Designing in Collaboration: Challenges for the new Combined Authorities

Max Lempriere and Vivien Lowndes

At a workshop hosted in December 2015 by City-REDI, INLOGOVThe Public Services Academy at the University of Birmingham practitioners and academics from the world of local government came together to share experiences on the current Combined Authorities and city-region devolution agenda. In the fifth of a series of posts Max Lempriere and Vivien Lowndes reflect on the day’s major talking points.

The raison d’être of Combined Authorities is to foster collaboration amongst neighbouring local authorities in a time of limited resources, fiscal restraint and ‘wicked issues’. The goal is to stimulate economic growth through better integrating transport, business support and skills development at the sub-regional level.  Alongside the growth agenda, combined authorities are considering their potential role in public service transformation, especially in relation to health and social care.  Combined authorities are also an opportunity to express local identities and challenge London-centric policymaking through, for example, the development of the Northern Powerhouse or Midlands Engine.

By pooling resources, local authorities can avoid duplication and, share staff, expertise and ideas – and risks. This kind of ‘public-public’ partnership can lay the groundwork for the Combined Authority, but collaboration needs to goes far wider to include a range of organisations from the public, private and civil society sectors.  Indeed, the three Local Enterprise Partnerships in the West Midlands will be full members of the new combined authority.  So it isn’t just the case that constituent local authorities need to collaborate. Indeed, the more diverse the range of organisations involved, the greater the potential in terms of gaining insight.   And engaging with civil society groups holds the promise not just of leveraging expertise and capacity, but also of enhancing citizen involvement in local decision making.  Since the Greater Manchester Combined Authority was given budgetary control over local NHS spending (February 2015), this has necessitated collaboration between local council leaders, health and social care providers, clinical commissioning groups, and a range of patient and community bodies.

There is considerable scope for local Universities to play an important collaborative role in the devolution agenda.  Supporting the new combined authorities will require bringing together those who create and apply knowledge within different sectors.  Universities can make available an evidence base to support economic development activities, but also to inform new collaborative governance arrangements themselves.  Universities themselves have a strong incentive to engage proactively in knowledge transfer, given the Treasury’s insistence that research must be able to show demonstrable ‘impact’.  Universities can also play an ‘honest broker’ role in convening opportunities among relevant parties, as is happening in the current move to establish a Midlands Engine to rival (or complement) the Northern Powerhouse.

Despite these opportunities, collaboration is deeply challenging. It requires the fostering of an environment in which the needs of the Combined Authority as a whole are put before those of individual local authorities. This is a difficult task, especially when organisations have been used to having executive sway over their own actions.   Rather than seeking ‘competitive advantage’, organisations need to focus on the potential gains from ‘collaborative advantage’.  In a nutshell, this offers individual organisations the chance to achieve outcomes that they wouldn’t have been able to accomplish on their own.  In fact, they may not even have thought of them!  The aim is not just to improve the delivery of existing services, but to re-imagine what local government might offer a locality through collaborative working.  Entirely new visions, and ways of working, could arise out of the process of collaboration.

New forms of leadership are important in fostering collaboration. Different skills and personal qualities are required, in comparison with leading a single organization.  Research shows that, whatever structures and procedures are put in place, it is often ‘special people’ who make the difference.  Such individuals may not be in the most senior positions, but they demonstrate the ability to bring different groups together, build trust and foster creativity, identify and harness the added value from collaboration, and maximize learning.  Typical personal skills are sociability, pragmatism, personal resilience and a sense of humour!  Collaboration is more than a list of email addresses or skype contacts.  Face-to-face contact and practical step-by-step objectives are crucial.  We all know these sorts of natural collaborators when we meet them.  Talent-spotting for these skills is an urgent task for councils considering secondments to the new combined authorities, or new collaborative roles at council level.  Nurturing new collaborative champions is a responsibility for all partners, as is ensuring that we all learn from those to whom collaboration comes more naturally.   We can’t create these ‘special people’, but we can foster environments in which they flourish – and are rewarded.  How many performance management agreements, or appraisal systems, take account of collaborative as well as organizational achievements?

While new directly elected mayors will head up the major combined authorities, and act as important points of accountability, they won’t provide a substitute for a network of committed ‘boundary spanners’ on the ground.  What they can do is provide the overall vision for their locality, providing a clear answer to the question: What is devolution for?  Mayors can also champion particular forms of collaborative behaviour that put the interests of the locality before that of any individual organization, and also prioritises engagement with residents, communities and local businesses.

Collaboration needs to be the DNA of the new combined authorities.  A commitment to collaboration needs to inform the design of all the new roles, structures and processes.   Collaboration needs to be designed-in from the start.  The goal should be the integration rather than the simple aggregation, of governance capacities within the locality.

This series of workshops is being supported by the Economic and Social Research Council, Local Government Association and the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives (SOLACE) and is led by Catherine Staite, Director of INLOGOV and SOLACE’s Research Facilitator for Local Government.



Max Lempriere is a final year PhD researcher at the Institute for Local Government Studies at the University of Birmingham. His research interests include institutional design, local government policy making, devolution, urban planning and sustainable development.

Vivien Lowndes photo

Professor Vivien Lowndes is involved in research, teaching and knowledge transfer on local governance and public services. She is particular interested in partnerships, citizen participation, and gender issues. Currently Vivien is working on the development of Combined Authorities in the context of devolution, local government responses to austerity, Police and Crime Commissioners’ gender policies, and the use of evidence in migration policy. With colleagues at INLOGOV, she is also engaged in comparative research analysing innovative governance institutions in the UK and Brazil.

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