Henry Kippin’s foreword to The RSA’s ‘Transforming Together’ report sets out the importance of place-based change.

I have written in the past that where change in public service outcomes is concerned, there is no transformation without collaboration, and no collaboration without building readiness. The use of transformation as a signifier for a particular kind of cost-cutting ambition will wither alongside the culture of austerity-above-all-else that popularised it. But the need for radical change in some service areas in the face of demographic and social change remains clear. Mobilising for it takes more than a spreadsheet. Purposeful collaboration takes more than a room full of people. System change is more than just a clever way to articulate and share the problem.

In this report, Joan Munro and colleagues at the RSA have sought to explore the conditions for collaborative innovation in local government and local places. Her findings make instructive sense. Focus on outcomes not services; think systemically; lead with passion, energy and a recognition that the best strategies come from people using and working at the coalface. Relationships at the heart of change. At least, change that has a chance of sticking.

Few surprises then — but a reminder to redouble our efforts and keep drawing the line between purpose and practice. Case studies showing that where professionals have been able to orientate themselves around the lived experience of citizens, the possibility of something different can emerge. The organisations that can do this most effectively are, almost inevitably, those which put a premium on learning and the ability to work adaptively in complex situations. As one health manager is quoted as saying: “we evolve and develop ideas…”

We have spent the last five years at Collaborate building a body of practice on the preconditions for effective collaboration for better public outcomes. We might surmise that the future is bright if the future is relational. For any leader in public services, civil society or a socially focused business, the idea that increasingly complex challenges can be solved by any sector or organisation alone is recognised as foolish. My sometime colleague Dr Toby Lowe at Newcastle University Business School would remind us that, anyway, outcomes are produced by systems, not organisations.

The Collaborative Delivery Framework from our Collaborative Readiness Report

Collaboration is a route to change, not an end in itself. The same might be said of innovation (though not always). And this is what seems to demarcate the good from the mediocre in Joan Munro’s estimation: the strength of purpose, and the clarity with which a range of actors, agencies and partners can work together, whether tactically, strategically or even selfishly. The traditional talking shop or the overly hierarchical partnership meeting is the death knell for this kind of creativity.

One question we should ask ourselves is what all of this means as the operating context within local government changes once again. Recent tragic events in Manchester and London illustrate both the absolute need for the state, and the need for its actions to be underpinned by trust and integrity. But if we want to make the case for strong public services (which I explicitly do), then they need to adapt. This is what the long term reform agenda is about.

We are pleased to be working with colleagues at the RSA on this agenda. For me, it is about finding that balance between creative thinking about the future and a credible account of how we support people to shift from today’s starting point. Local public services have shown incredible ability to adapt and roll with the punches of a financial settlement and parallel rise in demand, despite obvious organisational strain and abject misery for some. As the austerity experiment tips into its next phase, we need to start applying the principles in this report much more systematically, or we can forget about the possibility of inclusive growth or accountable health.

The test should be how we can support local areas to pick up and run with these approaches. Thinking into practice — and vice versa. Where, for example, is a culture of learning influencing the service offer within local government? Where is an investment in relationships strengthening what Matt Andrews and his Harvard colleagues call ‘load bearing capacity’ across a health and care system? Can we point to outcome based review processes that have fundamentally changed the way budgets are allocated and KPIs are applied?

The examples in this report show the potential. Other, equally exciting approaches are emerging. Suffolk’s ‘figure of eight’ model framing economic and community development. The Oldham Model based on fundamental coherence between co-operative services and thriving communities. Brent’s work on outcome-based change and collaborative demand management. Gateshead’s emerging approach to changing systems for people with complex needs. The way in which cities like Newport in South Wales are creating new possibilities for themselves through collaborative leadership.

The development studies writer Ben Ramalingam argues that the imperative for leaders working in complexity is not to know the answers, but to “know what questions to ask”. We should therefore see this work as part of an inquiry — a contribution that shares characteristics with wider work on system change, collaboration, public service reform and economic regeneration, and which owes a debt to its progenitors. The findings in this report suggest we are collectively on to something. Time to make it real.

To read the full report click here.