I was the Guardian’s Public Leaders Summit on Wednesday as well as at the NLGN’s Future Councillor event on Saturday and this post is reflection on both of those events. I’ve also been hearing back from some of the Police Officers I am working with on the Strategic Command Course and this has also influenced me – I’ll be interested to hear if other people feel the same themes emerging.

The Guardian event was excellent. Some amazing speakers and an introduction to the diagram of doom BEYOND Barnet’s graph of doom – who knew there were scissors of doom??? The content will be covered on the Guardian website so I’m not going to into it in detail here – instead I want to highlight themes and gaps.

There were two main themes for me:

  • The need to embed transparency at a cultural level. Most of the speakers mentioned it and the Chairman of John Lewis gave a really great description of the simple expediency of being more transparent with staff. I think transparency is one of the simplest (note simplest not easiest) cultural changes to bring about as we can do a lot by engineering change systemically rather than behaviourally and this could be a good place to get started – as long as you are ready and braced for the inevitable unexpected byproducts of this shift. We perhaps talk about this more than simply working through the system changes that would start the ball rolling. I know I can be accused of oversimplification here but I am thinking back to a recent conversation with Simon Cole which made me reflect on the pointlessness of over thinking the destination when you already know the first stage of the route you want to take. Perhaps one of the aspects of a more co-productive set of relationships is that we let go of the destination a little bit more.
  • Collaboration as the new norm. Everyone said this – and a brief discussion on twitter afterwards highlighted the fact that this is more than partnership working. Partnership can be argued to be a structural response where collaboration is a cultural one. Michael Coughlin expressed this as the difference between salad and soup (I liked this analogy but on reflection and as I have a visceral dislike of lettuce soup – so slimy – I will not be using it – sorry Michael!). It was good to hear this repeated so many times but personally I feel as if we have a really long way to go on this and perhaps the biggest shift we need to make is to accept that until we embed collaboration in the culture then we are going to be overly dependent on key individuals who currently make this happen. We will need to work on how we highlight and incentivise these behaviours before this will be a systemic shift. Part of this should be supporting people to collaborate internally as well as externally and also looking outside of the public sector.

Its impossible to talk about collaboration without also talking about power – and I think you can argue that more collaborative working shows a shift from established hierarchical power to more networked power.  One final reflection is that the room ‘felt’ like old power not new power to me.

And now we move onto to what I felt were the elephants in the room – things we didn’t talk about.

The first of these was any kind of real discussion about the political process and the fact that our adversarial political culture, and perhaps our politicians, are the one of the biggest barriers we have both to radical change and in particular to more radical collaboration. Now – I am at the radical end of change with respect to democratic reform but I think we have to deeply consider how we might reinvent politics to make it relevant for a networked and digital world with a far more participatory culture. This is a tall order for a one day event but I hope that this is a discussion which goes ‘mainstream’ this year as I don’t think its reasonable to have public sector workers fight to manage radical disruption with one hand tied behind their backs as the politics fails to change. The kinds of question we could get started with are:

  • Do we need to make political reform a priority? Or at least a high profile narrative to give people confidence to innovate?
  • Does our political process facilitate collaboration?
  • Are we ready for staff to be citizens?

This doesn’t apply to all politicians by any stretch – I work with many exceptional ones – but the system as a whole needs a rethink.

I also felt that we didn’t touch enough on the potential of digital to support and even accelerate behaviour change. This is perhaps partly a result of my own ‘lens’ on the world but its absence concerned me as it perhaps indicates something that I have seen about the place which is an absence of someone who can articulate digital strategy at the top table. We need to treat technology as a driver of long term change and not just leave it hidden in the ICT department. This discussion of technology needs to be from the perspective of how the public and industry are using it not from an internal prospective as we need to understand the world as it is in order to reform how we deliver services.

This leads me to another observation which is driven by a number if conversations I have had recently about the role of technology and the laziness with which we come back to using twitter as ‘the’ example of what is possible. As I have said before, Twitter is not the network. Its of immense relevance to the media and also beloved by many professionals for its immediate access to information but its not representative and it is just one tool with a business model that will only last as long as it has our attention. There will be many highly effective networked representatives and organisations who don’t choose to use it because people are creating all kinds of alternative networked and collaborative tools and applying these to civic issues. We need to look beyond twitter firstly to build strategies that take advantage of the full disruptive power of social technologies in a positive way but secondly because you can’t build a strategy on the back of a commercial platform over which you have no control and who might change the rules of engagement at any time.

And this leads me to my final point. If we all think that procurement is so central to driving real change and collaboration then we really do need to get together and fix it – delegating this down will not get this done. Anyone for #commissioningcamp ??