Raising Our Game

As identified in the strap line above, the Centre for Inclusive Futures summarises its mission as developing sustainable communities which include everyone as equal citizens. Writing the first of this new series of wordpress blogs at the start of 2015, it’s hard not to be overwhelmed by the scale of the multiple and interconnected challenges we face in advancing this mission.

The first book I have reviewed this year, Otto Scharmer and Katrin Kaufer’s Leading from the Emerging Future (this review is published at: http://www.centreforwelfarereform.org/library/authors/david-towell/leading-from-the-emerging-future.html ) argues powerfully that three major ‘disconnections’ are fundamental to our current ills: an ecological disconnect in which our economies seek to use more resources than we have; a social disconnect in which a small elite (the 1%) dominate the rest of us and leave much of the world in poverty; and a spiritual disconnect in which many of us experience loss of meaning in our lives and work. The recent events in Paris also highlight the challenges of violent conflict, religious intolerance and racism, hardly new phenomena, but all continuing threats to our shared humanity.

On the other hand, on all these challenges there are both local and global movements of resistance which know that a better world is possible. Just one example, I was privileged last November to visit the ‘plurinational state’ of Bolivia and learn at firsthand about efforts, after 500 years of colonialism, exploitation and discrimination, to build a new democracy which respects cultural differences, encourages local autonomy and seeks to advance the well-being of people and planet through the philosophy of buen vivir – none of which of course is easy in a globalised economy where power mostly lies elsewhere.(The picture below is a representation of ‘Pachamama’ – Mother Earth – by the indigenous painter, Mamani Mamani.)

Under the general heading of Networking for a purpose, the first series of these blogs (in 2013) explored how ‘small groups of thoughtful committed citizens’ (to borrow from Margaret Mead’s famous aphorism) can bring about social change inspired by high ideals. The second series (in 2014 – viewed 570 times, the wordpress statistics tell us) picked up this exploration with a focus on Building a better future through civic partnership, continuing the emphasis on citizen networks as drivers of community development, but considering in more detail how grass roots innovation can be scaled up to the level of local democratic authorities, like the municipality.

This third series reflects on some key propositions about transformational change in the previous blogs and seeks to highlight key issues in Raising our game so as to sustain and grow these efforts in the face of contemporary challenges. Combining careful reflection and purposeful activism, in 2015 we need to turn the tide!

A consistent theme throughout the two previous series is the need for a vision which recognises the links between environmental, economic and social challenges and inspires action oriented to achieving better outcomes, wherever possible through identifying ‘win – win’ strategies i.e. which contribute to progress on two or more of these dimensions.

Later in this new series, we shall try to develop a more detailed ‘balanced scorecard’ for shaping and assessing this progress but we can begin by expressing the direction of travel in terms of the goal of living in harmony with ourselves, each other and our planet.

In this blog, I want to enlarge on the first of these harmonies. Probably we find in Gandhi the most celebrated example of what it means to see life as a learning journey in which we constantly reflect on what it means to live according to our highest ideals (my best self) and test out this thinking in daily practice.

The theologian Jose Laguna, drawing on the parable of the ‘Good Samaritan’, suggests three phases in moving from reflection to commitment: trying to remove our blinkers so as to see the reality around us; feeling compassion for the experience of others; and taking responsibility for acting to make a positive difference.

This attention to mindfulness and compassion so as to enable us to make a valuable contribution in daily practice is also central to the theory of change elaborated by Scharmer and Kaufer. A subtitle of their book on leadership is Applying Theory U To Transforming Business, Society and Self.

‘Theory U’ is an original approach to understanding how as individuals and networks we can achieve personal and societal change. In essence the ‘U’ refers to the shape of a process for unlearning past assumptions and inventing the new. It requires us to go on a journey together where we look inside ourselves to find our best values, our noblest intentions and look outside ourselves to see that something better is possible. We need to create the opportunities together to observe what is currently happening and listen deeply to other people’s experiences, take time to share and make sense of these observations, support each other in considering what might be better and try out some new ideas and visions on which to build. Our Spanish colleague, Ester Ortega, has tried to capture these ideas in a series of sketches, the simplest of which is below.

