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For someone like me who faffs around with concepts and policy ideas it can be daunting to engage with people at the front line of the life or death business of providing core public services. So I listened carefully and respectfully to the local authority chief executives and health service leaders who were, this morning, brought together by the change consultancy Collaborate and the RSA to talk about system leadership. I’m only sharing the conclusion I drew from the conversation because it seemed to chime with at least some of those present.

A recurrent problem for all leaders is how to keep the show on the road while creating the space for change; how to manage in the current flawed system while trying to reform that system. Yet for no leader is simply coping a sufficient motivation. Instead, we need to see managing and changing as links in a chain of improvement. Coping is the ‘floor target’, reforming is the ‘stretch target’. The stretch is more inspiring than the floor and if the stretch succeeds the floor itself moves upwards.

Can we apply this idea to the framework developed by the Centre for Public Impact, which we have been discussing at recent seminars? CPI’s meta-study of policy initiatives around the world suggests impact relies on achieving and balancing three components; legitimacy, policy design and action.  

Listening to the council and health leaders discuss the challenges of service reconfiguration and integration I sensed a way a connecting the ideas of floor and stretch to the CPI framework.

For legitimacy the floor target is clarity and engagement. Employees, service users and citizens need to understand what leaders are trying to do, recognise it is necessary and think it is deliverable. Given the impact of austerity, the vagaries of national regulation and the scale of public cynicism that’s a challenging baseline in itself. The stretch target of legitimacy is a mobilising mission; an ambitious account of what is possible that not only excites people but motivates them to be part of change. One of my favourite examples of a leader who achieved the stretch is Mick Cornett the fat busting Mayor of Oklahoma.

For policy the floor is a practical focus on outcomes and people. This might sound obvious but, as many of the leaders in our discussion said, far too often the aim of policy is more about organisational self-preservation than meeting public needs or aspirations. As one leader put it “what drives too many organisations, particularly in the NHS, is the question ‘what can I be sacked for and how can I avoid it”. The stretch target for policy is innovation; creating the confidence to try things out and the culture and systems which mean failure can be tolerated and learnt from quickly.  

For action, the floor is an understanding and appreciation of the incentives of each actor in a system. If change involves asking people to do something which they don’t think is in their interests success is highly unlikely. Yet too often we are incurious or simply wrong about motivations in our own organisation let alone others. The stretch target for action (and I do hate this word) is ‘synergy’; the point at which different actors move from a zero-sum to a positive-sum game and from that start to embed expectations of trust and generosity. 

The element the RSA added to the CPI’s account is that it isn’t just about having greater legitimacy, better policy, more powerful action; these things need to go together and in balance. A successful outcome is more likely when all three components are good than if two are excellent and one poor. This is as true of the stretch targets as of the floor. Leaders can and should start from wherever the opportunity to unlock change lies, but ultimately vision, innovation and generosity need to go together. This is what Charlie Leadbeater has described as ‘a creative community with a cause’.

Facing the current challenges in local government, social care and health the idea of creative communities might sound like pie in the sky. But unless leaders are motivated by mission and possibility as well as necessity they are doomed to eternal crisis management.   

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