Some propositions about strategy

I’ve been thinking a lot about what strategy means for a 21st century council. The term is in the name of my directorate, but it isn’t at all obvious what we mean by it or how we might do it. That seems like something we ought to fix.

I’m old enough to remember the days when Strategy got captured by people like the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit, and was defined by powerpoint packs of graphs produced by clever young people. This was the most professionalised version of a form of strategy which was all about white papers, golden threads and strong analysis. It shaped elite decisions and was sometimes very successful in doing that.

But after a year in local government, that sort of strategy feels almost totally irrelevant. It’s a feeling that was brought into sharp relief by a host of recent conversations and by reading the various memorials to Robin Murray, the radical economist who combined a sharp political commitment with a deeply pragmatic and particular humanism. For most of my career strategists have been people who flee the local, particular and quotidian for the big and glamorous. It has led the profession (if that’s what we are) down something of a cul de sac, from which we now need to emerge.

There is a paradox here. Councils across the country are currently reinventing jobs with strategy in the title — I have four or five peers across London — just as the very concept of strategy is starting to look a bit outdated. I can see several reasons for this…

First, councils have quite limited strategic choices. Our tight budgets and very high levels of central regulation mean that there is limited scope for local elites to make the sorts of grand choices that are influenced by traditional policy analysis. Second, we can’t afford the overhead of a PMDU approach. My team is just too small to do that well — it only works if we see ourselves as facilitators who try to join up other people’s efforts and skills. Third, we have to work through services and communities to get anything done, and traditional policy analysis is pretty hopeless for a world driven by relationships.

The usual response to this problem comes from the digital world. Forget about your strategy, just do things! This is a world of human-centred design and agile working, and it’s amazing. We’ve learned loads from this way of working at Redbridge (see previous posts on the size of my Kanban) and still have further to go, but it’s only part of the story.

Digital approaches work brilliantly for transactional services, but our residents are citizens and communities too, and metaphors from the digital world only get us so far in this context. How do we use human-centred design to shape the fundamentally political, interest-driven and group-focused decisions involved in place shaping? There is a slight danger that the digital approach becomes a series of brilliant tools that are rather divorced from community values and moral purpose.

So what might modern strategy look like for a council? Or better yet, a place?

Some propositions:

Strategy is Culture, and vice versa

It’s sometimes said that culture eats strategy for breakfast. That’s true, but it sets the two things up as somehow disconnected. In a world of uncertainty and complexity you have to devolve power, responsibility and accountability to the frontline, which means giving up lots of the traditional strategy levers of funding, plans and targets. If you want to steer an organisation in that context, you only have two tools. One is your leadership platform — you can talk to the organisation, work with it to set a vision and encourage it to move in that direction. The other is culture, which is mostly about setting and modelling a clear set of principles and behaviours. You can’t predict the challenges your teams are going to face today, but if your culture is right you should be able to predict the ways in which they will respond to those challenges. Any council strategy that doesn’t have a huge section about culture is a waste of time.

Strategy is about creating spaces for shared decision making

One of my policy team emailed me the other day to say their job shouldn’t exist. Brave move. And she was right. The idea of a team that sits within the council advising politicians and senior managers is as outdated as a pair of flares. Any meaningful strategy needs to be open source and open system, engaging partners and residents in making shared decisions. In fact, the job of strategy is to create and hold open that space, providing a structure and parameters to an ongoing discussion. That means that strategists are as much community development officers and facilitators as analysts, and that they need to span boundaries like crazy.

My colleague suggested ‘co-production officer’ as a new job title, which is horrible but makes the point. I’ve been thinking a lot about Livity’s model of employing young people to do brand marketing for the sort of products they use. Should we employ residents as co-researchers? Build a cast of pro-am residents we use to test everything? Participatory budgeting? Publish our thinking online at a formative stage? Publish a Psychologies style quiz when you realise no one is taking your madly user-unfriendly engagement survey? How do we use arts and culture as a form of engagement? What does community cohesion mean in this context?

For my team, it definitely means using our combination of customer services, business intelligence, community cohesion and policy expertise to start a constant dialogue between the lifeworld and the system. We control most of what Tom Cheesewright might call the council’s interface layer, where people and institution meet, and we mean to use that to steer our system.

Strategy depends on cooperation

I have a meeting with my team shortly before we all head off for Xmas, and one of the things I want to do is try and get a crisp definition of our role. The bedrock of strategy as culture and community development is cooperation. If we can’t build the capacity of everyone in Redbridge to cooperate, there’s nothing for us to network and orchestrate. We revert to being a bad version of an old school policy team. Cooperation is a very Robin Murray word. It is a habit that needs to be built over time, and which rapidly changing urban areas can struggle with. But the key thing for me is that councils cannot solve their challenges by looking inwards — we have to be the first co-operators, and help others learn to do the same.