Public service reform and citizens – all action and no traction?

henrykippinTurning citizen engagement into a core part of public service practice is hard. It means exposing the guts of organisational culture, management practice and established service delivery. Then, in all likelihood, changing lots of it in response to a set of messages that are often hard to understand, intrinsically conflicting, and that don’t care for the fiscal and operational constraints that commissioners and providers of public services fund themselves under.

Getting this right on the government side takes proper deliberation, trust and alignment, clear-sighted accountability and, perhaps above all else, an openness to understanding and addressing social issues outside of the service lens. Sustaining change of this kind probably requires other, structural factors to be in place: political buy-in and the right kind of challenge; outcomes-based working as a shared principle; the right mechanics to listen, learn and do something with it; a culture of leadership that will not accept status quo or managed decline.

Like I said, this stuff is hard.

Engagement is hard for citizens, too. Communities weary (and wary) of random acts of engagement and spurious consultation may understandably be less than willing to offer up thoughtful comment on their lives, relationships and hopes for the future. For many, life itself is tough and getting more so. At worst, the services people receive barely ameliorate chronic problems that go far beyond the wit of government to even understand on its own. Calls to do more (dare I suggest in a Big Society?) have rightly been called what they are – a half-baked attempt to shift risk and responsibility to communities without doing the hard work of building capacity and supporting change.

We can and we must do more to make engagement work. If we don’t, agendas for public service reform will happen in spite of the public – driven by the numbers, and administered from the inside out.

There are many people more expert than me in the theory and practice of engagement, and this blog is too short to elaborate a similarly half-baked blueprint of how it should be done. I am, however, convinced of one point – that we consistently get the starting point wrong. We create public interventions without thinking about how we use new insight. We don’t prepare organisations to listen and learn. And we don’t work through the system blocks to change on a level that would be profound for communities. As the title of this blog suggests, we start at ‘action’ and thus fail to build ‘traction’.

One way to address this dissonance is to pull back from the ‘doing’ and think again about readiness. Readiness of the community, of those engaging with it, and of the organisations that will need to change as a result. This is intrinsically collaborative, and is indeed something my organisation Collaborate focuses on with our partners. Councils, housing and health providers thinking about demand management and collaborative commissioning are starting to engage with this idea. They recognise that shifting the lens away from services requires not only a much better understanding of citizens, but also a different form of community leadership to drive change with them.

Ultimately, though, making this count at scale and depth will require a leap of faith – which itself requires a leap in mindset around risk and trust. A forthcoming Collaborate report addresses this. It calls for a reevaluation of the way we understand and manage in cross-sector arrangements, shifting the lens from organisational fidelity to broader social impact; and calling for a shift in standard practice from linear risk registers to an adaptive and collaborative approach.

Trust underpins these processes. It inevitably requires a humility and empathy that cannot be shortcut through a one-day intervention, and is built through weaving collaborative practice into everything that we do. The brutal truth is that we cannot build a more responsive or reciprocal relationship between citizens and services without doing the hard yards first. If we are serious about engagement and collaboration, we need to be willing to get ‘ready’ to do it meaningfully. As Collaborate gets deeper into this territory, I would love to hear your thoughts on how this is playing out in different localities.

  • Collaborate is co-hosting an international festival of collaboration and innovation from September 2-5 with the social innovation exchange.  For more information, see


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