Cross Government Working Unveiled – Part 2

Dec 7, 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 draw out some of our insights focussed on change and innovation.

  • Pilots are not the same as business-as-usual. They can seldom be ‘scaled up’.

Places that volunteer to become pilots are special – for one reason or another – often keen for profile and led by chief executives anxious to make a mark, or politicians eager to impress, or desperate because of truly awful outcomes or financial crisis. The things that work in a pilot will not necessarily work when rolled out ‘at scale and pace’. Pilots also have specific conditions that do not apply in roll-out – lots of government attention, pressure to report in, attending exciting national conferences and events, special pots of money, often staff liberated from the day job to concentrate on the pilot initiative. Take these things away, and the incentives to overcome obstacles and barriers fall away, and the power of the status quo to smother innovation strengthens. Roll-out inevitably means that the resources available are less, the expertise offered is diluted, and attention fades. There is often learning from pilots (which is usually lost) but the chances are that much of the impact is achieved by focus of leadership attention, and when that fades, the initiative will not have the same impact when rolled out.

  • Your initiative isn’t the only initiative.

Often government departments sponsoring place-based initiatives are keen to brand the work and make sure it has profile at national level – and anxious to measure results by keeping it separate from other work. But at local level, leaders are often coping with multiple initiatives, from different government departments which interact. The same local managers may be involved in a place-based health NHS pioneer pilot, a DHSS social care project aimed at troubled families, a police-sponsored project aimed at young people, a Sport-England initiative to encourage physical activity and an education-based project tackling mental health in schools. Local leaders have to resource and support these initiatives, but they also have to find ways to make sense of these interactions for front-line staff, and to sequence and prioritise the work. That is not always easy! If central government teams were able to communicate and co-ordinate more effectively across departments, they might anticipate the impact of their multiple initiatives at local level.

  • Initiatives tend to be short-lived and easily forgotten.

Projects are short-term in the first place, but are often cut short when Ministers and key leaders change. There is little interest in legacy or learning as civil servants race on to the ‘next big thing’.  Often civil service teams are dismantled and the staff redeployed before projects fully finish, and the Directors of the new projects have no time to listen to the learning. And yet the learning is often very rich and would hugely help central government policy making. How can this learning be taken up through the levels of government and be actively used to shape policy? The experience of those senior civil servants working in places, or leading place-based initiatives is absolutely invaluable – how can that learning be shared with colleagues at the centre?

  • The first attempt at innovation usually fails.

Often initiatives make real breakthroughs, and innovation out-performs older approaches, but get stuck because of system obstacles and failures – and without understanding why, these innovations are simply abandoned, when with a bit of tweaking they would improve efficiency and effectiveness. A commitment to research and development would draw on learning to identify the possible benefits of the innovation, understand the obstacles and problems, and find ways to try the experiment again, and again, and again.

  • Change takes time.

Ministers, and therefore civil service leaders are impatient. Ministers are only in post for a year or two and want results quickly. But relationships take years to build, and outcomes take decades to change. The more direction from the centre, and the shorter-term the project, the less scope there is for the local learning and relationship-building needed to make things happen. Often, at local level, change happens because of the accumulated insight and experience of many pilots and experiments, not just because of the most recent one. Long term change often happens by accident, because people who lose their jobs from one short-term project get rehired to lead the next, and the next, and the next – and take their experience with them. At local level, leadership partnerships can begin to build some shared understanding and trust; but national players and civil servants are seldom part of those trusting relationships.

There is rich learning from pilots which can hold the key to the success of future initiatives. How can collective learning take place and the legacy of even failed initiatives, be valued and built into a system with rapidly changing personnel? It is only by cracking some of these significant challenges that we can work more effectively across government levels in the future.


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