is required if we are to see an improvement in outcomes within a place (be it a region, city, borough…). The language of systems change can be impenetrable and obstructive, as well as new to people working in public services. However, as we have explored in this Discussion Paper, it is based on some simple — and helpful — insights, which can be valuable when we think about the role of local public services.

Systems Change in Public Services

A Collaborate Discussion Paper

There is a strong logic to thinking about a system in the context of place:

  • It puts notional boundaries around our understanding of a system;
  • It allows us to appreciate the relationship between place and social and economic outcomes
  • The services that exist to try and improve these outcomes are funded, governed and delivered at the level of place through local authorities, NHS bodies, local police and so on.

Systems, no matter what form (environmental, mechanical, social), are influenced and manipulated by the various actors that overtly and inadvertently operate within them and therefore contribute to system outcomes. In the context of public services and place, we are interested in improving social outcomes, but traditionally we have relied heavily on public service experts (senior managers, commissioners, front line staff and so on) to determine how services will achieve these improvements. Systems thinking helps us to reconceive this narrow perspective and identify the other people and organisations within a place who can contribute — businesses, anchor institutions such as universities, the third sector and, crucially, residents themselves. It also helps us think about how different actors and organisations within the system can collaborate to improve outcomes. Our research started from the perspective of understanding how system change can better support people with multiple complex needs, both through thinking about the ways in which organisations and services can work more effectively together, and how they can work more closely with the community and people with complex needs themselves.

How many systems can you see?

… and why system infrastructure?

In Behaving Like a System, we identified vision and behaviours as pre-conditions for system change, and set out what these would be for people working in services relating to complex and multiple needs. The shifts are simple — for example, the need for services and organisations, and the people who work in them, to be citizen-centered, collaborative, strengths-based. At the end of that report we posed the question: what next? If we want to achieve placed-based systems change then it is everyone’s job to make this happen. But the ways our organisations and places function is not set up to achieve this.

This is what we are now exploring, wanting to understand how we make it happen: what is the hard-wiring that makes a reality out of aspirational words. For example, how should we develop our public service organisations and our staff? How should funding flow through a place? What should governance, leadership and accountability look like?

We are exploring this topic in two parts- firstly, what is this infrastructure we keep talking about, and secondly how can it be designed to enable sustainable positive outcomes for those with multiple complex needs?

We are 5 months in to our 9 month project and aim to report our findings at the end of this year. As with any project, nothing is static and we have been determined to remain flexible, adapting our research methodology to explore places where we see bright spots of system change work. Originally we were focusing on Coventry as the ‘place’, this has now expanded to Essex and Oldham. We are also learning from a small number of projects that are trying to build new ways of working that reflect system vision and behaviours in practice on a smaller scale (including the Ignite project in Coventry, the West London Children’s Zone and the MEAM coalition).

It is through research in these places, and endless conversations about ‘systems’, that our insights have begun to take shape:

  1. Place-based system change requires us to understand how to create a coherent relationship between the different perspectives, enabling different ‘levels’ to function successfully as one system

Understanding that multiple actors — people and organisations — have a role to play in improving outcomes is the first step towards achieving the vision and behaviours required for system change. However, we also need to understand who those different actors are, and how they can be supported to operate in a coherent system towards shared outcomes. In the context of place, we think it is simplest to think about three perspectives within the system:

  • Public services, who operate as system leaders and enablers, help determine and shape the vision and behaviour of the system and govern the investment of public resources to achieve outcomes;
  • Local anchor institutions (such as universities and churches), businesses and the third sector, who can use their influence and relationships to help achieve the vision, as well as directly influence social outcomes through their activities;
  • People — residents, citizens, service users — who collaborate with services, organisations and each other to improve outcomes, formally and informally (for example through what Julia Unwin calls ‘everyday acts of kindness’).

