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'We must find a future where systems change can take root'

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We are about to discover, if we didn’t know it already, that local government is all about systems change – impacting the wider system more effectively through a wider range of levers than public service delivery alone can ever achieve.

Yet we are still recruiting and incentivising local authorities and partner organisation chief execs for organisational grip: ‘strong management and don’t us get on the wrong side of the inspectors’.

Doubtless it’s critical we maintain high professional standards – some of our services are life-anddeath, others mean the difference between losing and gaining vital jobs. But this dynamic – even with a bit of ‘partnership working’ thrown in – only reinforces the assumptions and silos that prevent real change.

The field of systems change has emerged internationally from a combination of philanthropy, environmentalism, community development, futures studies and system design. But it’s also a natural extension of place shaping, and the best of local government work, from the Wigan Deal to community development in Plymouth – the kind of examples set out in our Public Service: State of Transformation reports.

So it’s about starting from citizen power, focusing on outcomes, and co-creation of public value through a mixed market of funding as well as delivery – the real application of systems thinking.

Systems change seems like a natural end point. As you work with public services, you realise that the power and leverage is and should be in the hands of the citizens. As you work on cross-organisation leadership, you realise that holistic thinking is needed.

When you try to really tackle wicked problems, you realise that no intervention will do it: the whole thing has to shift. Systems change is surely coming.

But the reality is, we’re stuck in Silo Wars, Episode IV: The Organisation Strikes Back.

Our leadership focus is on preventing organisational problems, being good enough at the slicing and dicing, and fiddling the figures to keep the wolves from the door for one more medium-term financial strategy. Our skills (despite an occasional nod to innovation, and an occasional standout leader) are focused on good, old-fashioned organisational control.

Henry Kippin and Matthew Taylor, in their 2017 report for Solace Ignite, quote a senior leader: “What drives too many organisations … is the question: ‘What can I be sacked for and how can I avoid it?’” Until we can shift this, we will be setting up the pivot point in our public service systems – the leaders of place – to speak one language and act out another.

Ironically, of course, civic municipalism and the beginning of public services arose from precisely the kind of entrepreneurialism that systems chance advocates. So perhaps we can find our way back to a future that allows systems change to really take root.

Benjamin Taylor, chief executive, Public Service Transformation Academy

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