Late last year, Collaborate CIC and Nesta formed the Upstream Collaborative, a space for local government innovators to learn about, share and accelerate new ways of working which tackle the underlying causes of social challenges.

As part of this programme, members have established working groups which deep dive into thematic areas they are particularly interested in — from new models of measurement to reframing risk. One of the working groups Collaborate is supporting is ‘Project to Systems’. This group is drawing on their experience to explore how you can move progressive practice from the margins and influence the wider system.

The output of their work will be a framework, a sister paper to Signals in the Noise. This framework will offer suggestions about how to re-shape and influence the wider system so that it can accept and sustain the work that is addressing complex challenges but is often stuck at the margins. The working group is made up of individuals from: Gateshead Metropolitan Borough Council, Gloucester City Council, Greater Manchester Combined Authority, Huntingdonshire District Council, Kirklees Council, London Borough of Barking & Dagenham, London Borough of Newham, Oldham Council, Redcar and Cleveland Borough Council and Surrey County Council.

This blog shares some reflections from the most recent ‘project to systems’ workshop, and what the Covid-19 response is telling the group about the readiness of the system to adopt new behaviours and ways of working. Their lens is public services, but we think these reflections can also be considered in other sectors.

We must attend to the how as well as the what:

For some time now, people and places have been creating, supporting, and identifying ‘bright spots’ or ‘green shoots’ of practice. These bright spots are the what’ — the work that is often stuck at the margins. They are the models, people and approaches that offer an alternative future and demonstrate ‘evolutions in how parts of society, government, public services, institutions and the economy are organising’[1]. They offer a glimpse of the future we could create, one which is more human and more collaborative.

We now have a network of leaders, initiatives, and thinking that is showing us how we can design effective and efficient approaches for social change. Many of those crafting this future have been involved in the Upstream Collaborative, and it is in this space that they have highlighted the fragility of this emerging network, asking: ‘how can we embed, sustain and grow these alternative models?’This question felt important in 2019 when the Upstream Collaborative began, but it now feels essential as there’s a growing sense that we are at a tipping point, and that this tipping point requires us to re-imagine the future of public services and, in fact, society.

This group argues that if we are to nurture these models then it’s not simply about moving this work into the wider system, but changing the system itself. This means uncovering leverage points in the system, and beginning to change the mindsets, practice, and infrastructure that pull people and organisations away from collaboration, curiosity and innovation.

We need to understand how others see and interpret the boundary of the ‘system’:

The working group noted that although the idea of ‘systems change’ has entered the lexicon of many, we shouldn’t assume that all those working in public services view their role as contributors to a complex environment, rather than providers of discrete services.

If we are to build the ‘readiness of the system’ to accept rather than infect new models of public services, then we need to understand how those within our own organisations perceive the system. For example, does their interpretation include the ‘unusual suspects’, community groups, private sector? And if we help others to widen their lens and understanding of the ‘system’ to include the assets and actors in a place, then what opportunities does this reveal?

This system mindset helps to shift the thinking away from linear and discrete models of operating, to holistic, complexity-aware approaches that draw on the skills and value of different partners.

The task of bridging the gap between progressive practice and the mainstream systems relies on those setting the direction and focus of public services acknowledging that they are one part of a complex environment. It requires those commissioning and designing services to understand that if we are to effect change we need to widen the boundaries of our system and build the enabling conditions for more human-centred practice to flourish. The group recognise the size of the task, but they also have examples to share about how to nudge the system in a new direction (to be shared in the upcoming report).

Let’s not waste a crisis: the Covid-19 response has shown what more human public services can look like

This group is clear that the practice and models that they are talking about being ‘stuck at the margins’ tend to be the ones that are more inclusive, participatory, and focus on the strengths and needs of a person as opposed to offering a pre-determined ‘solution’.

For many, local responses to Covid-19 have reasserted the value of this way of working. It has shone a light on collaborative practice and emphasised the intrinsic motivation for why they are in public services: to serve the public, offering support which reflects the reality of people’s lives. For example, ‘putting people first’ and ‘taking the time to listen’ are principles that have been demonstrated in a range of ways as part of the Covid-19 response: from the collection of reading material at the request of those relocated to hotels, to dates being delivered to those fasting during Ramadan, and those ‘sheltering’ being contacted for a chat and a check-in.

These simple acts of kindness are all based on listening to people, and working with others to meet their needs. In sharing these examples, the group reflected that they aren’t complex, but that they do feel at odds with the traditional system; a system often wired to prioritise a one-size fits all approach, attribution, and competition.

For the working group, Covid-19 has highlighted the value of working from a position of trust, being flexible, and the need for a collaborative culture. If you stretch these beyond Covid-19, these are also the principles that the group think need to be embedded in the wider system if the approaches that are often stuck at the margins are going to thrive.

Next steps

‘It’s got to be about more than shuffling deck chairs around’. This was a reflection from a group member when discussing that if we are to move progressive work from the margins we can’t simply tinker with the current system; the system itself must evolve and adapt. Covid-19 has brought with it a lot of sadness, grief and guilt. But it has also offered a glimpse of what the future could look like and highlighted practice that has been stuck on the edge of the system for some time. The question is, how do we design a system that accepts rather than infects or rejects these ways of working?

This July the working group will share a framework that helps people think about eleven system conditions we need to strengthen if we are to design a new, more impressive future. The framework will offer indicators and insights from those at the frontline of progressive practice, providing tips for those interested in changing the system in pursuit of better social outcomes.

The framework will be part of a series of learning products exploring the new operating models emerging in local government — how they work, what they look like and the key features needed to replicate success elsewhere. It draws on the experience of the twenty pioneering Local Authorities participating in the Upstream Collaborative, which has been led by Nesta in partnership with Collaborate CIC. The full package of reports will launch in September 2020.

[1] ‘Manifesto for a Collaborative Society’ (Collaborate 2020)