2. Achieving the system vision and behaviours identified in Behaving like a System requires us to change existing organisational infrastructure into place-based system infrastructure. We (currently!) think there are 10 key components

If we understand the role and contribution of these different perspectives, then the question becomes how we bring coherence to the system and enable each contribution to be realised and recognised. We think this is one of the roles of system infrastructure. It can be helpful to visualise it as the scaffolding on which new ways of collaborating can be built. In our draft framework, we have identified 10 components of place-based system infrastructure:

  • System/place-based funding
  • System/place-based accountability
  • System evaluation and evidence
  • System intelligence and data
  • System Organisational Development and HR strategies
  • Place-based strategies and plans
  • Place-based outcomes
  • Collaborative delivery
  • Collaborative spaces
  • Systems governance

In a sense, none of this is new or radical — all of these elements support the work of public service organisations now.

The critical shift comes when you think about what all these components would look like if they were genuinely systemic — supporting system collaboration in order to realise the vision and behaviours. The status quo is different organisations have their own versions of all of these — for example a local authority’s priority outcomes are likely to be different to those of the local health bodies and the police — and they often confusingly overlap or even compete. Of course in practice, nowhere is building new infrastructure from scratch — the more difficult challenge is changing what exists to serve a different, more collaborative purpose.

Some places have been trying to do this for a while now, through initiatives such as Total Place and Community Budgets, but it is far from the norm to have place-based outcomes shared by all the local public service bodies, never mind alignment with other local organisations (Collaborate are working with a small number of places who are keen to develop this, including Sutton). In our research we are exploring the experiences of some places (Coventry, Oldham and Essex) and some projects (including Ignite, MEAM and the WLCZ) in building this system infrastructure in practice, and will include good examples from these projects in the report.

And it is very rare to find places that are asking what these components would look like from the different perspectives within the system. For example, what collaborative spaces do citizens and third sector organisations need to make a contribution? How does funding work for them? What contribution do they make to place-based strategies and outcomes? How do they contribute to local intelligence? We are exploring these questions too.

  1. Understanding the relationship between the parts is critical to whole place system change

Systems infrastructure can be an unwieldy, impenetrable beast a lot of the time. To understand where and how you begin (particularly when incorporating the perspectives) can seem an overwhelming task. Our framework of the 10 components has been useful for the places we have been working with, helping people understand the progress they have made towards place-based system change. The development of a framework enables people to think about what they have addressed, where their strengths lie, and what piece of the puzzle might come next. This suggests that the framework has a useful application for places trying to do any of the things mentioned above — set up combined authorities, integrate health and social care, or build more collaborative relationships with citizens. But what we want it to also do is help people understand the relationship between the parts, and the risks of focusing on some and ignoring others.

The building of the various pieces takes time, but our research suggests that the visioning and intention for a whole system approach must be formed from the out-set. Without seeing the parts of infrastructure as building blocks we will fail to create a coherent system and rest on the evidence of one perspective: infrastructure prejudice and confirmation bias is prevalent in all systems. Data, for instance is a piece of system infrastructure that we have tagged as critical- it enables people to share critical information and understand the needs of an area (among other things). Its value is clear — but building this capability in isolation of other core pieces of infrastructure can limit its effectiveness. It is when a place-based approach to data is combined with other elements of the infrastructure — for example new governance which enables collaborative decision making and funding so that resources can be redistributed; a different delivery model; supported by the new behaviours of frontline staff enabled by a new HR strategy, that the real potential is uncovered.

Who cares?

One thing seems certain from our work so far: this is a highly relevant area of concern in public services right now. Driven by austerity, policy drivers and a post-‘new public management’ search for ways to improve outcomes, local authorities are building new collaborative relationships with their local partners in the public sector and beyond. Public services in city regions are having to design new ways of collaborating — and the infrastructure to support it — to make a success of the opportunities afforded by devolution. And driven by a range of factors, no doubt including new technology, changing business models and shifting public expectations, the public services zeitgeist is shifting away from a ‘state knows best’ model towards a more collaborative, co-productive model. This new approach sees the rights and capacities of citizens to play a more active role in their own lives and communities is built into how we design and deliver public services and understand how social outcomes are achieved.

From the conversation we are having about this work, it seems that the time is right to be thinking through the hard questions about how you make a reality of services to the public that work and collaborate in new ways to improve outcomes in our communities.

If you have any questions, please do get in touch!