Thus the ‘U’ process starts at the top of one side of the U and encourages us to put aside past prejudices and approach things with an open mind, open our hearts to other people’s experiences and look to the ‘emerging future’ to find new possibilities. Coming up the other side of the U, the process encourages us to take some action which tries out our fresh thinking and continue the process of learning together as we make bigger changes.

Living in harmony with our highest selves, we can use our gifts to engage widely in seeking to advance the other two harmonies.

Building a better future through civic partnership

Following the first series of these word press blogs, I produced a short pamphlet Networking for Social Change, exploring how through citizen action we can help to create local communities which are sustainable and include everyone as equal citizens. Drawing together key messages from this second series of blogs, I have now published a complementary pamphlet Building A Better Future Through Civic Partnership. Available at

In this sequel, I continue to emphasise the importance of citizen networks as grass roots drivers of community development, but consider in more detail how local innovation can be scaled up to the level of towns and counties, typically the first or second levels of democratic local government.

The new pamphlet examines how citizen groups and local authority leaderships can work together to create the civic partnerships required to deliver local change which meets the triple objectives of protecting the environment, advancing social justice and enabling sustainable economic development. It concludes with a 15 item checklist of questions to guide both ‘sides’ in these partnerships in co-producing strategies for a better future.

In parallel, colleagues at the New Economics Foundation http://www.neweconomics.org have just produced a much more detailed publication Commissioning for outcomes and co-production, described as ‘a practical guide for local authorities on how to put social, environmental and economic value at the heart of their commissioning decisions’ which provides a very useful complement to my new pamphlet. In particular it describes several examples of local efforts to achieve multiple outcomes through particular initiatives. These include the reform of mental health services in Camden, the development of young people’s services in Islington and Lambeth and providing better school meals in Nottinghamshire.

The nef guide is addressed to local authorities but as its title suggests, it puts strong emphasis on ‘co-production’ between these authorities, the people and communities they serve and indeed the providers of these services.

Enlarging key themes in my pamphlet, it seeks to conceptualise a new approach to commissioning which:
• Distinguishes three phases in the commissioning process: gaining insight into what is required; planning and procuring services; and delivering and evaluating them.
• Emphasises co-production, partnership and learning from experience as important activities throughout this process.
• Makes a focus on outcomes for people and the whole community the key driver of change.

This third element is especially illuminating in our search for ‘win – win’ initiatives which simultaneously serve multiple goals.

In the nef approach, commissioning agencies and partnerships are encouraged to develop an outcomes framework and to invite potential providers to work with people who use their services to co-produce activities which will best deliver these outcomes. This framework needs to reflect the Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012 in attending to environmental, economic and social goals as well as identifying more specific outcomes based on what is important to people in relation to a particular service. Moreover the outcomes need to attend to both the interests of particular service users and benefits to the wider community.

In articulating the social outcomes, nef makes ‘well-being’ a key objective, given more precision, for example by attending to the five ways to well-being: ‘connect, be active, take notice, keep learning and give’. It also draws attention to the importance of looking ‘upstream’ so as to find opportunities for the prevention of problems as well as dealing with their consequences.

All this becomes clearer through the examples. In the London Borough of Camden, the focus was on improving mental health day services. The local authority already had a high level set of sustainable community strategy goals, concerned with sustainable growth, a strong economy, connected and vibrant communities and responsive public services, which had been translated into more concrete priorities. These provided the basis for identifying community level outcomes.

The five ways to well-being, again translated into more concrete priorities relevant to mental health services, provided the basis for identifying service level outcomes including being well-housed, maximising personal income, getting a job, staying healthy and extending friendship networks. Camden commissioners also specified some of the processes (or quality characteristics) they expected would contribute to these outcomes (e.g. information and advice, personal support, educational opportunities etc.) without trying to define the precise shape of future services.

Here then is a framework for potential service providers, working with people using these services to shape and cost proposals for future provision. It is also a framework which other parts of the local authority and other service providers could use to identify ways in which their activities could contribute to greater success across these outcomes.

