By Professor Chris Chapman, Director of Policy Scotland
In their book The Spirit Level, Wilkinson and Pickett (2010) argue that more equal societies are more successful societies. However, despite this analysis and a significant body of supporting evidence combined with high levels of investment in tackling poverty and inequalities, the relationship between poverty, inequalities and poor educational, economic and health outcomes remain as steadfast as ever.
Poverty in Scotland is highest amongst families with children. Around 230,000 or about one in four of Scotland’s children are officially recognised as living in poverty (Scottish Government 2020). The global pandemic is likely to have placed even more children into this category. Furthermore, the wider harms caused by the pandemic are likely to reinforce a range of inequities experienced by children and young people (Scottish Government, 2021) including the fact that children from low-income households do significantly worse at school than their more affluent peers (Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 2014).
Put simply, we are at crisis point in terms supporting the health and wellbeing and education of children and young people from our poorest and often most challenging communities. We urgently need to develop new ways of working. These sets of inter-related and compounding issues coupled with the pandemic have highlighted that individual services cannot tackle the range of issues around inequality and disadvantage that negatively impact children and young people. We urgently need to develop new ways of working.
By taking an ecosystem perspective (Grossman, Lombard & Fisher, 2014), working collaboratively with other services, some organisations hope to develop an adaptive shared system of service delivery more suited to tackling such complex issues. Scottish Government is committed to realising integrated collaborative working across services to serve community, city and national level requirements (Christie, 2011). However, despite this laudable aspiration, the realities of achieving this in practice remains challenging.
Place-based approaches are one response to the situation set out above. Over the last two decades (and the last decade in particular in the UK) these approaches to educational change have gained in both prominence and popularity. Increasingly, governments across the Western world appear to be recognising the multiple factors within and beyond the school system that impact children and young people, and that the complex problems that face children in an unequal society call for collaborative solutions (Whitehurst & Croft, 2015). Children’s Neighbourhoods Scotland (CNS) takes a place-based perspective, focusing on building children and young peoples’ voice and participation in decision-making, and the concept of promoting collective impact. This approach draws on some ideas, concepts and lessons from other place-based models such as the Harlem Children’s Zone (2018), Strive Partnership (2016) and explicit models based on capabilities in Northern Ireland (Hall, 1995; Greater Shankhill Children and Young People Zone, 2018) and Wales (Welsh Government, 2017) to implement an approach that is bespoke and fits with urban, town and rural settings in Scotland. For the purpose of this thinkpiece I focus on the concept of collective impact and some of the implications for leading collective impact across complex settings. I now move on to explore collective impact and then move on to reflect on the implications for leaders engaging in this complex work.
The collective impact approach
As with place-based approaches in general, and in particular those which follow a collective impact approach, the impacts on the ‘big’ aims are realised in the long term and therefore results on some of these initiatives, particularly in the UK, are only just emerging. However, existing research on more established initiatives continues to assert that the problems of poverty and disadvantage, and the problems associated with poverty and disadvantage, have the potential to be addressed by establishing collaborative, holistic and ambitious initiatives within the places where children and young people grow up. This requires long-term commitment and investment of resources rather than short-term politically driven funding cycles.
The collective impact approach for both place-based and national networks of cross-sectoral educational improvement initiatives has gained in prominence since its introduction by Kania and Kramer in 2011. The approach is defined as ‘the commitment of a group of important actors from different sectors to a common agenda for solving a specific social problem’ (2011, 3). This approach is primarily associated with initiatives in the US, and has been utilised in health, community development and educational change projects (DuBrow, et al., 2018). What ties collective impact initiatives together is their aim to solve complex and multi-faceted problems; the same type of problems that CNS aims to solve. While existing examples of successful, smaller-scale collaborative projects are common in neighbourhood initiatives to tackle poverty and increase educational attainment, including in CNS sites, a collective impact initiative differs by its focus on a structured process to create a shared agenda; coordinate action, communication, and measurement; and broker and facilitate relationships by a backbone organisation at its centre (Hanleybrown et al 2012; Henig et al 2016). This is a developing methodology in the field of educational improvement: in 2015, Henig and colleagues first outlined the collective impact approach for education, and in 2016 published a review of collective impact approaches across the US. In all of the projects they reviewed, the goal of collective impact is to move from disorder, isolated impact, and coordinated impact, to collective impact among partners in each initiative (Figure 1).
