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We seem to be entering an age of a more collaborative approach to public services, with new and more inclusive ways of working emerging. Collaboration happens when individuals in multiple organisations coordinate and share resources in order to support one or more policies. This seems to be increasing across the public, private, community and voluntary sector. But it can pose great challenges at the local level when put into practice. Local public authorities may need to move away from more familiar, contractual relationships, and relinquish power to other organisations. This brings risks, but where there is risk, there can be reward. We demonstrate this in our report, Are we Rallying Together?


Are we Rallying Together? explores 10 locally-led projects from across the UK in 2018/19 who identify as collaborations. We wanted to understand what is actually happening on the ground: what does this collaboration look like, and how does it function? The projects we looked at are all very different. Some are initiated by public authorities, others by the voluntary sector. Some focus on narrow projects for a particular group of citizens, while others represent a comprehensive set of reforms across whole councils. All are ‘works in progress’, but some are permanent, fully embedded ways of working, whilst others are on a time-limited initiative.

The report is not comprehensive, nor does it outline a blueprint for success. We link what we heard to what is already known about collaborative practice from the academic literature, and make recommendations based on the issues identified. We hope the report can help those who work in public service delivery to consider collaborative approaches, and inform their decisions about whether and how to adopt the practices that go with it. 

1. Why collaborate?

We found that collaboration has broad appeal as a solution to intractable social problems that we struggle to address as a society. But it is not a new concept: the UK public sector has a long history of cooperation with the voluntary and private sectors. We believe the trends driving this are the persistence of ‘wicked problems’, the ‘move to privatise’, and the ‘move to partner’.

‘Wicked problems’ are those social problems for which there are no clear links between cause and effect – like homelessness, chronic unemployment or educational underachievement. Most agree that progress in tackling these has been slow, yet these kinds of problems aren’t likely to just go away. If anything, they’re likely to become more complicated – perhaps because of the ‘move to privatise’. Starting in the 1980s, this applied private sector thinking to government operations. The belief was that market forces could increase efficiency and quality in the delivery of public services. Governments increasingly turned to third parties to provide core public services: in the UK, the amount of public spending on voluntary organisations grew to £15.3 billion in 2014-15. This increasingly complex network of organisations delivering services led to a ‘move to partner’, due to the perceived need “for greater communication, collaboration, and coordination of organisational efforts to achieve desired outcomes in local communities.”

Whilst the rationale for collaboration that we heard was multifaceted, we noticed some key themes across sites on how collaboration was perceived to solve a variety of public service delivery challenges. The projects we spoke to described four justifications for collaborating:

·     To enable the sharing of financial and service delivery responsibility across organisations, sectors and with the community.

·     To give the voluntary sector a more significant role in tackling complex social challenges, due to a perceived ability to understand and engage community members.

·     To deliver better overall impact and value.

·     To make the public sector a better place to work.

2. What do collaborations look like?

Academics have identified three ways to oversee groups of organisations collaborating with one another: (1) groups that self-govern; (2) groups that are governed by one of the member organisations who takes a leading role; and (3) groups that are governed by a new organisation dedicated to the governance function. We built on this to develop a four-way typology that we use to categorise the places we looked at:

Collaborative councils(Oldham, Wigan, Wirral) are broad programmes of change where entire councils are attempting to change the way they, and other local public agencies, work.

Collaborative markets(Plymouth Alliance Contract, Young People’s Foundations) aim to change the relationship between local voluntary sector delivery organisations from competitive to collaborative.

Agents of change (Ignite, Golden Key) sit outside the public sector, and attempt to use the fact they are not part of the system to change it from the outside in.

System connectors (West London Zone, Doing the Right Thing) aim to better integrate the public and voluntary sectors by leveraging existing resources, without fundamentally uprooting existing relationships and structures.

3. How is collaborative working ingrained?

Four ingredients emerged from our work as key to determining the success of a collaborative effort:

Leadership. Leaders moved from a hierarchical to a facilitative approach to managing relationships. We observed that three collaborative leadership types identified in academic literature were all apparent (sometimes within the same leader): stewards, who listen to partners and create a shared understanding of the issue; mediators, who negotiate differences of opinion and nurture the building of trust; and catalysts, who identify opportunities for new approaches and help mobilise partners to pursue them.