There is a lot here to inform other efforts to achieve effective civic partnerships.

Strand VI: Seeking cooperative solutions

How can citizen networks and organisations work together with local government  to shape and deliver the local agenda for transformative change?

In every local area there is an elected local authority with responsibility for ‘place shaping’ to promote the well-being of the whole community, as well as other public bodies (e.g. relating to health and emergency services) with more specific mandates. There may also be sectoral bodies (e.g. the Chamber of Commerce) outside public control but representing significant local interests. Likewise there will typically be a much larger number of citizen networks and organisations, often seeking to advance a particular vision (e.g. sustainability initiatives like Transition Town Brixton), represent the interests of particular groups of citizens (e.g. Disabled Persons Organisations like Disability Action in Islington) or indeed bring together people in a neighbourhood to improve local amenities (where I live, it is the Highbury Community Association).

Our focus in this series of blogs has been on both sides of this equation: on how citizen groups and local government leadership can together create the civic partnerships required to build sustainable and inclusive communities.

We have emphasised that this is a complex agency system seeking to engage with multiple challenges and identified five inter-related strands in the strategies required to address these challenges effectively. In this sixth strand we revisit the previous five to produce a design guide for both ‘sides’ in civic partnership development. In the interests of clarity, the check list of key questions is written with a focus on the local authority leadership (LA) on the left-hand side and a civil society organisation (CSO) on the right-hand side. (I have particularly had in mind Disabled People’s Organisations and citizen networks like the red inclusiva of Bucaramanga, discussed in the first series of these blogs.) Clearly reality is considerably more complex and every locality is different: the checklist is intended as a stimulus to critical and creative deliberation both within each side and across local initiatives as alliances and partnerships are developed.

Defining valued outcomes

1.     How well has the LA articulated its responsibility to meet the ‘triple bottom line’ of environmental protection, sustainable economic development and greater social justice?

2.     How well has the LA created processes for wide participation in agreeing and acting on local strategic goals?

3.     Are these clearly expressed as valued outcomes to guide and evaluate a wide range of local actions?

I.    How well has the CSO articulated its goals in terms of valued outcomes (e.g. making a positive difference in people’s lives)?

II.       How well is the CSO exploring how these goals might contribute to progress on wider local priorities (e.g. how greater inclusion could strengthen local resilience)?

III.     How well is the CSO exploring how its interests might be reflected in action on other priorities (e.g. by making inclusion a key dimension of  economic development)?


Engaging whole systems

4.     How well is the LA leadership creating opportunities for relevant stakeholders to come together to make sense of local challenges?

5.     How well is the LA working with its partners to analyse the potential contributions of different departments and agencies to achieving the strategic outcomes?

6.     How well is this joint working reflected in delivering effective action?

IV.    How well is the CSO actively contributing its perspectives and experiences to local sense-making?

V.     How well is the CSO exploring potential connections with other CSOs which might facilitate action on related or complementary objectives?

VI.    How well is the CSO playing its part in local initiatives (e.g. as a vehicle for outreach to interested citizens or as a partner in delivery)?


Co-producing the future

7.     How well is the LA inviting partnership with local communities and civic associations in shaping and delivering action on local priorities?

8.     How well are public services devolving leadership to the neighbourhood level and ensuring delivery staff have the autonomy required for personalized engagement with citizens?

9.     Are there good arrangements to ensure that policy-making properly reflects the interests of future generations?

VII.   How well is the CSO investing in developing the capacity of its members (e.g. through community organizing) to be empowered partners with public agencies?

VIII.  How well is the CSO working to strengthen peer support (e.g. for mutual information, advice and advocacy) among interested citizens?

IX.    How well is the CSO helping its members explore what will be required to secure a better future?


Strengthening resilience

10.  How well is the LA strengthening democratic control over local responses to uncertain conditions?

11.  How well is the LA helping to foster economic self-reliance and responsible stewardship over local resources?

12.  How well is the LA helping to strengthen local communities as places of social cohesion and mutual support?

X.     How well is the CSO supporting its members to play their part in a pluralist local democracy?

XI.    How well is the CSO aligning its interests with sustainable economic development (e.g. through participating in ‘green’ initiatives)?

