2017 was quite a year.
On a personal level, it tested my resilience, my outlook, my aspirations and my friendships. Professionally, it challenged my understanding of what great leadership should look like and what is needed to realise it.
The debate about the nature of the leadership of the public services of the future has also been at the forefront of some of the year’s notable conferences, summits and roundtables.
I hope the consensus most likely to emerge is that leadership needs to rely far less on an individualistic mastery (I use that gendered word deliberately) of a functional repertoire of managerial skills, knowledge and understanding drawn from the back catalogue of the new public management era. Instead, it must embrace the relational underpinnings of a collaborative model that promotes the importance of human insight and empathic behavior in creating a shared framework of influence, collegiality and common purpose and outcomes.
It would be no small shift in emphasis if this change were to take hold, especially following a year in which heroics and pontifications have so often been on display. Fortunately, the rhetoric of collaboration is already out there and coming into effect. This is no accident. Where collaborative approaches are adopted, there is an active and progressive recognition that the social contract between citizens and public bodies is in need of renewal. This imperative has been brought into sharp relief by the continuing reaction to the Brexit referendum, which exposed societal inequalities and divisions. It has illustrated the growing schism between the electorate and the elected, with the former feeling increasing alienated and let down by the latter. Whilst delivering Brexit continues to matter deeply to many people, there is a more important, accompanying concern that underlies the result: a breakdown of trust and relationships between civil and civic society. This needs addressing urgently.
This is why the leadership of public services now has to step up to the collaborative plate. Stasis is unacceptable in a Britain where so many of the key indicators of a healthy nation – poverty prevalence, income levels, home ownership, growth rates – are either static or going in the wrong direction. Leaders need to lead differently. No more hard borders between the elected and the appointed; no more reliance on traditional engagement and consultation between citizens and the state; no more a small number of people knowing best for the majority (however well-intended).
What’s needed is a true and deep commitment to co-everything: co-thinking, co-design, co-production, co-delivery and co-evaluation. Whilst representative democracy is still by far the least worst form of political governance, it is not enough on its own anymore. Citizens, fueled variously by disappointment and resentment, and enabled by opportunities such as the networked power of social media, demand that their places are genuinely empowered by their democrats (and those who work with them) to be active, confident, self-determining communities, helped, encouraged or simply left alone, as required, by the temporary custodians of the electorate’s power.
It follows that collaboration isn’t a threat to democracy, nor to the appointed leaders who work within it. Rather, it presents an opportunity to create a shared understanding, commitment and drive to make positive social change the norm and the hope for all, not the preserve of the few. Collaboration is, fundamentally, about respect for the lived experience of the people who we serve and using ‘real life’ to shape relationships, raise aspirations, agree missions, produce strategy and, most importantly, to make a difference. Leaders need to nurture a respectful, humble, empathetic set of relationships in which they and their institutions are subordinated to the overarching purpose of doing the right things with people to ensure a fairer, happier and wealthier society.
This does not require a revolution but it does demand a systemic and systematic step change in approach, some deep and reflective thought, and a genuine willingness to listen and be shaped by that listening. This is not a call to take against our public service institutions; quite the opposite. It is the chance to repurpose them and re-engineer them so the default mindset of their all their leaders is, once again, to serve the public by truly being in service to the public.
Simply, this means that being elected, or being appointed by the elected, is the starting point for a collaborative endeavor in which all contributions are seen as valued and necessary, and that puts understanding people’s lives and what they need at the centre of everything.
In other words, a collaboration nation.
Mark Rogers, executive director, Collaborate CIC