Culture. A shared imperative to work in a different way was established and communicated early on. This formed the basis for giving frontline staff more decision-making power and freedom to operate. This came with risks for those staff as well as their managers and organisation leaders, so represented a major change of working culture.

Infrastructure. There were practical implications upon data capture and information sharing. Co-location was sometimes identified as a major faciliator, but was not always essential, nor enough on its own. Many sites used new types of meetings to improve communication and relationships between teams, and some provided access to shared IT systems.

Communities. Members of the local community were always involved, though in varied ways. Sometimes community members were used as innovators, coming up with ideas that one public sector leader said “we would never think of as bureaucrats.” Sometimes assets like libraries and swimming pools were transferred to the community to run– though this came with risks in terms of competencies and maintaining equality of access. Often, a different sort of conversation with the community was demanded. A public sector leader described this as moving the conversation from “what can we do for you?” to “what would you like to be able to do? What resources have you got to help you to do that, and...what are the gaps?”

4. Demonstrating success and ensuring accountability

The notion of measurement and target-setting was contentious given the reliance of collaboration on equal relationships between partners, underpinned by an empowered and entrusted workforce. Unlike traditional methods of performance measurement, we found data capture in collaborations was bottom-up, place-based and included qualitative insights. Several referred to the community as a key data source. Using solely quantitative data for needs and performance analysis was seen as both insufficient and counter to the new culture that was being created. Further challenges included the presence of multiple stakeholders, the difficulties of attributing interventions to results, and the long time spans involved.

Nonetheless, all agreed measurement was useful for providing learning and feedback, and had a role to play in accountability too. On this, there were different preferences on what to approach to take: 

Results- Accountability for collaboratively defined targets

System-health- Accountability for a well-functioning service system

Outcomes- Accountability for client outcomes

Narratives- Sense-making tool for understanding how and why things have/have not worked

Community reporting- Accountability for delivering on collaboration and community promises

The jury is out on whether collaborative approaches enhance or diminish democratic accountability. On the one hand, because government cedes control of a service, there is no longer a straightforward mechanism by which policymakers are held to account by the electorate. On the other hand, some argue that ‘dispersed’ governance of the type seen in collaborations offers more opportunities for citizens’ voices to be heard, and services to be responsive to local needs and preferences. The places we spoke to were held externally accountable in multiple ways – by funders, to an elected local council, by government regulators – but are ultimately sought to base their legitimacy on improving outcomes for service users. Doing so was dependent on a high level of good quality information and feedback.

Conclusion

As with any research inspired exercise, we find ourselves ending this phase of investigation with more questions than answers. These are the questions that we think are most pertinent to informing and driving future collaborative practice:

What regulatory and statutory constraints prevent collaborative approaches? We think mapping the web of regulations, statutory requirements, and devolved powers that influence collaborations is a helpful next step.

The collaborative ‘counterfactual’: Does collaboration deliver better value and impact? We believe assessing the impact and value of collaboration through independent evaluation is critical.Resourcing collaborative administration is a worthwhile additional expense, if the outcomes are demonstrably better than business as usual.

How do we embed collaborative practice that is resilient and effective in navigating setbacks and disagreements? Understanding how leaders galvanise support for the collaboration without eclipsing criticism would be invaluable in comparing collaborative leadership styles against hierarchical ones.

What does a governance system look like that enables people and organisations to take decisions in the interests of service users, and doesn’t revert to the inflexibility of rules or hierarchy? We think more understanding is needed on how to balance adequate autonomy for frontline workers with adequate service quality and democratic accountability.

How can we design a system for feedback and learning that deals with the complexity of both the problem and the system around it – whilst delivering transparency and accountability for public services? We saw lots of innovative ways of tackling this, and we think there is significant value in tracking these emerging systems over time as a way to capture and share practice.

Engagement not exploitation: What is the ‘right way’ to engage citizens in public services? Understanding how a different relationship between the state and communities is emerging is deeply important in ensuring that service quality and democratic accountability are upheld.

We welcome conversation, discussion and debate about these questions. Given the increasing interest in collaborative approaches, we encourage researchers, policy makers, public managers and practitioners to reflect on what the future can and should look like. And we welcome conversations with those interested in working together with us on both research and engagement. Not only is there more to be learned, there is more to be done to ensure decision-makers and doers are able to benefit from all that is already known.