XII.   How well is the CSO helping to connect people through local social networks which promote everyone’s well-being?


Working inclusively

13.  How well is the LA providing a welcome for diverse participation and attending to the voices of people at risk of marginalisation?

14.  How well is the LA fostering a listening culture which seeks to learn from different perspectives?

15.  How well is the LA making use of social technologies (e.g. World Café) which promote shared understanding and encourage the will to act on significant challenges?

XIII.  How well is the CSO welcoming diverse participation and reaching out to people on the margins?

XIV. How well is the CSO helping its members to listen carefully to different perspectives?

XV.How well is the CSO supporting its members in becoming active participants in many local opportunities for conversations which matter?


Clearly these fifteen pairs of points are framed as questions not answers. Each ‘side’ separately but hopefully also each side together will need to deliberate on these questions and reflect on experience so as to ensure the widest possible mobilization of people and agencies in shaping a better future. Equally these points provide an agenda for capacity building so that both local authorities and civil society organizations are better able to play their parts in effective civic partnerships.

Strand V: Working inclusively

What processes are required to ensure that the diversity in local communities is both valued and mobilised to achieve a better future for all?

In discussing earlier strands in this series, we have explored the importance of working across agency, professional and other boundaries in order to achieve a ‘whole systems’ approach to addressing local challenges (Strand II) and actively engaging local people so as to co-produce a better future (Strand III). Experience, for example in the Transition Towns movement suggests that ‘ensuring that initiatives reflect the greatest range of voices and experiences….is vital to their success’ (Rob Hopkins The Transition Companion Green Books, 2011. My review of this excellent guide is at: http://www.centreforwelfarereform.org/library/authors/david-towell/the-transition-companion.html )

But we know that achieving this wide and meaningful participation through traditional means isn’t easy. There is a classic training film, starring one of Britain’s best comic actors, John Cleese, Meetings, Bloody Meetings which captures in its title what is a common experience of group working. Borrowing from the movie Casablanca, another phrase, the usual suspects is often used to describe who turns up in citizen engagement exercises. What we are exploring in Strand V is how to get beyond these characterisations so as to create processes for working together – both in shaping the agenda and taking action – which genuinely welcome diversity and make a positive space for everyone’s participation.

In facing complex challenges, we need ways of relating to each other which improve shared understanding across this diversity, promote adaptive learning and encourage the will to act. Fortunately there has been a flowering of methods (‘social technologies’) which help with these objectives. Margaret Wheatley identifies the essence of many of these methods in her thoughtful book Turning to one another: simple conversations to restore hope to the future (Berrett-Koehler, 2002).

In our Conversations about sustainable and inclusive communities: Six practices for creative engagement (available at: http://www.centreforwelfarereform.org/library/authors/david-towell/six-practices-for-creative-engagement.html ) John O’Brien and I have tried to illustrate how a variety of these methods might be drawn upon to assist partnership between citizens and their local authority in shaping a more desirable future. This pamphlet describes each of these six practices (I have added another to make it seven) and where to find further information. I summarise here some of the different issues arising in the effort to work inclusively and identify an inclusive practice which is useful in addressing each:

1.    People bring different interests, perspectives and experiences to the table in any exploration of community problems. A lack of mutual understanding can make progress difficult. It is helpful sometimes to make a little time for participants to try to see things through the eyes of others by the simple practice of carefully listening to each other, perhaps using the mindfulness discipline of ‘quiet mind and open heart’.

2.    On a larger scale it is often important to bring a variety of people together to generate a richer shared picture, for example, of what is good about the local neighbourhood and what could be better. The ‘World Café’ offers a structured approach to hosting conversations that matter and drawing out common themes in a style (i.e. like table discussion in a café) which seems quite natural.

3.    Participants may need opportunities to make sense of complex and perhaps disruptive information before they can join in with commitment and imagination. It can be useful therefore to take some time to map these sense-making opportunities and consider how they can be extended and involve more people.

