From the margins to the mainstream

I’ve just read the excellent report by NESTA and Collaborate CIC called “From the Margins to the Mainstream” introducing the key enablers they’ve uncovered from working with councils across the country.

Looking through their checklist made me think about how my organisation squares up to those enablers so here’s an assessment of enablers 1–5.

1. A systems mindset and a long-term view

Where I work, I would say we strongly recognise that as one organisation, we alone cannot create the outcomes we care about; we are part of a wider system. We set this up through Camden 2025 and have been moving from letting a thousand flowers or collaborations bloom where there were many short term interventions which were aligned to our vision for a change but weren’t affecting it in a sufficiently systemic way. We’re moving now to a portfolio approach to partnerships where we invest in spaces to explore how we’re working and opportunities for improvement with other key players beyond our organisation through:

  • Celebrating collaboration and demonstrating value
  • Mobilise around common missions we can influence
  • Understand what levers we can use to drive collective impact
  • Develop a portfolio of experiments that test different levers

In a pandemic, thinking long term can be difficult, so we’ve carrying out learning across the organisation as a way for people to reflect and identify ways they can adapt and reinvent their services, so that

  • Don’t try and come up with a solution to problems we don’t yet understand
  • Create space for people to share what matters to them to surface the ingredients for collective action
  • Come up for air from the emergency response to learn from others
  • Open up people’s imaginations to test together ways to respond to futures we can’t yet fully grasp
  • Help people feel comfortable about being uncomfortable

2. Reframing how we understand and perceive risk

We’ve got a way to go to rethink our approach to risk. We’re very good at protecting people and using different levers to do that, but we could be more risk friendly and be more intentional in using different insights to understand and mitigate risks, and close down activities. We actively encourage people to learn from elsewhere and to welcome peer challenge, and prototype what we do as a way to mitigate risk. We’ve started working more intentionally on scenario planning and speculative futures and working with the Long Time Future to co-produce tools that help us practice long termism. What we’ve learnt to better manage risk is to:

  • Blend the experimental and the systemic
  • Not needing to do everything at the same time
  • Develop communities of practice around the ideas you’re developing
  • Continue to research while you’re prototyping
  • Don’t just meet people’s needs, challenge what they need
  • Test different social norms

3. Collaborative culture

As outlined above, we try and start with collaboration with everything we do, starting with a strengths-based approach and building relationships. When it comes to power we devolve it, but we could do better in valuing the sources of power that our partners and communities have, rather than assuming we’ve got all the power and moving from informal collaborations to creating collaborative institutions without the hierarchies. Above all, we need to start with humanity and love, testing with ways of working like U Lab to bring people together to create very visceral communities of practice that get to know each other and test solutions to issues.

4. Permission and empowerment for staff

We support frontline staff to problem solve and being able to flex their responsibilities as required, as demonstrated by the pandemic and learning to navigate change. We could definitely do better in investing in frontline staff being able to actively identify and take forwards opportunities for innovation and supporting them to build their own networked teams, swap jobs. We could also do better in supporting staff consider the different levers they have to drive change, beyond delivering a service.

5. Trusted relationships that can carry the weight of change

We invest time to develop and strengthen relationships and encourage staff to do the same. Systems leadership is promoted at all levels to help people move away from organisational priorities and towards mature partnerships, but it needs to be embedded much more into our daily practices and we need to recognise and invest in different forms of leadership, not just hierarchical.

There are many other forms of leadership that are valued in other fields that we could learn from in working in public services: the ability of a musician or poet to tell a story, the need for a football team to continuously collaborate and learn from each other, the connection of a farmer to nature to be able to cultivate and nurture its crops, and the ability of a photographer to be able to capture the dynamics of a place or community.

We need to create the space to enable staff closest to our communities to help:

Equally, we also need to acknowledge and value the different relationships and ways people might want to co-produce with us. We should also understand what assets they’re using to achieve those outcomes, what resources they could share for others to do so and what infrastructure would help them. Some organisations have infrastructure that they would be prepared to share and would benefit from more people using it — be it a community cafe’s space, a complementary currency or a library of thing’s tools.

And this provoked a variety of questions on mindsets, behaviours and infrastructure:

How has the pandemic changed our mindsets? Have we experienced more closely & viscerally the inequalities that people have faced? Have we better connected as humans and not just workers with our communities and their empathy & solidarity? Have we discovered new “muscles” that have helped us be creative in needing to rapidly respond to challenges or are we overwhelmed by the different challenges facing us? Have our positions shifted to better understanding other people’s values or has it reinforced our world view?

How has the pandemic changed our behaviours? Have we created the spaces for greater openness & vulnerability with our teams and partners or have we felt more isolated from the communities we serve because we don’t all work in the places we work in? Have we worked in a more multi-disciplinary way across boundaries or has it been difficult to work out what our role should be?

How has the pandemic changed the infrastructure we build? Have we created temporary infrastructure during the emergency response which has changed people’s behaviours and systems (be that transport infrastructure or food hubs) or have some stopped or been discontinued? Is their different infrastructure being designed that could radically change how we live (be that future workspaces, 15 minute neighbourhood, spaces for common ownership or organisation design) or have we lost the time to focus while we stay on the immediate?

Head of Strategy (Communities) @camdencouncil #localgov Director @euroalter Co-founder of #systemschange & #servicedesign progs. inspired by @cescaalbanese