Place-based system change: Demystifying the practice
For over two years now Collaborate has been a partner in Lankelly Chase’s action inquiry into how places can be supported to build the nine system behaviours that they have identified as foundational to system change. As Lankelly set out in their approach to change document,
“Through observing different fields including homelessness, violence, health, the arts, community development, substance misuse and youth work, we’ve seen that (i) it is the presence of these behaviours, more than any specific methodology, that seems to account for positive change and (ii) these behaviours need to be present and continually promoted in every part of the system.
The purpose of the five inquiries around which they have structured their work is to:
“Test, understand and promote the system behaviours. Rather than seeking to impose them, we’ve learnt that the most effective way to work with complex systems is to develop open and powerful questions as the basis for collective inquiry.”
Collaborate has been contributing to this approach by supporting two places: London Borough of Barking & Dagenham (B&D) and Gateshead. From our perspective, our role in these places is to help to influence and drive a change in the way people view and shape the systems they work within. That is the what, but the why is just as important: we believe that places have a significant amount of latent potential and that system change is a method by which you can re-design the way you organise and operate to benefit people who experience severe and multiple disadvantage, as well as the local community more broadly.
We find this work to be difficult, enriching, and filled with learning. It involves challenging traditional thinking and practice, and grappling with new ideas and ways of working. And the language can be opaque to many — place-based change, or system change, can feel like a dark art which only some people know the right model and ingredients for. In our experience, this is far from the truth. And it is the act of making system change an inclusive and exploratory method that yields the best results. As a consequence, we wanted to share a few of our key reflections from the work.
These insights may not feel immediately revelatory, but it is the simplicity of the factors that drive system change that we often find to be the most profound.
Pace: You can only move at the speed of your relationships
During the first year of our work in B&D and Gateshead we spent time building a mutual understanding of the purpose and scope of the work with local partners. Developing system behaviours is a very different challenge to a normal project, so we spent time on the ground, talking to a wide range of stakeholders and trying to understand the place and the people (what Collaborate think of as a ‘system diagnostic’). Taking the time to collectively consider how the system you are a part of is operating is a hard task, and given it is rarely articulated in any organisation’s strategies or priorities it is often seen as a ‘nice to have’. Building relationships, orientating ourselves within the place, and establishing an understanding of the opportunities and challenges locally has been the most important foundation of any of the work we have done in either places.
This is an ongoing investment, and at times it can feel like wading through treacle. But when we step back, we appreciate that at the heart of systems change are relationships and behaviours, and as a partner told us, this requires our role to be about ‘continuing to hold up the mirror and hold our feet to the fire’.
Entry: There are different routes into the system — and these are likely to be out of your control
In B&D, we began this work just as the borough published the first ever Borough Manifesto — a far-reaching document that sets out the changes in outcomes the borough wants to see over the long term. This is a shared vision, co-produced with partners and residents before we began our work. At the same time, the Council was going through a period of reform; thinking deeply about the kind of organisation it wanted to be in the future and putting the scaffolding in place to get it there. These are big agendas, and we used them as routes into the place — working out where there were opportunities to build the readiness for change. We have been supporting sub-groups of willing partners who wanted to tackle a specific issue; development work with the Delivery Partnership; building new relationships and collaboration across the borough through events, workshops and system leadership support; and working with council teams to reflect on the borough’s model of change — and how the outcomes are going to be achieved through a ‘whole system’ approach.
The perspective so far has therefore been high-level, quite strategic. We started ‘whole system, whole place’, and we are now getting more specific as the relationships and clarity of purpose mature.
The ‘route in’ has been different in Gateshead. The support has focused on prototypes being led by the Director of Public Service Reform (which you can read about here). These prototypes grew partly out of the system diagnostic we undertook and reflective workshops we ran with a wide range of local partners from across the system, which highlighted where and how the system was failing people with complex and multiple needs. These prototypes offer a glimpse of what public service reform could look like in Gateshead (and beyond), and the challenge is to help the system actors take these small-scale prototypes (along with other initiatives) and learn from them, moving from project to approach; uncovering what it is telling us about how the system — be it the frontline, commissioning, the culture of relevant organisations or the relationships between different parts of the system — needs to evolve, thereby developing the system behaviours.