4.    Where lots of things are going on, or being planned (perhaps by different groups or agencies), it may be important to check – and indeed improve – the contribution each is making to achieving locally-agreed strategic outcomes. The practice here requires plotting current activities against agreed outcomes and critically reviewing where there is scope for greater impact.

5.    Similarly, it may be useful to involve a wide range of people in identifying ‘assets’ potentially available in the locality (e.g. in existing local associations and the skills people bring to these, in the businesses which make up the local economy, in the natural environment, etc.) so as to examine whether these assets might have more to offer in advancing the strategic priorities.

6.    Most fundamentally, working inclusively in diverse communities requires that we ask the question ‘Who’s not here’ (or more precisely, whose voice and contribution is not being fully recognised) and how could we better engage them? The relevant practices focus on how we invite people to participate, express hospitality, make adjustments which enhance accessibility, identify what each person has to offer, encourage contributions and show appreciation.

7.    The one we missed in the pamphlet is a continuation of this last point: to sustain ourselves in this challenging work we need to invest in celebrating what we are doing and meeting our common human need to have fun!  Stories from the Transition Towns experience (referenced above) include lots of examples of local initiatives using food, music, art, theatre, story-telling…and carnival to share a positive sense of place and enjoy each other.

A core task of civic leadership involves the judicious selection and use of practices like these so as to ensure the widest possible mobilisation of local people and agencies in making a positive difference.

Strand IV: Strengthening resilience

How can communities and the networks of agencies which serve them enhance their capacity to cope with the multiple uncertainties impacting on local life?

Complementing and cross-cutting the first three strands discussed in this series of blogs is the importance of strengthening local resilience as part of building sustainable and inclusive communities. I am writing this blog as six weeks of more-or-less continuous storms have left large areas of the Thames valley and South West England with serious flooding. How we future-proof our communities seems very topical!

Most simply, the Stockholm Resilience Centre (www.stockholmresilience.org ) defines resilience as ‘the capacity to deal with change and continue to develop’. Or in relation to communities, ‘resilient communities intentionally develop personal and collective capacity to respond to and influence change, to sustain and renew the community, and to develop new trajectories for the community’s future’ (Magis, quoted in Wilding, referenced below).

My own initial understanding of this idea – and the notion that resilience can be designed into and developed in large systems – originated in the work of another group of my colleagues at the Tavistock Institute studying manufacturing organisation. Most famously, they worked with the newly nationalised coal industry after the Second World War to replace the ‘assembly line’ methods of production with an approach based on relatively autonomous small groups of miners managing their own work as teams. Working underground is difficult and dangerous. Rock formations often throw up new challenges. Factory style mechanisation was ill-suited to these uncertainties and damaged the miners’ traditional sense of being in control of their work. Self-organising teams restored this identity and were much more adaptive to these changing conditions.

Resilience is even more important in contemporary communities. The extent of current risks varies in different parts of the world but we all face ‘acute’ challenges, for example, from runaway climate change and associated extreme weather events, global shortages of food and water and rapidly fluctuating energy prices, turbulence in the financial markets, pandemic illnesses and violent conflict. Each of these can produce major ‘shocks’ to our current ways of life. Our capacity to deal with these challenges is weakened by what we might think of as ‘chronic’ problems including the growing inequalities which divide people and communities, the lack of local control over big decisions (e.g. on the economy) made elsewhere (e.g. sometimes in very distant boardrooms), the ways in which we have become dependent on professional and bureaucratic interventions in human concerns we once felt capable of addressing with the help of our family and neighbours, and the distorted understanding of all these issues we derive from the centralised organs of mass communication which increasingly define unreality as ‘reality’ (as in ‘reality T.V.’).

