Cities will need to lead the way post-Brexit

Paul Bunyan

In the aftermath of the decision to leave the EU, class has been highlighted as the main cause of the referendum divide, the Labour MP Frank Field describing the result as “the first clear revolt against globalisation and its undermining of working-class living standards”. Alongside class a clear contrast is also being drawn between the urban and the rural. Under the heading “A less than United Kingdom’, Mark Easton, BBC social affairs correspondent commented:

The maps of how people voted show that this was a victory for the countryside over the cities, particularly in England. London, Manchester, Bristol, Leicester, Leeds and Liverpool – for the most part, the metropolitan centres voted to remain. But the further from the big city centres one travels, the more emphatically people voted to leave”.

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Creating our fate through our own behaviours

Anthony Mason, Senior Associate INLOGOV

The American author Henry Miller is supposed to have said “we create our fate every day . . . most of the ills we suffer from are directly traceable to our own behaviour”.  Funnily enough, if you use a well-known search engine to try to find where and when he recorded this weary aphorism, you end up with pages of circular references to quotation lists.  But given his complex love life (five wives and many lovers) it sounds just like the sort of thing he should have said, whether or not he did.

Those local authorities currently in deep negotiations around devolution deals or on complex partnerships with health organisations should hear Miller’s (supposed) words ringing in their ears.  INLOGOV has recently completed research for the District Councils’ Network to look at a range of partnerships either led by or centred on districts.  The resulting report “Building Better Collaboration” is now available from INLOGOV’s website.  It was launched – perhaps appropriately – at a joint district/county summit on devolution in two tier areas.

One of our roles is to ensure that relevant research is given a practical application, so the study draws on a considerable body of academic material about partnership working to stress that individuals who will be good at collaborative working can too often be hidden away in vertical structures.  “Boundary spanners” and “collaborative champions” are needed in every partnership and need to be identified, developed and encouraged.

We identify five organisational behaviours/attributes that seem to be disproportionately important in determining the success or failure of collaborative ventures: leadership, selflessness, trust, momentum and risk.  Of these, the most significant for project outcomes seem to be: “audacious” early leadership; trust – grounded in an organisational culture of self-awareness; and momentum – where too many projects proceed at the speed of the slowest partner.

We noticed that in many of the partnerships we reviewed, there was at least one partner that seemed to put in much more than it could ever expect to get out in measureable benefits.  We termed that selfless behaviour and the term captures something of the particular contribution that the best districts can make to partnership working.  We explored why this was so – and in a way, the answer is a simple one: for districts, selflessness is actually role-appropriate behaviour.  Districts represent local communities and geographies; and so minding their local interest in collaborative projects must be “creating their fate…through their own behaviours”.

As you find so often, there is a flip-side to selflessness heard in the charge of parochialism levelled at a few districts, especially by some business voices.  Districts might reflect that being only champions of the local can have downsides – especially where a wide range of interests have to be reconciled for the common good, for example around a combined authority bid.

We suggest that the national local government bodies – the LGA, CCN and DCN can do much more to model good collaborative practice.  Where this goes wrong, they might reflect that “…most of the ills we suffer from are directly traceable to our own behaviour.”

Anthony Mason

Anthony Mason is a senior associate at INLOGOV where he specialises in consultancy around partnership and collaboration.  He started his career in local government and then spent more than 20 years in PwC’s public sector consultancy practice.  His professional background is in housing and neighbourhood regeneration.

Catherine Staite reflects on the need for 21st century partnerships in Birmingham

Catherine Staite, Director, INLOGOV

Working in partnership in the public sector has never been easy.  Diversity in size, ambition, buying power, influence and democratic legitimacy, create real challenges for partnerships. The imposition by central government of one size fits all models of partnership as a means of control didn’t help. Add the problems that arise from personality clashes and petty rivalries and its easy to see how partnerships came to be described as  ‘mutual loathing in search of funding’.

Of course it wasn’t all bad. Some LSPs developed a strong collective vision for their area and some LEPs can claim significant achievements. Many partnerships demonstrated that when you involve the right people, who behave in the right way, you can establish relationships of trust that will weather challenges. That is helpful as that experience is now providing the foundations for different sorts of partnership.

The role of councils within partnerships has always been contested.  Many councils espoused the view that their democratic mandate placed them in a pre-eminent position and they were leaders by right. It was the duty of partners to do their bidding. Many of their partners compounded this problem by  too passive, assuming that it was the responsibility of the council to provide everything from the vision to the lunch.

Partnerships in Birmingham have always been challenging. The monolithic nature of the council and the diversity of the city have created a long running battle for control of leadership space that has damaged relationships to the detriment of residents.  Many of the problems were highlighted in the Kerslake Report and resolving them is now one of the top priorities of the both the government appointed Birmingham Improvement Panel and the council itself.

The idea of co-production – harnessing the capacity of people to come together to achieve positive change – has been around for many years. Birmingham has many inspiring and energetic people who don’t buy into a cynical and defeatist narrative about Birmingham being too big to manage.  They are willing to give their time and energy to work together, with but not for the council, to create a positive narrative about Birmingham, its people and its future.  Birmingham Partners has a small informal steering group which is working hard to create a self-sustaining network of diverse functional partnerships and communities of interest  – thereby making  itself redundant.  The role of the steering group is to facilitate, not control, discussions about an agenda for change.  Practical support for meetings, public events and social media is provided by the University of Birmingham, Birmingham City University and Aston University.

It’s not easy for the council to let go of control. Real change is slow and messy and they are under pressure to deliver demonstrable improvements quickly.  There are lots of views about what needs to happen next.  The council will therefore always have a pivotal role, holding the ring and ultimately making the very difficult choices forced on them by austerity.  Widening engagement and participation in those debates will both strengthen the legitimacy of those choices and mitigate their negative impact. Things can only get better – and they will.

Catherine Staite

Catherine Staite is the Director of INLOGOV. She provides consultancy and facilitation to local authorities and their partners, on a wide range of issues including on improving outcomes, efficiency, partnership working, strategic planning and organisational development, including integration of services and functions.