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Joining the Dots

Hannah Anderson, Collaborate’s Director of Practice, has recently returned to live in her birth country, New Zealand, Aotearoa. Following the recent election results, she reflects on the relevance of Collaborate’s work in New Zealand and why she thinks the country is uniquely well-placed to embrace systems thinking and collaborative practice.

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Image of Queenstown Hill, Queenstown, New Zealand by Ömer Faruk Bekdemir on Unsplash

For the past six years Collaborate has worked across the UK, helping people and places build the capacity, capability and conditions to think and act like a system. Our commitment is to work cross-sector, supporting partners to embed whole-system, whole-placed based change. From designing new offers of support for children up to five years of age in Cambridgeshire, to developing a place-based plan for the London Borough of Sutton, and a methodology for developing and implementing place-based models in Oldham, our approach is guided by the belief that collaboration is a route to better social outcomes, and our tools and frameworks help to bring this ambition to life.

Over this time, we have seen an emerging recognition among our partners and from across the globe that if we are to make real gains in social, environmental and economic outcomes then we must acknowledge the complexity and interconnectedness of these agendas (see our Manifesto for a Collaborative Society). To do this we need to accept that organisations don’t create outcomes, systems do, and that if we are to address wicked issues then we need to invest in the conditions (behaviours and infrastructure, for example) that incentivise collaboration, learning and innovation.

Aotearoa is one of the corners of the world where there is a growing appreciation of the need for more collaborative working in the public sector and beyond.

For some time, New Zealand has been at the cutting edge of public sector practice. The living standards framework, the wellbeing budget, and the Public Service Act 2020 are recent examples of how parts of the traditional ‘system’ are attempting to reorient towards more collaborative and complexity-aware approaches to social, environmental, and economic change. And now, the convincing victory from the Labour Party has given them a mandate and platform for a concerted and bold effort to shape the country’s future.

There are other conditions specific to New Zealand that we think are worth profiling when it comes to bringing collaboration to life. For example, the close proximity between central government and communities means that there is a real opportunity for community activity to influence public policy (The Auckland Co-design Lab being an example of where this is happening). There are also signs that practitioners and politicians are interested in designing more human approaches to public services. One sign of this is the language of the current Government; of care and compassion. Collaborate has long advocated for a more human approach to designing and delivering public services (see Exploring the New World, Human Learning Systems report), one which acknowledges the variety of human experience and the need for empathetic and bespoke support. This language being modelled by this Government is a strong and unique signal about the ethos that should sit behind our public systems and a good foundation to build from. This foundation has been recognised by many New Zealanders, as evidence at the ballot box. The Government now needs to build on this momentum; seizing the chance to influence not only public policy lexicon, but the practice too.

New Zealand is at a pivotal juncture. Having taken a proactive approach to Covid-19 and with Government stability confirmed for the next three years, we are in an advantageous position to rebuild the economy and invest in our communities at a pace that outstrips many other countries. But there is a lot of work to do. The entrenched issues that were there before the arrival of the pandemic have only intensified; child poverty, affordable housing shortage, and climate change to name a few. If we are to truly address these then we need to close the gap between rhetoric and reality. This means providing the public sector with the permission and skills to do things differently, committing to progressive policy, creating the infrastructure that pulls us towards collaboration and whole-system practice, and investing in the social capital that will strengthen our communities.

Over the next few months, I’m looking forward to spending time with people at the edge of innovative practice and thinking in Aotearoa. From what I’ve seen and the conversations I’ve had, it feels like there are some exciting partnership possibilities, in which we can share Collaborate’s experience of whole-place and whole-system change, learn more about the activities here, identify synergies, and foster greater learning between the UK and NZ.

If you are interested to know more about Collaborate’s work, explore working together, or share your experiences, please do get in touch.

See below for a selection of Collaborate’s reports and frameworks. More can be found at

Manifesto for a Collaborative Society: In this Manifesto we set out our thoughts on why a Collaborative Society is needed today and what it might mean for our communities, our public services, our leaders and our economy. We explore how it might be realised, and where we can see the ‘green shoots’ already emerging.

Building Collaborative Places: This action-research report explores the nine essential pieces of system infrastructure for leaders of statutory and non-statutory services. These ‘building blocks’ will help embed whole-system collaboration to improve outcomes and the sustainability of services.

Exploring the New World: The report sets out a ‘new world’ of approaches to social change that genuinely put people in the lead. The report identifies that to respond effectively to complexity, funders, commissioners and those who work on the ground should adopt a Human, Learning, Systems approach.

New Operating Models: Drawn from our work with the Upstream Collaborative, the ‘NOMs’ framework describes what this new thinking and practice in local government looks like — the mindset, the purpose, the values, principles, behaviours, capabilities and infrastructure that enable it. The paper explores the imperative for innovation within and by local government and shares examples of pioneering practice.

Collaborate and Nesta also co-published two supporting papers that explore how to move new operating models from the margins to the mainstream of practice, and how new approaches to risk can support this transition.

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