For all these reasons, strengthening resilience has become central to the discussion of sustainable development as most fully articulated in The Resilience Imperative: Cooperative transitions to a steady-state economy (M. Lewis and P. Conaty, New Society Publishers, 2012) My review of this excellent book is on line at: http://www.centreforwelfarereform.org/library/authors/david-towell/resilience-imperative.html

In thinking about both what constitutes resilience and how it can be strengthened, I have found most helpful Nick Wilding’s Exploring Community Resilience in times of rapid change (Carnegie UK Trust, 2011). He identifies and copiously illustrates four dimensions of community resilience to which I have added a fifth (and first in this list):

1.    Emphasising place-based governance and local democracy. We are in control of how we respond to local challenges.

Localisation is key to achieving a sustainable future. This requires both decentralisation from the national state so that municipalities can develop appropriate responses to local priorities (as discussed in Strand I and II) through civic leadership and devolution within local authorities so as to engage communities in co-producing this better future (as discussed in Strand III).

2.    Reweaving the economy closer to home. We exercise ecologically responsible stewardship over our land, water, food, energy production, construction and employment.

This democratic control needs increasingly to extend to the ways in which we reshape the local economy to increase self-reliance, meet local needs fairly and reclaim where possible local assets for the common good, while protecting the environment. This is the major focus of the Transition Towns initiative.

3.    Fostering an inclusive culture. We celebrate our diversity and are confident in our capacity to tackle problems together.

Local people and social capital (‘the social networks and norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness which arise from them’ as Robert Putnam defines this) are the most important assets in strengthening resilience. These assets are enriched where there are opportunities for people to make sense of local challenges, find cooperative solutions (e.g. credit unions which support people in austere times) and celebrate local life (e.g. from shared music, art and other creative activities to street parties).

4.    Encouraging individual wellbeing and mutual engagement. We are fit in body and mind and involved in our neighbourhoods.

This local culture needs to help people develop their personal resilience, for example through the Five ways to well-being identified by the new economics foundation (nef, 2009); ‘connect, be active, take notice, keep learning and give’. In doing so, it will also underline the importance for all of us of being part of social networks which accept our strengths and fallibilities and offer mutual support.

5.    Making links to other places and communities. We know we can learn from others travelling similar journeys.

Localities are not alone in these efforts and many challenges are similar, inter-connected or indeed require joint action, for example to bring about policy change on a larger scale. A pre-eminent example of such networking, because it now links localities across the globe is the Transition Network (www.transitionnetwork.org ).

In sum, these dimensions of resilience provide civic partnerships with five useful ‘design tests’ for local action: how likely is it that what is being planned will enhance local democracy, increase economic self-reliance, build social capital, improve personal well-being and strengthen links with other communities?

Strand III: Co-producing the future

How can local people become active partners in shaping and delivering the actions which affect them and their communities now and into the future?

In the preceding blog (Strand II), we explored the importance of ‘whole systems’ working as a means to deliver concerted action to achieve locally-valued outcomes. Clearly, local people as citizens, taxpayers, consumers and users of public services need to be part of this whole. This process has come to be described as ‘co-production’.

I trace this concept back to the work of medical practitioners like Julian Tudor Hart (Feasible Socialism SHA 1994) who has long discussed the idea of patients and their general practitioners ‘co-producing health’: each bringing their experience and expertise to the consultation in order to create a health improvement plan, especially in relation to long term conditions which are increasingly the main focus of health services.

Others identify the North American routes to this idea, especially the contribution of Edgar Cahn, the originator of ‘time banking’, who drew attention to the assets which already exist in the capabilities, reciprocity and social networks which make up ‘community’ and the importance of working with and seeking to strengthen these assets in local efforts to improve well-being.

These ideas have been given fresh momentum through the work of nef, the new economics foundation, (notably Co-production: A manifesto for growing the core economy 2008) and are now in good currency. Indeed this week, the British Labour Party leader, Ed Miliband, made co-production central to his radical proposals for the reform of public services.

Nef defines co-production as ‘delivering public services in an equal and reciprocal relationship between professionals, people using services, their families and their neighbours’. As the examples above imply, this partnership may be at the level of the individual (as in the health consultation), involve a particular group (e.g. older people) or be about challenges facing the whole community (e.g. to reduce its carbon foot-print). I would add therefore that the scope of co-production goes beyond public services to embrace the wider community strategies i.e. for sustainable and inclusive development, discussed in Strand I.

