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Reflections on 2013: Blog 1, Systems Vs People

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I know the two aren’t distinct but what I learned this year, more than any other, are the limitations of making the language of social policy a reality.  There is a lot of talk about ‘putting the community at the heart of a new way of working’: ‘localism over centralism’; ‘systems change’, ‘behavioural change’, ‘asset based working’, ‘big society’ etc etc.  The challenge driving much of the mantra focuses on the need for policy makers and practitioners to develop ‘new ways of working’ which provide ‘more for less’.  In short, the general focus of social policy these days is that we need to better understand those we serve so that ‘the system’ can support and encourage positive social norms which bring about change.  This is talked about year in, year out (just a different language used) and is the focus of many central policy teams, and the delivery units charged with implementing their ideas.

I believed it would be different this year BECAUSE of the cuts.  Without money to do ‘projects’ and ‘nice things’ the public sector would need to spend their money on understanding those who they serve.  They would need to take it seriously now.  Community engagement and empowerment would no longer be the project or the stuff you do with a bit of extra cash (you’ll all recall the projects you wanted to do but could only do in a much smaller way because no one would permit you to do with core budgets), and instead engaging the community effectively would become the raison d’etre of the public sector at last – Councils, NHS and Police would invest tax payers money in understanding the citizens they are paid to serve.  And they would begin to understand them from their perspectives, not their own. And they would build a ‘system’ that revolved around the voice of the public (and all its nuances) which might also encourage more active citizenship as a result.  They might genuinely co-produce systems that work and explore the unintended consequences of well-intentioned social policy.  Without the public at the heart of system change – really at the heart of it – the changes would amount just to new structures and processes but without the desired social change and innovation.

With that in mind I thought this year would witness radical change in decision making with, by and for the public.  But I learned that ‘the system’ isn’t always ready to make that leap of faith with the community.  By ‘the system’ I am referring to those who are the system – the public servants and their political representatives.  After all the system is nothing more than those people (well, with some bits of kit thrown in!).  They are the people who write the briefings for meetings, those who offer advice to decision makers, those who deliver the actions, those who approve proposals, those who manage procurement, those who make decisions, those who are accountable for all of the above.   ‘The System is the very people that work in it with the exception of some machinery that helps process those peoples’ ideas.

Through a number of pieces of work I have been involved with this year (Councils, NHS and Police) I realised that when local government was established we recruited risk averse personality types – we needed them to be risk averse because they were purely administering national policy, and we needed them to do that without risk to the public.  But it wasn’t just Council’s that needed officers to administer the regulations and rules of national government – it was Police and others too.  The command/control structure of policing relies heavily on people doing what the rules say.  We didn’t recruit risk takers then because we didn’t need them.  It would not have been appropriate given the modus operandi of the institutions.  But I think we now need more risk takers if we are to empower staff and communities to use discretion more and develop localised approaches to the social challenges each community faces; we need people to think about their local area, or their ‘users’, and their organisations, and we need them to innovate.  The skill sets in our public institutions must change.  We need to equip people with the strength and skills to practice new ways of working and give them the time and opportunity to develop those skills – we’ve had years of doing it the other way so people naturally revert to type!

Those people who control the decision-making system must learn new skills and take a risk with the public.  With support, the public rise to the challenge every time and do more than those in the system could ever have imagined.  But those working in the system must realise that to achieve radical change, radical approaches are required at every level of ‘the system’.  And when each level worries about the risk, they must remember that public engagement is no more riskier than a new IT system, a new asset management approach or closing our much loved services.  Put the public at the heart of the process and all of the above will be achieved more positively by using the assets within and outwith ‘the system’.

My learning this year has shown me that we still have an overly cautious public sector who need help with community engagement.  They need support with taking risks at every level of the system because it has different implications at each level.  They need help with standing tall against all those who have been trained specifically to look for reasons ‘why not’ rather than ‘how we can’ engage communities in new and innovative ways.  And they need a reminder that if the community are to be at the heart of a new way of working, it has to be more than just a ‘project’ (more of that in later blogs).

Maybe 2014 will be the year of the brave public servant who puts people before systems?  Maybe the ideas in papers going to boards which are non people focused and routine, will be replaced with the radical people focused ideas and papers?  Maybe community engagement will start to be the ‘hard stuff’ of the public sector instead of the traditionally ‘soft fluffy stuff’?  Maybe services will be developed as a result of ongoing meaningful, shared engagement rather than a meeting here and there or a workshop which requires the public to get up to speed on some of the most complex issues in 20 minutes!  Perhaps investment in those who create social change through developing social norms will at last be more important to procure than an IT system, a new restructure or a new Change Management Programme?  Without public insight, information and intelligence those ideas will result in new equipment, new structures or new processes, but one thing is for sure they won’t result in new relationships with the public which will mean I will be writing the same blog in 10 years time (God forbid)!