We had been invited to explore one of three themes as part of the project. I chose Collaboration and Partnership. Why? Well, partly because I have always found that things work better if people work together. And partly because it goes to the heart of my day job which is leading the Government’s Social Justice Strategy. But could I understand more about why some things work better than others and whether there is learning that could be applied?
Readers of my earlier blogs will have followed the journey I have been on. Looking at how my Connecting Policy with Practice partner, Andy Crossland, of Humber Learning Consortium, has been driving partnership working on the ground through a very specific project to help young people into work, led me to think about some of the barriers and enablers. Which in turn, encouraged me to explore in more depth the value of service user engagement.
The opportunity to share these ideas with others generated some animated discussion. Many of us had found that contracting and funding regimes, especially in a world of constrained resources, can make it harder for delivery organisations to work collaboratively as competition for scarce resources increases. But imaginative schemes – such as DWP’s Innovation Fund which supports ten Social Investment Bond projects – has seen entirely new collaborative partnerships emerge.
As a policy maker, I was reminded by more than one person that it’s just not clever to try and legislate for collaboration. I heard of examples where funding models or specifications required particular relationships to be formed in ways which ended up destroying partnerships which had functioned perfectly well until then.
And once again, I was struck by the insights that many people on the programme had got from talking directly with service users. Too often we – both policy makers and delivery organisations – create systems with hard edges: specific outcomes, tough thresholds. And hard edges don’t necessarily connect together very well. Central government will create policy and funding that can only focus on outcome x or y. Delivery organisations, driven by their mission, by funding or governance, can feel limited in their scope. But people who need a lot of support generally need something less hard edged; their lives are often messy complicated and fuzzy, they don’t fit easily into a single outcome.
If we could create more ‘fuzzy edges’, more personalised, integrated services, it could enable environments where collaboration and partnership can thrive. And as boundaries start to be come more permeable, it has to make it easier for citizens to cross between different types of provision in ways that better meets their needs.
So the challenge for me is how do I give policy making fuzzy edges? Are there opportunities to look at funding in new ways – through social investment, for example? Can we help local leaders identify opportunities to create fuzzy edges and not only give them permission in some sort of neutral way but actively support and encourage it from central government?
I think we can do some of this and I’ll be taking this thinking back to my day job. But I’ll also be staying in touch with some inspirational people that I have met through this programme who will be touchstones for me in future.