The space between Christmas and New Year is a great time for reflection and catching up on that pile of reading that has been building up in the ‘Quite Interesting’ section of the to-do list. It’s also traditionally a time for looking forward with a sense of hope and resolution – and despite the dire warning of much of the mainstream press about the risks of potential political and economic turmoil in 2015 I found myself buoyed up by two recent reports about the ability of leaders to work together to improve public services. 

The first gave me the title for this blog. It comes from the rather oddly named ‘Service Transformation Challenge Panel’ which is an interesting group of leaders from local and national government plus the NHS, Police and the private sector – co-chaired by Derek Myers now Chair of Shelter and Pat Richie CEO of Newcastle City Council. The Treasury and the Dept. of Communities and local government together gave this panel the task of thinking radically about how “better, more open public services could be centred around individuals and families’ needs rather than working in traditional Whitehall silos” – whilst also dealing with “demographic changes, increasing expectations and the need to reduce the cost”. Ok so that is a challenge – but although this could have been an invitation to write hundreds of pages of gobbledegook which would just sit on a ministerial shelf in fact I found this report contains a great deal of common sense and their 20 recommendations looks to me like things that the current government could make an immediate start on and an incoming administration of whatever colour (or rainbow blend) could also pick up without much ideological contention.

A key part of their ‘bolder braver better’ prescription is investment in the creation of greater collaborative leadership capability across all the parties in involved in public service delivery – and these days this means leaders across national and local government, and their private and voluntary sector partners. They say that “Collaborative leadership is the critical behavioural factor in successful transformation. Without it driving reforms across local and national organisation simply does not work.” I agree with this but would go further in applying this thinking. For me successful collaborative leadership is not just about the day-to-day behaviours of leaders, it’s also about the information systems and governance structures that they build to share knowledge across organisational boundaries and to enable people to take system-wide decisions for the good of the recipients of these services. And that includes the sharing of information and decision making with the people who use services themselves. Collaboration across organisational boundaries is always a discretionary activity – and it is the whole environment that leaders build that enables and motivates others to collaborate.

And that brings me to my second piece of New Year reading, an excellent article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review by that old master of systems thinking Peter Senge and colleagues. They argue that the demands of the modern world have given rise to a new breed of ‘System leaders’ whose “profound commitment to the health of the whole radiates to nurture similar commitment in others.” Ever the optimist Senge goes on to say “As these system leaders emerge, situations previously suffering from polarization and inertia become more open, and what were previously seen as intractable problems become perceived as opportunities for innovation. Short-term reactive problem solving becomes more balanced with long-term value creation. ” This is no pipe-dream, the paper cites examples of emerging system leaders in situations as diverse as Nike’s programme to reduce the toxic chemicals used in making their running shoes, to a community youth development organisation in Boston run by former gang members. Senge goes beyond just the need for collaborative leadership behaviours and calls for leaders to “re-orientatestrategy: creating the space for change and enabling collective intelligence and wisdom to emerge

I’ve written about this before in my manifesto for a collaborative leader and in the final chapter of the book that Alex Cameron and I wrote on the subject last year. For me the heart of collaborative leadership is the ability to share control. This is a challenge for any leader but for politicians and public sector employees this is particularly difficult as there is always the perception in the public mind (or in the media at least) that at the end of the day one person needs to be held accountable for success or (more often) blamed for failure. Sharing control may therefore seem like a very risky step into the unknown for an aspiring collaborative leader – which is why I come back to the fact that success is not based on leadership behaviours alone. Collaborative leaders work away behind the scenes creating the joined-up information systems and collective decision making structures, whilst also building the relationships they will need to call on in world of shared control. Because one thing is certain, you can’t be a collaborative leader on your own. Sharing control means having other collaborative leaders to work with you, but also having joint access to data, tools, systems, conflict resolution mechanisms, and other shared resources

The Bolder, Braver Better report calls for the creation of a virtual ‘National Leadership Academy’ which pulls together the work of the dozens of the current leadership development bodies across the public sector. This seems an eminently sensible start, but I would go further. There are many different sorts of boundaries to reach across and many different groups of leaders who would benefit by learning together and learning from each other. This includes bringing together:

  • Political leaders (from all parties) – with technical leaders from Whitehall, the NHS, the police and criminal justice system
  • Strategic leaders who are looking at the big questions of public policy and finance – with front line leaders who are dealing with the everyday reality of service delivery
  • Leaders of ‘hard’ delivery programmes (like the building of roads and railways) – with the leaders of ‘soft’ policy programmes of health and social care, or benefits reform.
  • Private sector leaders who need to deliver profit for their shareholders alongside quality service – with voluntary sector leaders who are driven by their charitable aims.

If you look at the coming cuts in public expenditure and civil service jobs then finding radical new solutions to the delivery of public services becomes an essential challenge for the year ahead. Getting groups of leaders like these together to jointly create service innovations would be a truly worthwhile mission for 2015 – and I think that the recommendations in these two reports from different sides of the Atlantic and from different traditions of public service delivery give some really useful pointers to the way forward.

David Archer is a Director of Socia Ltd.