Stop partnering, start doing

March 16, 2017   By Ian Parry, Deputy Leader, Staffordshire Council

Most councils indulge in partnerships, but how many actually achieve what they were set up to do?
As a county council, our oldest partnership is with our unitary city and our 8 districts and boroughs, both separately and collectively. We all aim to get better at being more joined up and share information or try to collaborate where we can. It makes sense and we all work hard at it.

Otherwise partnership boards have a habit of drifting into a cycle of meetings with long agendas, and endless PowerPoint presentations by under-appreciated officers and with little evidence of delivery or real value.

Maybe it’s time to build the bonfire of partnerships.

Just as the Osborne-led obsession about combined authorities, devo-deals, and mayors seems to have, at least for now, been parked, perhaps it’s time to begin some fresh and disruptive thinking about working in a more radical and virtual way.

Staffordshire has started to bring together a simple forum, kicked-off by the county council, but led by the local universities, with a cast of players from the main ‘organisations of influence’ in the County. There isn’t a strict membership – it’s not a partnership and it certainly is not a club.

The plan was to have no real structure or agenda, just some simple tasks instead. No presentations unless it’s about sharing evidence and understanding, no heads of agreements or terms of reference and no ego-bruising. Start small and simple then tackle the harder stuff.

So what’s it for and what’s it do? Well, nothing much yet. It’s early days and we’re really just experimenting with the concept. But what we are hoping for is the ability to use the influence, resources, expertise, access and leadership of the players to work in a matrix, selecting just the right mix of organisations to tackle particular task. We can work collectively as a bunch of friends to work out priorities and sort out the tasks, but then build just the right team to go out and tackle the issue.
There is no point having organisations involved in a task unless they can add something.

Initially it is inevitable to have a bit of storming and norming, when you present the first exam question; ‘what are we here for, what is our purpose ?’ But starting with a vision, albeit loosely understood, is essential. In Staffordshire’s case we all wanted to understand how the county might evolve; socially, economically and culturally over the next decade. Having witnessed how much has changed over the preceding decade, the pace and impact of change is likely to be even more dramatic. So how should we prepare for change. Do we lead, or respond or just stand-by and watch?

Obviously no-one has the answer. All forecasts of the future are usually wrong, but not totally. So how do we see our role as public sector, local government, education and community organisations in influencing and shaping the future so that Staffordshire and its residents are equiped to maximise opportunity and fortune?

It’s clear that several key changes will have a dramatic impact; demography – with a significantly older population, implications on not just health and social care but general population growth too; Economy – changing and globalising; Technology – offering benefits and threats we can’t yet imagine; Workplace – the need for a more agile workforce with the ability to rapidly skill and reskill with all that implies for core education and advanced training.

If we are to analyse, understand and respond to these brain-achingly difficult challenges, we don’t need a committee or a board – instead of behaving like a council, we need to start thinking like a start-up.

That means bringing expertise and influence together, dedicated to work collaboratively to shape, fix and deliver.

It’s fascinating observing how people are much more up for it when we don’t start with rules or
signatures on sheets of paper.

Who needs paper? Down with bureaucracy.

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