Kania and Kramer (2011) detailed the five conditions of collective impact that differentiate these projects from other types of collaborations, and work in the early phases of the CNS was designed to build these five conditions: backbone support, common agenda, mutually reinforcing activities, continuous communication, and shared measurement. As full implementation and expansion of CNS in to six sites is an on-going process, some aspects of these conditions are more advanced than others. However, using these conditions as a guide we can begin to understand the value of a systematic way of working in a complex multi-faceted change project such as CNS. Taking each condition in turn:
Setting the common agenda
The first phase of the CNS operation in a CNS site is characterised by by a detailed analysis of context including mapping the current neighbourhood landscape of services and working with local community partners, children and their parents to set a common agenda built on the holistic approach to improvement. The priority action areas and outcomes – long term, intermediate, and short-term – are developed from engagement activities into a Theory of Change for the project.
Mutually reinforcing activities
A collective impact model aims to harness the existing resources of neighbourhood or project area to achieve the aims of the common agenda. This is led by a backbone organisation acting to understand the capabilities of partners (and individuals) in the area it works, and ‘coordinat[ing] their differentiated activities through a mutually reinforcing plan of action’ (Kania & Kramer 2011, p. 7). In the initiation phase of CNS, extensive work was undertaken to identify and engage existing partners who are already working within the priority areas for children and young people, identified by partners and community members: in ‘transitions’ (e.g. nursery to primary school, primary to secondary school, school to career), career and education, mental health, family life and social life.
Relationship-building among the wide variety of partners and actors is a fundamental aspect of any collaborative enterprise, and in a collective impact project it is crucial to success. It allows for all those involved in the project to build trust, assure mutual objectives and create common motivation (Hanleybrown, et al., 2012, Kania & Kramer, 2013). This relationship building occurs among partners, between partners and community members, and between all of these groups and the backbone organisation.
This final condition of a collective impact initiative is less developed at present for CNS, but it is no less important. It is an on-going task for the neighbourhood team to collate more precise data specifically for CNS from a range of sources and services. The data contained in neighbourhood profiles combined with the detailed analysis of context is fundamental to the CNS approach. This diverse range of information is used to provide a holistic picture of the neighbourhood we are working with and to inform our decision-making. The programme leadership is constantly revisiting and refining this analysis to identify changes in the context and to draw out the learning and lessons offered by the analysis.
Clearly, each of these conditions require continual attention and revisiting as the developmental and research activity continues to evolve. Refining the approach using a range of data and evidence to learn and inform decision-making is key to achieving collective impact. I now move on to the final section to consider some of the implications for leading collective impact.
Collective Impact: Implications for leadership
Since its inception in 2017, there are a number of lessons that have emerged from CNS. Here we focus on the implications for leadership. We offer them as challenges that must be overcome to successfully operate in a challenging, highly fluid and volatile context that involves working across a set of complex organisational, professional and political domains. The challenges include:
- Pace and momentum – The first leadership challenge relates to ensuring that CNS maintains appropriate pace so that momentum is not lost, whilst also ensuring authentic buy-in from professional and community stakeholders so that they are empowered to co-produce the solutions needed to progress the project. This is particularly challenging when significant time has been invested in building the interpersonal relationships necessary to empower stakeholders which can be easily lost through staff turnover. In order to mitigate this challenge CNS ensures a structured handover with an overlap and induction period. Relationships are documented and archived to ensure institution memory is maintained.
- Managing expectations and maintaining focus – A second key leadership challenge involves managing multiple expectations from the community and other key stakeholders, services including those imposed by local and national government. In managing these often conflicting expectations it is important for the leadership to maintain focus on the key activities related to delivering impact rather than being diverted to serve others’ agendas that fall outwith the aims and objectives of CNS. In order to achieve this, the CNS team has drawn on a range of expertise from within the team to ensure that the CNS leadership plays to their strengths and where possible can draw on social capital from pre-existing relationships.
