In the future, successful leaders will be the ones who work out how to collaborate. So said David Behan, the departing head of the Care Quality Commission, at a recent conference of local authority directors.
This is a man you assume is privy to the thinking of ministers, including those at the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government.
As a former council director, both the tone and the content bothered me. Partnership working and collaboration is not new. The implication is it has not been done well enough. Mr Behan went on to say those who pass judgement on local authorities and their leaders will no longer be interested in how well an organisation is run, but instead on how well it collaborates.
Maybe my mindset is still in the “balance the budget and hit the performance targets” mode, but I am struggling with the idea that all that really counts is collaboration. After all, collaboration has both positive and negative connotations. Positive: working together for mutual benefit; negative: giving in to demands, sacrificing autonomy, becoming ethically compromised, and putting the interests of the dominant partner above those of the people you serve.
During my time as a senior manager in both social services and housing, I remember away days with my senior management colleagues at each of the five health trusts. I remember hours spent attending primary care trust meetings. I remember the regular one-to-ones with opposite numbers in health. I also remember colleagues’ frustrations at the fruitlessness of these meetings. And I remember the criticisms of staff who felt that we senior managers were too willing to do the bidding of NHS trusts – like the way we accepted responsibility for delayed hospital discharge when our own staff were telling us it was down to consultants, ward staff and occupational therapists rather than social workers. It’s true we senior managers did tend to adopt appeasement for the sake of the relationship.
As a county council we collaborated with the 12 district councils with which we were coterminous. But they thought we treated them as junior partners – just as we thought the health trusts treated us. We also collaborated with housing associations, voluntary and faith groups, but they felt we had the whip hand and that joint work was always on our terms.
Collaboration now involves not just the voluntary, faith and not-for-profit sector but local business and commerce at regional as well as local level. So, yes, success is dependent on collaboration. And the challenge for leaders is still to work out how to collaborate so that it is of mutual benefit, and doesn’t involve either making our priorities subservient or dictating the agenda to others.
Blair McPherson, former director, Lancashire CC