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Solace blog

9th August 2016

Learning about learning…

Wearing my Solace hat as a spokesperson on evidence-based decision making, I have been working with the Institute for Government on their local public service reform agenda. On 2 August, the IfG launched a new report, Supporting learning to integrate services and improve outcomes [1], alongside an accompanying set of eight case studies [2]. The report builds on a previous briefing paper [3] that identified the barriers that have prevented significant progress in service integration despite many attempts.

This report focuses specifically on the limited sharing of ‘what works’, and indeed what doesn’t. At a time when capacity is declining and finances are tight, the government cannot afford to waste time and money repeating past mistakes. This is not to deny the need for variation to fit local circumstances, but not to seek to learn from others is at the very least a missed opportunity, and at worst a failure of organisational culture.

The report finds no lack of organisations and programmes designed to support learning in local areas. But, despite the range of support on offer, the majority of initiatives focus on learning within specific sectors, and so reinforce silos rather than support collaboration. Fewer than ten programmes were identified that specifically support learning around integrating public services.

Speaking with those working in central and local government, representative and professional bodies, national arm’s length bodies, and the wider policy community, the report authors identified the following key issues to address if practitioners are to be enabled to share experiences and learn from one another:

– people need more real-time learning from progress, challenges and setbacks. Too often case studies, conferences and national guidance focus on showcasing success and promoting particular places, programmes or individuals. As a result, they do not provide the space to have frank discussions about what didn’t work, including the mistakes, pitfalls, and difficulties that people faced along the way;

– people need opportunities to ‘dig deeper’ into the messy reality of implementation. General and descriptive examples that focus too much on the merits of a particular model – for example, co-located teams – are not enough in themselves without insights into how this was practically achieved, and the journey that organisations have been on to get there;

– the best way to do this is through face-to-face conversations that allow people to break out of organisational and professional silos, and provide opportunities to get into the detail, reflect on what is working and not working, and build the relationships necessary for cross-sector and organisational collaboration; and

– sector- and peer-led approaches can build the necessary trust and credibility to make learning relevant. As we well know in our own sector, initiatives led by Whitehall departments or their arms-length bodies can be perceived as performance management in disguise, preventing honest and purposeful conversations from taking place.

So, in light of this analysis, what are the solutions, and what needs to change? The report makes a number of recommendations. Firstly, Whitehall departments, regulators and national arms-length bodies are exhorted to:

– encourage sector- and peer-led models for learning from service integration that focus on real-time learning from progress, challenges and setbacks, and provide opportunities to ‘dig deeper’ into the realities of implementation;

– maintain strong links with what is happening on the ground, actively listening to local areas about what is and is not working, and use these insights to make changes to national policy and regulatory, legislative and funding frameworks that hinder public service integration; and

– develop consistent feedback loops between national policymakers and those on the frontline by drawing on credible intermediaries in the relevant sector(s) who can collate, analyse and share learning.

Secondly, representative organisations and professional bodies (such as Solace) are recommended to:

– ensure that face-to-face, peer-to-peer learning across sectors is key to being a ‘professional’, e.g. by making professional accreditation and career progression dependent on the experience of working across professional boundaries;

– co-convene events, bringing professionals from different sectors together to share experiences and learn from one another; and – trial a peer challenge model for place-based integration, where the emphasis is on creating environments where people feel comfortable in honestly reflecting on challenges, difficulties, and pitfalls, rather than only showcasing success.

And lastly, local leaders of public services (which means all of us), should work to:

– create open, outward-looking organisational cultures where staff at all levels are encouraged to share concerns and learn on the go with their peers;

– encourage staff to take part in cross-sector secondments, mentoring schemes or events that encourage crossfertilisation between local organisations; and

– incentivise cross-sector learning by being clear that working across different local organisations and maintaining a diverse professional network is essential to career progression.

As well as setting a compelling agenda for us individually as local leaders, and for Solace as a professional body, the report also suggests that the current focus on devolution and place-based reform provides an opportunity to reset the relationship between Whitehall and local government, such that Whitehall responds positively to the lessons that are emerging from different approaches to local public service integration, including the freedoms local areas need to deliver better outcomes.

We may have our doubts about whether this will happen. But we should not fail to try to make it so. As Dr Jo Casebourne, IfG Programme Director, said: “With money and resources so stretched, the Government must invest properly and only fund programmes that we know actually work.”

[1] – this article draws heavily on the report’s Executive Summary

[2] delivery-local-level

[3] %20Joining%20up%20around%20local%20v11c.pdf

By Abdool Kara, Chief Executive of Swale Borough Council and Solace Spokesperson on Evidence-Based Policy