Whitehall must listen to lessons from the frontline

10 Aug 16

Actively listening to local areas about what policies are working – and not working – must be high on the new government’s agenda. Sharing of progress, challenges and setbacks is vital to making real improvements to services

New leaders often want to shake things up and make their mark when taking on a new role. The changing of guard at the Treasury and Department for Communities & Local Government has led to substantial levels of uncertainty around the devolution agenda. But one thing remains certain: local government cannot afford to lose sight of the pressing public service challenges it faces whether it is a lack of affordable housing, rise in long-term chronic conditions or youth unemployment.

We know that these issues are likely to be tackled more effectively if organisations – such as GPs, social workers and employment advisers - work better together. We also know that it is difficult to make these initiatives work in practice. Therefore, it is vital that local areas learn from what works – and doesn’t work – to avoid repeating past mistakes. At a time when capacity declining and finances are tight, government cannot afford to waste time reinventing the wheel.

However, this isn’t a call for more ‘best practice’ - around 100+ programmes are already doing this. Time and again, the criticism we heard in the Institute for Government’s review of integration was that ‘best practice’ examples are all about showcasing success and promoting particular places, programmes or individuals.

They do not provide the space to have frank discussions about what didn’t work. The mistakes, frustrations and messy reality of implementation are rarely captured in a polished case study produced long after the event. One local government policy adviser describing the former Beacon Councils scheme explained how “they’d put on a seminar and tell everyone how great you are and gloss over the fact that some of it didn’t work.”

More real-time sharing of progress, challenges and setbacks is vital to making real improvements to services. People need to share the whole story of the journey organisations have been on – including what went well and what didn’t – instead of holding back until a programme has been deemed a ‘success’. As one senior policy adviser in local government described: “the conversation you should always have is: what are the bits we would have done differently, what are the bits we messed up and this is what we learnt from it.”

However, people working in local government can be reluctant to share the real story, warts and all, during events convened by Whitehall departments because of concerns that the information will be used to criticise performance. National programmes, no matter how well intentioned, are seen as ‘performance management’ in disguise, preventing the sorts of honest and purposeful conversations that really need to take place to tackle thorny issues.

Instead, we found sector- and peer-led networks are a far more effective way to share learning that is relevant and immediately applicable to the day job. When people voluntarily come together with peers they are much more likely to share experiences openly and pick up useful insights from the frontline that can be applied back home. Some local authorities are already doing this:

•    50 senior leaders across Greater Essex have come together to develop the Leadership Collaborative – a year-long programme of events and development opportunities – to experience first-hand the challenges of Essex residents and frontline public sector staff and create a shared vision for how to deliver improvements;

•    The London Borough of Islington has set up an employability practitioner’s network, which brings together a range of local organisations supporting residents into sustainable employment. The members are currently developing a self-assessment tool to help organisations identify areas of strength, as well as challenges, to drive up standards across the area.

Whitehall departments should encourage all areas to take part in sector- and peer-led networks for learning from local public service integration. They should also get better at learning themselves. Maintaining strong links with what is happening at the frontline and actively listening to local areas about what is working (and not working) should be high on this new government’s agenda. These insights should then be used to make changes to national policy, regulatory, legislative and funding frameworks that currently hinder local public service reforms including attempts to integrate services.

  • Actively listening to local areas about what is working (and not working) must be high on the new government’s agenda. Sharing of progress, challenges and setbacks is vital to making real improvements to services
    Nehal Davison

    Nehal Davison is research manager at the Institute for Government. She joined the Institute for Government in July 2012. She currently manages the Institute’s work on public service delivery at a local level.

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