Transformation must be system-wide to meet the coming challenges



Tuesday, 23 May

By Ruth Luscombe, Managing Consultant


Many council leadership teams straining to meet urgent demand are reaching for transformation programmes to help to provide services in the context of multiple crises. But only system-wide transformation can meet the financial and demand challenges ahead. 


After a decade of austerity, the pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis, public service leaders know they don’t have sufficient resources and they know that urgent change is necessary. What many are also now learning is that traditional transformation programmes and efficiencies – which focus on improving the services within direct council control – are no longer enough.  


The challenges we face require something bold.  Councils that survive will do so by understanding their role as part of a wider system, to identify and tackle root causes – such as poverty, housing need, social isolation – in order to prevent or delay the need for more complex and more costly support. This is the much talked about concept of “Systems leadership”- whole, systems-wide transformation – which, while hard to disagree with, can also be hard to grasp.  


This requires the recognition that people’s lives, and their likelihood of needing support from their council, is affected by a complex range of factors such as their family experiences, housing, and wealth, and that the solution lies not just in how councils operate, but how they work with and relate to a whole system of partners, policies and practices.   


Many councils seeking to swerve this kind of disruption have taken the approach of adopting pilots or prototypes, including some government-funded ones. The “Partnerships for People and Place” pilots, for example, have tested out place based multi-agency working on a neighbourhood level and have been shown to be very effective for individuals and families at a small scale. But many have struggled to scale up – leaving the population at large still in need, and local government still failing in its responsibility to meet that need. 


I had my first experience of transformation working as part of a council’s customer service programme team in 2008. The goal was to improve the experience and make efficiency savings through centralising service teams, creating slicker processes and eradicating paper.  Later on, for the same council, I wrote a Value for Money toolkit along the lines of “reduce admin, cut management layers, and review contracts.” I’m sure other councils had similar. Since then, I have led programmes which have deployed new delivery models, or digital technology improvements.  While these approaches have brought financial and performance benefits, and will continue to deliver value, this sort of change can only go so far. In the face of major icebergs ahead, it’s akin to rearranging the deck chairs.   


In my work now, I lead with this message: Leaders must shift focus to the wider system and scrutinise their own organisation as a vital part of the whole. It’s the only way to avoid disaster ahead. Look at all the ways and means you have to organise internally and influence externally as part of reshaping services to focus on individuals and families instead of service specialisms. That way councils can optimise their entire organisation and fulfil their roles effectively in relation to the wider system.  


This means  – deep breath – also breaking through the pain barrier of how staffing structures need to change and how budgets will be allocated.


Many council teams have lived through poorly executed programmes that have been overly focused on top-down structural reorganisation: changing how a job is described on paper, for example, without also considering the training and development required to make that change work. Many still have separate specialist advice teams sitting in separate locations each dealing with the same individuals in individual relationships, holding data in silos and each working with partners as fragments. Too many are still not working with communities to co-design solutions. This is not about stepping away from responsibility, or pushing the burden of care onto others without the resources they need. It’s about truly leveraging all the resources in a place, and the knowledge and insight that exists in local areas, about what will deliver a better life for its people. If done well, this will have a huge impact on reducing the numbers needing social care and other statutory services.


Local government has a huge duty to the public as organisations that touch residents’ everyday lives. People need effective services that reflect the realities of modern life and are responsibly managed and delivered. And declining trust in institutions’ ability to help people live a good life and deal with the root causes of their problems is causing bigger problems down the line.  


Therefore, it is the job of every public service leader to design and deliver transformational change. Given the period of profound jeopardy facing the sector, the likely alternative is to deal with the fallout of collapse. 


This is not an easy or overnight challenge. For Chief Executives and section 151 officers it’s going to feel uncomfortable at times – but doing nothing poses the biggest risk of all.  


The good news is that there is a now a movement of people embracing the challenge to transform public service organisations so the people who need them feel they are joyful to use and improve lives, and public servants feel creative and relevant in organisations fit for a modern world. I’m part of that movement, along with the rest of the team at ICC. We’re ready to work with you. Get in touch.