Miliband’s overarching purpose is to reduce inequalities, including inequalities of power. In relation to public service reform his chosen strategy is to put more power in the hands of people using services, both individually and collectively. He identifies (the Hugo Young Lecture, 10th February) four main ways of doing this. (Not entirely by coincidence, IPPR also published this week a more detailed agenda Many-to-many: How the relational state will transform public services from which I draw some illustrations of these four methods.)

Ø  Devolution of power to the local level, so that public services can work as inter-connected systems in responding holistically to complex challenges (e.g. to tackle long term unemployment).

Ø  Increasing citizen access to information so, for example, they can better judge the quality of local services (e.g. education).

Ø  Co-production as defined here (e.g. in putting disabled people in control of their own publicly funded support).

Ø  Strengthening horizontal links among citizens so that, for example, individuals get peer network assistqnce (e.g. in the preceding example, disabled people getting information and advice from a local Disabled Persons Organisation).

Of course, there is a lot more to this. Holistic approaches may benefit from new structures (e.g. multi-professional team work) and new processes (e.g. participatory budgeting at the neighbourhood level). Co-production, especially at the individual level may require intensive and personalised engagement between lead professionals and service users (‘relational rather than transactional’ in the language of the IPPR paper). And not just users but also front line staff may need more autonomy, more time, and different attitudes and skills.

At the municipal level, Miliband gives the London Borough of Lambeth (self-described as a ’cooperative council’) as one example of a public authority which is trying to make co-production with local people key to every aspect of its work. For a more developed example, we might look to the experience of the U.S. city of Seattle (well described in J. Diers Neighbor Power: Building community the Seattle way University of Washington, 2004) where over several years all of these things were tried and more – and particular emphasis given to the kind of ‘community organising’ (famously associated with Saul Alinsky) which builds the strength in associations of citizens to be empowered partners.

The question which starts this blog refers to shaping the future and implicitly raises the further question of how future generations can be represented in these partnerships. Strand I provides one answer here: commitment to an outcomes framework which prioritises sustainability and thus invites attention to longer term issues. At the national level, some countries (e.g. Canada and Hungary) have legislated to establish ‘future guardians’ (e.g. in the shape of a futures Ombudsman). Perhaps at the local level this is a job for a commission of young people, including some with young children?

Strand II: Engaging whole systems

What is involved in working across agency and other boundaries to address the complex system of challenges involved in building sustainable and inclusive communities?

Of course, simple things should be done simply, but to recap on the two earlier blogs in this series, civic leaderships seeking to build more sustainable and inclusive communities which promote everyone’s well-being need to address a complex set of interconnected local challenges and deliver concerted action across a wide range of local agencies (i.e. in the public, private and third sectors) in ways which use the assets and gain the support of local people.

In Strand I we suggested that building commitment across this variety of stakeholders to a limited number of widely valued outcomes should provide strategic direction to these efforts. However both building this commitment and delivering the necessary concerted action require new ways of working locally which are a long way from the ‘top down’ command and control through separate bureaucracies which might perhaps have served their purpose in more stable times. Put most succinctly, we need alternative approaches which effectively engage whole systems. It has taken me a 1000 words in this blog  to sketch out fairly simply key features of these alternatives and the ideas on which they are based.

The prospects for success here can be influenced by procedural and structural arrangements.  In U.K. local government for example, we have tried increasing the geographical coterminosity of different public agencies, establishing joint governance arrangements – sometimes on a statutory basis (e.g. Health and Wellbeing Boards), investing in joint posts and creating shared budgets (e.g. as in ‘total place’ and ‘community budgeting’). We have also sometimes made things more difficult, for example, by introducing market arrangements which foster competition rather than collaboration among different local service delivery agencies.

Whatever these arrangements, we still need ways of working which respond to local complexity. One useful contribution I think of as essentially analytic. For example, recently, public authorities like Birmingham have been using cause-and-effect mapping (developing a ‘theory of change’) to try to model how the interventions of different agencies might together impact on desired strategic outcomes. (See for example, T. Bovaird and R. Kenny Modelling Birmingham: Using strategy maps to compare outcome pathways University of Birmingham, 2013).

