Towards experimental government

We’re entering a new phase at Redbridge. In the Strategy Directorate at least, we’ve finished a tricky restructure and are starting to staff up (apply here and here people, or wait a few days for some new policy jobs). Our transformation programmes are working as well as those things ever do and we have a gigantic kanban mapping out the huge change journey the organisation is currently embarking on. Teams from across the whole council get together for stand ups twice a week to update the boards, and it’s resulted in some great examples of collaboration.

Basically, it sort of feels like things are under control (I’m writing this with one hand firmly touching the wood under my desk).

The challenge now is laid out on that kanban board. We’re trying to deliver four years’ worth of change in about 18 months. It’s a great leap forward for Redbridge, but I don’t think anyone here would claim that it adds up to a big picture yet. What’s the change for? Where are we headed?

One of the hardest things to get right for strategy and change teams is the balance between top down and bottom up. Too many orders from the centre and you stifle other people, who will rightly resent you for it. But too little central steering and you wind up with a vacuum where your organisational purpose ought to be. Everyone just does their own thing and feels confused about why it doesn’t add up.

I think we’ve decided that there are two answers to this problem in Redbridge. The first is to create a living, breathing, participative strategy for the council. We’re using scenario planning to do this. We did a load of engagement work with our residents and partners earlier in the year and we’ve now created three stories about the future of the borough.

The first is Glittering Prizes, a story in which we go for broke on regeneration but risk gentrification. The second is Invincible Suburb, a scenario in which Brexit limits our growth and we have to manage our social challenges without the proceeds of development. In the middle is Brave New Towns, a story in which we try to put residents in the driving seat of growth.

We’re starting a debate about the scenarios next week and continuing it across the autumn. We think our residents care about quality of life, opportunity and strong communities. Now we need a plan that can deliver those things in any given scenario. The point is resilience. We’ll be using the same kind of technique to plan our services for next year.

The internal side of the strategy is a document I’ve codenamed ‘The Manual’ which will set out the high level principles we want to shape the council. We’ll use some case studies of work we’re already doing to demonstrate what we mean. So we’re adopting the ‘three conversations’ model in social care and developing social prescribing in public health. Those are great examples of ‘building on the strengths of residents and communities’. We’re building a new customer services function which will help us ‘put customers at the centre of everything we do’. This is going to be supported by an investment in organisational development to help our managers adopt the new principles.

But I promised to talk about experimental government, didn’t I? Once we have our principles in place, our role is going to shift considerably. There’s a great quote from Gary Hamel to the effect that leaders shouldn’t do visions, but support a culture of experimentation that reveals new strategic options. That’s a fancy way of saying that strategy is increasingly less about power point packs with lots of graphs, and more about trying new stuff to find out how things could be different (confession: there will probably still be power point).

Our job as a team is to use the next year to make the idea of experimental government a reality in Redbridge. That means running lots of small-scale trials to prove concepts, then handing them over to our delivery colleagues to scale-up. The obvious starting point is time. One of the big problems the council faces is that so many of our managers are trying to run the same old service with half the people. That’s obviously not going to work. At its very worst, it can lead to a (completely rational) attempt to defend the precious.

One of the pre-requisites for effective change is giving people across the organisation time to think. So our first experimental programme might be as simple as working with frontline teams to create that time through new technology, better ways of working and redesigned work flows. It should be up to our teams to decide what to do with it, which means we shouldn’t look for savings. In experimental government, it’s for the services to find the savings and for us to provide principles and tools to help.

The need to create time extends to my directorate as well. The battle I foresee is between experimental government and government-as-usual. We have performance frameworks to maintain, websites to develop and press releases to write. These all matter, but we shouldn’t mistake them for our core business (which, after a discussion with Emma Burnell, I have decided is about strategically championing the needs of our residents and communities across the council and the borough).

That Gandhi quote about being the change you want to see in the world has become a cliche, but it’s precisely what we need to get right over the coming months.

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