This article was originally published in the MJ, on the 18th June 2024

‘I’ve been siloed for 39 and a half years!’ Thus said one of the participants in a recent leadership programme we at Collaborate ran in the North East. Through six half-day workshops, this independent healthcare provider had met people he’d never come across before in four decades of working in the place. He longed for an opportunity to collaborate sooner.

With the election less than a month away, the call for more collaborative public services is growing. Recent reports by Demos, the Future Governance Forum and the Human Learning Systems Collaborative, among others, make the case for a shift away from deliverology, towards collaborative public services as the way to better tackle the complex challenges we face today.

This is a welcome development, and it’s promising to see it feature in Labour’s missions. However, our work with councils and systems pioneering new approaches to collaboration – in Cornwall, Essex, Barking & Dagenham, Wigan, Sunderland and beyond – has taught us that collaboration is one of those things that is often much easier mandated than manifested.

Collaborating across organisational and sector boundaries requires us to ‘unlearn’ the behaviours of the siloed, competitive, target-driven, top-down cultures that many public servants have been operating in for decades – to find new ways of leading change that reflect our interconnected reality, prioritise trusting relationships, and embed learning into everything we do.

At the core of collaborative leadership is the belief we are interdependent with each other and our environment, that the challenges we face are connected, and that we will go further by working together. This is a fundamental departure from conceptions of change that valorise heroic saviours, that incentivise competition or that pretend single ministries, organisations or departments can deliver outcomes by themselves.

In practical terms, it means public servants at all levels see that part of their job is to reach out beyond their organisations, build relationships and alliances across their place, understand and value each other’s perspectives and work together to identify opportunities.

Prioritising trusting relationships might seem like ‘soft’ stuff, but at its heart it’s about how we navigate conflict and use power. Outside the structures of a single organisation, relationships are what underpin planning and accountability between organisations and with communities. We need to be able to navigate the inherent tension between maintaining common purpose, and surfacing the diverse perspectives and priorities that different stakeholders bring. And we need to disagree constructively and appreciate feedback as an opportunity for improvement, seeking to understand rather than defend. One senior local government officer in London recently commented that without this skill, we risk becoming ‘a seemingly well-oiled machine that churns out things that people never really asked for’

Working through relationships beyond our organisations also requires an awareness of how differences in power – individual and organisational – shape our ability to work and learn together. We need to be aware of our own authority, where it comes from, how it can be grown, shared and used responsibly. And we need to be mindful of the impact of systemic marginalisation, both on our staff and residents. We find many of our leadership programme participants are surprised to be encouraged to talk openly about power, privilege and prejudice – subjects that have long been the elephant in the room but are critical for public service today.

Finally, tackling complex challenges requires us to learn constantly, to share what we’re noticing about what works and what doesn’t, and to adapt to changing contexts. To do that we need to shift beyond valuing expertise above all else and towards humility and curiosity – being open to try stuff out, to admit what you don’t know, or even to discover you were wrong. This is a tough thing to ask of people, especially those carrying the weight of public expectations. However, the way we respond when things don’t go to plan can shape the space for learning and collaboration far more, and for far longer, than how we act in the good times.

The good news is that many people in local government and the wider public sector already want to work like this, are capable of learning to work like this, and find it empowering and rewarding to be given permission to work like this.

For several years now we’ve run developmental programmes to build the confidence and capacity of places and people to lead change collaboratively. We’ve worked with teams, organisations and places, from voluntary sector champions to local authority chief executives. Mirroring what we are teaching, our programmes themselves are experiential and relational, drawing on theory and frameworks, but rooted in the experiences of the participants and the real challenges they face day to day.

They are often termed ‘leadership’ programmes, but they are not only for people in positions of formal power. In fact, one of the first things our cohorts look at is the distinction between leadership and authority. It might seem semantic, but it’s curious how many of us think that the activity of mobilising change – what we call leadership – is best, if not only, done by someone with more authority than ourselves. Even chief executives on our programmes have been heard to say, ‘I don’t have the power to do that’.

Collaborative public services require everyone to understand their capacity to mobilise change, because there’s so much work to do that requires the efforts of all of us. The independent health provider in the North East has already started three new partnerships with NHS services and a voluntary provider who he met on the programme, enabling people to get the preventative care they need.

This autumn we’re launching an open programme for public, private, voluntary and community sector partners to learn together across places and sectors. Leading Change Together is for anyone who wants to up-skill themselves and develop a network of peers, to join us to unlearn the behaviours of the past and become the collaborative leaders we need today.

Elle Dodd is a Director of Practice at Collaborate CIC