Cross Government Working Unveiled – Part 1

Dec 6, 2021

Over the years, the Leadership Centre has been at the heart of facilitating work between central, regional and local government through numerous initiatives designed to transform ways of working. We’ve learnt a lot through these experiments, worthy of sharing with a wider audience. In this blog we shine a light on some of our learning focussed on people and relationships and a later blog focuses on change and innovation.

  • The relationship between central and local government is often ‘transactional’.

Commonly, central government is seen as providing the money and requiring, in exchange, delivery of specific targets and outcomes. This makes the relationship feel like ‘teacher – pupil’ or ‘parent-child’, or even ‘client -contractor’.  Central government wants local government to ‘account’ for its spending and demonstrate results. But what if we explored a different type of relationship, where central government is part of a shared endeavour – contributing value through legitimacy, profile, knowledge, expertise and, alternative ways of thinking?  What value do central government players believe they bring, and how could this be optimised?

  • Local history and geography, relationships and structures have a powerful impact on outcomes.

Old conflicts and experiences weigh heavily. Initiatives are shaped and distorted by factors unique to that place – not least previous experiences, community history, system boundaries, organisational tensions and relationships. It is impossible to understand what can be transferred to other initiatives without taking into consideration these place-specific factors. Being able to negotiate the geographical and organisational coverage and scope of a project is all-important, allowing local leaders to help build shared understanding of all of the key issues to be factored in.

  • We need to take account of the ‘shrug’ of experience.

While pilot initiatives are championed by sponsors at national level and system leaders at local level, they often make far less sense to staff further down the organisations. They frequently experience pressure to deliver a new project as taking resources from other goals. They can be cynical about the difference between ‘espoused’ priorities and real, but unarticulated ones. Long experience has taught middle managers and front-line staff that these initiatives are short-lived, so they may ‘wait them out’ rather than focussing on the possible strengths of new approaches. Even those staff who are enthusiastic about change often find that they can’t shift the obstacles and system-problems which prevent progress being made – so they give up. When initiatives fade, the relentless pressure of day -to -day problems re-absorbs staff energy and focus and business as usual resumes.

  • No-one is outside the system.

Too often civil servants see themselves as observing place-based projects from the outside, holding them to account and assessing their effectiveness. But no-one is ‘outside’ the system – and the way that central government designs these initiatives, and the approach taken by key leaders and personnel will shape the progress and impact on the outcomes just as much as anything else. For example, constant pressure to report up, for example, creates a frenzy of short-term attention, and distracts from more substantial change. A focus on filling in forms and templates takes effort away from exploration and learning. On the other hand, a very tight timescale during Total Place was seen as a positive influence in focussing leadership attention.  Being able to ‘see’ and make sense of the impact made by the centre and how it shapes events is a crucial part of learning.

  • Working with whole systems means understanding the whole system.

We need the different levels of government to work together to understand how the interaction of their behaviour impacts on delivery and outcomes. It means creating an awareness of how the project sponsors interact with other players, how goals are chosen and how focus is decided. Local players often participate because these initiatives chime with their own priorities and needs, but a greater degree of co-creation and shared learning might be able to achieve far more than has often been achieved in the past. Recognising what each level of government, and what each organisation brings to the table, exploring the learning together from past experiments and creating a shared team that values the contribution of everyone might just break through some of these problems in the future.


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