Perhaps most interesting in work of this genre is the innovative contribution of a group of my former colleagues at the Tavistock Institute, originally expressed in their 1970s study Public Planning: The Inter-corporate Dimension (J.K. Friend et al, Tavistock Publications, 1974). This was the first major study to apply what operational researchers call the ‘strategic choice approach’ to inter-organisational planning in the public sector. The methods tested here, including AIDA (analysis of inter-connected decision areas), have been developed into a tool-kit for collaborative decision-making in uncertain conditions, skilfully presented in Planning Under Pressure (J. Friend and A. Hickling, Butterworth Heinemann, 1997).

These analytic methods have their uses but in complex local systems, there are limits to our capacity for reliable cause-and-effect mapping – important though it is to inquire about the likely consequences of proposed policies and actions – and the whole idea of rational planning in rapidly changing environments has been critically appraised, notably in the work of Henry Mintzberg (Strategy Safari H. Mintzberg, et al, Pearson Education, 1998). I think it is most useful to regard these analytic tools as offering an informational resource to significant conversation among local stakeholders working together to change the future.

For this we need more developmental approaches based on ‘systems thinking’. We can take our lead here from Donald Schon’s classic work (Beyond the Stable State Temple Smith, 1971) which originally articulated the need for organisations, including governments, to become ‘learning systems’ in order to adapt successfully to the increasingly rapid rate of societal change. Subsequently, Peter Senge identified systems thinking as The Fifth Discipline (Century Business, 1992) in his treatise sub-titled The Art and Practice of The Learning Organisation. And these ideas have been reflected in a growing range of what B. Bunker and B.T. Alban call Large Group Interventions (Jossey-Bass, 1997) which have in common the aspiration of Engaging the Whole System for Rapid Change.

Most recently, these approaches have been informed and shaped by the emergence of ‘complexity theory’ in the natural sciences as perhaps most helpfully summarised in Leading Change: A guide to whole systems working (M. Attwood et al, Policy Press, 2003).

Drawing on this latter work, we can identify five overlapping keys to ‘working whole systems’:

1.    Enabling leadership. Both those in formal leadership positions (e.g. elected mayors) and others who emerge (e.g. as ‘civic entrepreneurs’ willing to try new ways of doing things) need to understand their role in terms of helping to keep the ‘big picture’ in view, shaping critical questions for exploration and creating spaces in which relevant stakeholders can make sense of the challenges together and establish the direction of positive responses.

2.    A listening culture. An important asset in this work is the willingness to listen carefully to others and learn. Influenced in part by the Buddhist philosophy of ‘mindfulness’, we can aspire to listen with an ‘open mind’ (so as to understand more fully), an ‘open heart’ (so as to empathise with others’ experience) and an ‘open will’(so as to allow new possibilities to emerge) so that we are Leading from the Emerging Future (the title of a recent book by Otto Scharmer and Katrin Kaufer, Berrett-Koehler, 2013).

3.    A welcome to diverse participation. This way of working requires enthusiasm for processes which aspire to ‘get the whole system into the room’ (to borrow a phrase from the large group methods, referenced above) and value the diversity of perspectives and distinctive local knowledge which such participation brings. Whether meeting in large gatherings or small groups, this means in turn that equality, honesty and respectful listening characterise the interactions.

4.    Public learning. A strong interest in making information from analysis (like that described above) widely accessible and using the diversity of experience across agency and other boundaries as a resource to collectively shaping and delivering local action.

5.    A commitment to follow-through. Of course, delivering progress towards a better future in not ‘an event’ but rather a continuing process of building relationships, exploring opportunities, taking action and learning from experience. It requires working together over time, growing wider participation and stronger networks, and creating the arrangements required for effective implementation of emerging proposals.

What some of this means more concretely is illustrated in two reports I have written with John O’Brien about our work with an English County, Wiltshire: Conversations about Building Sustainable and Inclusive Communities and Six Practices (both available in the on-line library at http://www.centreforwelfarereform.org/library/authors/david-towell/ ).