This is by way of a reflection on the creative councils programme and process rather than our specific project which I have covered off here.  I meant to post it last week but as ever events overtook me and I got distracted….

First off though – the team that NESTA put together was excellent and the event ran in a very open and collaborative way.  My thoughts here are really from the point of view of someone who designs these kind of open events in terms of what would I steal and what would I adjust rather than any criticism as I really think they did a great job.  However in the pursuit of perfection here are my thoughts.

Collaborate with the collaborators

What do I mean by open event?  I think open events events are a kind of coproduction with the participants taking responsibility for their experience within the event.  The first comment then is the fact that this one ran with a fixed agenda meant that it wasn’t completely co-productive – that’s understandable for the first one but might need adjusting for the next time we all meet (if we do) as the projects will start to diverge even more than they have in terms of progress and needs and will also want to build on the participative approach we saw in Birmingham.

Its worth noting that running a single open event is less challenging than running an open process and Creative Councils is no different (I am thinking specifically of what we are doing with both the CRIF project and also the CityCamp Brighton network when I say this).  At this end of the process its fairly easy to be open and collaborative and meet the needs of funder and potential fundee but as we get closer to a decision point about who NESTA will continue to work with the power in these relationships will shift and any kind of coproduction will be difficult to maintain – its interesting to reflect on whether that is necessarily a bad thing or whether we need to accept that processes need to become less open as they reach a conclusion.

However I think at this end of the programme – and in the interests of supporting the direction of travel for most of the projects I think NESTA should be thinking about how to involve the project teams in event and process design.  If this really is an open process then lets get this on the table as well – it also helps address one of the underlying questions here – how do you innovate with a group of innovators.  I know we can’t design by committee but I also think a standard of collaboration needs to be set by the organisers of something like this.

Who are the experts?

If I were to criticise one part of the design it was the involvement of an additional group of facilitators on the second day – because they hadn’t been with the teams the day before they didn’t, I feel, appreciate the fact that the event was already highly participative and there was a regression into a more conventional format.  Not sure you could anticipate this but I have certainly noted that I wouldn’t change the facilitation team part way through an event in the future – and I probably wouldn’t bring in a group of experts without having done more of a skills audit on what expert would mean in the context of the participants.  Live and learn I think….

All that being said – I was thinking afterwards that this was a classic case of there being an assumption that the expert was in the hotseat – and at an open event that is just not the right assumption.  I also think I owe a personal apology to a couple of the people whose sessions I sat in on as chose topics which fall within my doctoral research and sent me off the top of the wonk chart so I was probably not the kind of participant that they were expecting….and I am not sure that this helped my fellow participants either…sorry…

Within those second day sessions it was clear however that there are wildly different levels of knowledge about some of theoretical areas that are being referenced in the project teams and I think that it may help to do an overall skills audit so that future events can help people cover some of the basics at the same time as extracting the really innovative thinking that is going on in the programme.

Excitingly for someone like me who already has a research focus there is a lot of really great theoretical work here and I think that one of the things that should be considered is how we involve some academic researchers in the process.  Am thinking Gerry Stoker with respect to policy design through experimentation as well as his work on ‘nudge’ and also Tony Bouvaird with respect to co-production.  Have other references on this as well which I will add at some point.

Blog early blog often

While writing this article I considered whether or not to post here on the blog or if these comments were best as an email to the Creative Councils team at NESTA.  I decided on posting here because I think that one of the debates we need to have within the programme is exactly how public we want our experience of Creative Councils to be and my personal conclusion is that we want a default position of openness – so the only stuff that I not covering here is any feedback that could be seen as directed at one person rather than the process as a whole – which is my usual policy here on the blog.

That’s fairly easy for me to say – I have been blogging for a while about my research work and so this is not a big step.  I am also at one step removed from the Council which gives me a little more freedom – though as part of the project team I am of course bound to that wider purpose.  The fact is however that it is easier for most people to return to their default position of insularity which is a shame given the atmosphere of collaboration that the first event engendered.

In order for all the teams to be open with their learning and experiences – and this means the good and the bad – we need to create an environment where they all feel comfortable that this is not going to get them in trouble back within their organisations where the project may not yet be widely known – not to mention how the wider world is going to see this.  Councils are under such enormous scrutiny at the moment that this is a huge challenge.

This may mean NESTA publishing progress reports on behalf of teams (perhaps a job for point people?) where there isn’t anyone within the project who can do this.  I think it could also mean a conversation within the programme about action learning and research principles as I think this reflective mind set may be the best way of capturing experiential learning at this stage.  I also think this needs to be true of the process as well – this kind of programme design is very exciting for anyone interested in encouraging widescale innovation and so it would be good to capture process learning here as well.

The really important thing about this openness is to share both success and failure – there is not point in just a bunch of feel good stuff if one of our ambitions is to raise the sector’s tolerance for intelligent failure.

What can NESTA contribute

It was clear from the process that NESTA and the LG group don’t just want to throw money at this programme – they want to ensure the right resources are in place which I think is great.  There are a few areas where I think that they could lead the process from the centre and also lobby with the wider sector with respect to the challenges that all of the team face:

  1. There needs to be a persistent conversation about the new context which isn’t just a conversation about budget cuts.  All of the projects respond to a social change which will be there long after the structural deficit has been dealt with – we need some common language and concepts to give us the proverbial place to stand we need to move the world
  2. We need the LG group to be actively speaking to politicians about this change in context as this is arguably where the greatest change in process and attitude is needed.    Discuss.

On a more practical level all of the projects will need project management support and as we have said within our project this is not a PRINCE2 kind of process.  If we achieve nothing else can NESTA help share some of its learning and experience about you project manage innovation projects – I’m talking GANT chart templates, project board make up and all that kind of thing…personally am thinking about AGILE policy making but there may be better models out there.

Localism is….local

This is perhaps a small point but I was repeatably struck by the way in which we focus information sharing as being around ‘common problems’ and ‘shared issues’.  I think this may be underplaying the importance that place has in choosing the right solution.  I’m not saying that there will not be generic learning but I do think the kind of ideas that are being talked about in his programme would all need to be tailored and adjusted to work well in different places – and this is quite right – I just wonder if we need to get this fact embedded in our thinking really early on so that all the projects examine the local context as well as the generic one so that we understand the degree to which an idea might be portable and the extent to which the context has formed it.

What’s the point??

If its done well then a programme of the scale of Creative Councils has the potential to catalyze a lot of change in the public sector but it needs the kind of bold thinking that was there at the launch event to continue through the next few months and particularly as we transition from 17 to 5 councils at the end of this next stage (managing a collaborative yet competitive process being quite a feat).  I think this is possible if we can run this co-productively and also start to create and support the energy of sharing and collaboration which is a natural state for most local government organisations.

If we are thinking boldly then I think its useful to reflect as to what the end point is and so I close with a question that I jotted down in my notes on the second day:  do we want a transformed public sector or do we want transformed society?

As ever comments both positive and negative are very welcome.

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