In September 2020, we published “From the Margins to the Mainstream: How to create the conditions for new operating models to thrive” as part of the New Operating Models Handbook, alongside Nesta. This report set out a framework to articulate the conditions needed for local authorities to be able to transition new innovative models of public service into the mainstream, developed through working with the 20 Councils of the Upstream Collaborative.

Over the last few months we’ve been using the framework with our clients, and in this blog we share some of the things we’ve learned about putting it into practice.

A ‘margins to mainstream’ challenge

As we begin to reopen and emerge from the Covid crisis period, lots of places are asking: how can we build on and broaden new approaches that we now know work?

Many places have piloted new ways of working with citizens, with communities, and with partner organisations. These pilots have often proved successful, creating new relationships, resources and opportunities and enabling real progress. There’s a lot of good will to keep them going, but we know from experience that the promise of these innovative practices can too often remain on the margins of organisations. They struggle to get the sustained support, investment or attention needed for them to grow and embed. The existing model of public service is hard to shift, and if not carefully managed, it tends to reject, infect, or co-opt the innovative work that has occurred at the margins.

We are working with places across the country to overcome this ‘margins to mainstream’ challenge. We have recently started using a systems change framework that we developed with the 20 Upstream Collaborative councils and published with Nesta in “From the Margins to the Mainstream: How to create the conditions for new operating models to thrive” as part of the New Operating Models Handbook.

Using the framework in practice

The Margins to Mainstream systems change framework emerged from the practice of the Upstream Collaborative councils who have been wrestling with these challenges. It is rooted in their experiences and sets out the enablers needed for innovative practice to thrive at three levels:

● Mindset: the foundational beliefs and worldview needed to sustain and grow change;

● Behaviours, values and relationships: the ways people and organisations relate and behave to one another and the power dynamics at play;

● Infrastructure: the ‘building blocks’ that drive our day to day working.

Eleven enablers of innovative practice

Framework taken from ‘The Margins to Mainstream’ report

We have been applying the framework to a live challenge facing one of our partners. The Council had already developed an excellent vision and framework setting out how they hope to work differently with citizens and communities, building on several years of successful work in Adult Social Care and Health. They asked us for support to develop an implementation strategy for the framework — to move it out from one trailblazer department to shifting the culture and practice across the whole organisation.

Below, we share some of the key learning that might benefit others using the framework in practice.

In our work so far, we have

  1. Adapted the framework to context: The Margins to Mainstream framework sets out 11 enablers of innovative practice at three levels of change. While many of these were directly applicable to this context, some were not, so we removed these and added in some others that related to their specific agenda.
  2. Diagnosed the current strengths: We invited the core team to individually complete a short survey based on the Margin to Mainstreams diagnostic tool, designed to understand their perception of how strong these enablers currently are in their place. We fed the results back to the team in a workshop, comparing and exploring the differing perspectives of team members.
  3. Deepened understandings of the change we want to see: We used the framework to scaffold discussions about where the organisation is currently and where they want to get to. What changes would make the biggest difference, are there bottlenecks or barriers that make wider change difficult, where else are there emerging changes? We categorise insights against the different levels and enablers and to take a wide view of the challenge.
  4. Defined the shifts we hope to make through implementation activity: We defined the key shifts that they identified as necessary to implement the innovation, across mindsets, behaviours, values, relationships and infrastructure. Characterised as “from… to…” these help to generate shared direction to the overall strategy.

What we are learning about using the framework

The framework creates space to think big…

The framework encourages us to take a holistic view of the challenge. It means we really grapple with the scale of the change and the ambition to fundamentally do things differently for communities and citizens. This can be exciting and inspiring, and create a real sense of mission. It can be also cathartic — allowing us to acknowledge the enormity of the task ahead and help us make sense of the frustrations and slow, and sometimes halting, progress we may be experiencing in trying to make change.

Using the framework helps to facilitate a realistic assessment of the current situation — not a judgement of success or failure, but an opportunity to understand all the factors that contribute to why we may not be where we want to be (yet). This helps to expand our choices about how and where we might act in order to make change. By working through all the options in their widest sense, we’ll be better placed to be more purposeful in implementing our vision, and in linking short-term actions to the longer-term vision for change.

…but you will need to make choices about tangible actions in order to progress.

The divergent thinking that the framework encourages creates a long list of possibilities and choices — but progressing to action requires a tangible starting point and not all of the possibilities we identify will fit the context as it stands today. To move forward, there’s a need to narrow back down and focus on what we can do now to move in the direction of the change we want to see.

Working with a small core team creates the safety for honest reflections…

Starting the conversation about how to shift the mainstream with a small core team who are close to the innovation — and often its most passionate advocates — has many benefits. They bring with them valuable experience about ‘the margins’ and what it has taken to shift culture and practice, so are well-placed to help embed this innovative practice in the mainstream.

Finding the time and space to really dig deep into what is going on in the organisation through deep diagnostic work structured around the framework helps to surface different perceptions and assumptions. Working with a small and established group where there is already a high level of trust means people can share and explore their perspectives quite comfortably, without defensiveness or a need to justify the status quo.

…but a broad range of perspectives need to be included to achieve change.

Whilst developing a clear picture of the context and what is needed to achieve change with a core team is a helpful starting point, we must recognise that this will capture just one view of the world. It may not be shared by others — and in fact it might be challenged strongly by colleagues. A shared view of the world as it is and the change that’s needed is a key foundation for implementing new ways of working, so working across a wide range of stakeholders is needed to develop a shared narrative and understand the appetite and opportunities for change. To do this requires engagement from others, but also openness from the core team to truly share ownership of the vision.

Moving from big picture to practical action

The Margins to Mainstream framework creates a really useful starting point for understanding the conditions and enablers needed to support a shift in practice across an organisation, not just in specific teams or projects. Seeing through the lens of the three levels and the 11 enablers brings into focus the shifts needed to support change. This helps to ensure that teams are expending their precious effort and energy on the things that will make the biggest contribution to that change.

Realism is also required, recognising that there are limits on the capacity, resource and headspace of the organisation to do things differently. No plan survives first contact; we need to remain adaptable to the opportunities that present themselves when others get involved.

It won’t be possible to tackle everything straight away, and some elements of the framework may still feel a long way off. But exploring and understanding the change that’s desired in its biggest sense provides a clearer idea of the direction of travel, helps prioritise actions, and gives us a way to understand the progress we’re making. If our goal is truly transformational change in how Councils and communities work together to create places where people can thrive, using the Margins to Mainstream framework offers one tool to help move from identifying opportunities to practical action.