We think that these two different starting points provide a useful comparison and learning. This was not quite by design, though there was an element of that once we spotted the different starting points — but it is also about being prepared to go where the energy presents itself.
Timing: The system behaviours do not always work as a route into a conversation and a relationship with local places and actors.
In our experience, conversations about system behaviours need to be embedded within the work in a place. The task then is to build the system behaviours through the work and create the space for learning and reflection along the way. It is our hypothesis that conversations about behaviours can become more overt as the work and relationships mature, and as a wider audience becomes comfortable with the language and ideas of systems change.
Approach: Being helpful matters
The reality for our partners on the ground, be it the council, the voluntary sector, other statutory services and so on, is challenging, messy and arguably harder than it’s been in decades. The people we need behind us to do this work, are working flat out trying to change complex systems while also managing huge cuts in budgets, rising demand, local politics, restructures, and the local ramifications of an uncertain national political context, to name a few! As partners in this context, we need to ensure we truly understand the ways in which these factors are influencing the behaviours and emotions of the people we are working with. We need to watch our language, and we need to meet people where they are (for example if budget overspends are the big challenge at a point in time, then we need to locate our work in this context and narrative).
Sometimes we need do something that is not directly related to the objectives of our work, but which helps build the relationship and the trust that are essential conditions for this work. ‘Tactics’ might sound devious but in fact it’s about that basic tenet of collaboration — everyone needs to give up something, because this helps move the dial in ways that won’t be immediately obvious, but helps build relationships and trust in support of the long-term objectives.
The components: Making it sustainable
Collaborate’s report with Lankelly — Building Collaborative Places, infrastructure for system change, argues that we need to create new forms of system infrastructure in order to support and enable the system behaviours.
Behaviours are critical, but unless organisations also change, the system will struggle to change too. The ways that organisations and systems are governed, how they fund and commission, the ways they develop their staff, the external accountability mechanisms they are subject to and the ones they build themselves — all of this either support or undermines the conditions for collaboration, system change and system behaviours. This means that organisations in places that are serious about system change need to focus on these elements too, repurposing and redesigning the infrastructure that determines how their organisations work. This has become particularly evident in Gateshead, where we are now helping the Council to think through how some of the traditional infrastructure — from commissioning through the organisational development — needs to change if they are to adopt a new approach to supporting residents. In B&D, the Council has been investing significantly in getting their ‘back office’ in order, and the question now is — how do we make sure this makes a real difference for our residents?
Our approach is about helping people to see a new way forward, and sometimes this means looking at how we can rewire and repurpose infrastructure that is unhelpfully reinforcing the current system.
When it comes to place-based working, we often see our role as ‘double loop learning’ — we do the work alongside our local stakeholders, but we are also learning partners, helping them to understand what they are noticing and what this might mean for the system as we do the work. Our role is often about pushing things along, stitching together the threads of new ideas that are emerging, ensuring that learning is collective, helping to guide the work in new directions, and focusing always on the system behaviours as our (collective) guide.
Like all hard tasks, slipping back into business as usual is not uncommon, and the continuous effort required to push against the tide can be exhausting. Part of our job is to create spaces for people to reflect, regroup, and focus. We know that when we are under immense pressure our ability to make decisions is weakened, and that our relationships can fall by the wayside. Intermediaries can offer a fresh lens, through which partners can make sense of the system and reorient towards their shared ambition.
There is more learning to draw out from our work, and we will be spending more time doing this, and sharing with others. We want to say more about the language around concepts of place-based change and systems change, the importance of relationships and trust (and how you can build them), the value of learning as a driver of change and adaptation within complex systems, and what collaborative/system leadership really looks and feels like.
And of course others involved in the LKC Inquiry have their own reflections; Toby Lowe published this learning report, and Alice and Habiba of Lankelly shared their reflections here and here. This is very much our perspective, which we look forward to discussing and sharing with our partners and using to inform our ongoing work in B&D and Gateshead.
If you would like to discuss any of the learning outlined here please do get in touch
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