- Balancing research and development activity – One strength of CNS is the extent which evidence and research guides developmental activity; the extent to which CNS is a ‘Learning Programme’. This can also create a leadership challenge about where to focus resources and energy at any given time. Leaders need to be clear about the quality and robustness of the research and evaluation evidence generated in order to make research-informed decisions whilst at the same time maintaining developmental action. This is linked to the first leadership challenge of maintaining pace and momentum. To ensure an appropriate balance between research and development is maintained, that they inform one another, and that ‘research’ and ‘development’ silos are avoided, the membership of the planning and research and evaluation groups are mixed and the senior leaders of the project have an oversight of all research and development activities.
- Building and sustaining authentic relationships – This leadership challenge is particularly important when operating in a challenging, highly fluid and volatile contexts. Leaders require high-level influencing, facilitation, brokerage, and negotiating skills. CNS leaders cannot rely on their professional position, power and authority which are likely to have little credibility when working in an unusual, different or multidisciplinary professional settings to their own. In order to build these relationships CNS leaders have deliberately operated at different levels within hierarchical structures to build authentic networks and communities of practice across a range of organisational, professional and political domains.
- Managing competition and fostering collaboration – Fluid and volatile contexts often have a competitive edge. This may be between different services or third sector organisations that are providing services in return for resources. This can be further complicated by local histories and the alliances that have developed over time. This presents a complex leadership challenge when attempting to build a collaborative culture underpinned by a common agenda with mutually reinforcing activities and shared measurement systems. CNS leaders have sought to achieve this through constant communication, professionalism and being transparent in their actions and decisions at all times.
- Politics and vested interests – The previous five leadership challenges all form part of the requirement to manage politics and vested interests at all levels. This requires leaders to understand the micro-politics of local communities and to understand, and be able to influence, politicians and leaders in local government and other organisations that serve the communities. CNS leaders also need to understand, and be able to respond to and influence, national policymakers and politicians. The team has achieved this by ensuring there is a mixed skillset across the leadership profile and through careful selection of a National Director with a diverse range of experience and expertise, rarely found in any one individual.
These leadership challenges and the emerging messages about the nature of leadership practices required to mitigate them offer a potential way forward that resonates with the types of leadership necessary to support educational and wider public service reform agenda in Scotland (cf. Christie, 2011).
These reforms are attempting to improve the performance of public services and outcomes for citizens by shifting from a dominant hierarchical culture with its associated bureaucratic, managed organisations underpinned by leadership based on position and power to a much flatter non-hierarchical culture. This culture has the potential to support high levels of social cohesion underpinned by collaborative leadership, partnership and co-production between service providers (and the communities they serve).
As already noted, this is particularly important for CNS where, for example, the team might be facilitating a meeting or planning a development with a number of leaders from a range of public, third and private sector organisations, which may also involve senior university academics and senior practitioners in the field. It is CNS’s experience, and there is increasing evidence from our own empirical research on public service leadership, in Scotland (Chapman, 2018) and the wider literature (cf. Sullivan and Skecher, 2002), that in these complex settings, traditional patterns of leadership fall way short of building the trust or relationships necessary to deliver the intended outcomes. Rather, a more nuanced collaborative form of leadership has the potential to build a sense of community and shared endeavour across a range of boundaries.
The leaders that seem capable of providing successful leadership in these complex settings are those that exhibit the characteristics of ‘public service reticulists’ (Chapman, Watson and van Amersfoort, 2018), that is, they are sophisticated learners and are adaptive and effective in a range of complex settings. These public service reticulists are:
- Skilled communicators – Public service reticulists use adaptive language to empathise with others through negotiation and see challenging and complex situations from a range of perspectives. They can demonstrate empathy with other perspectives whilst influencing individual and group positions.
- Excellent networkers – Public service reticulists use their expertise and social and emotional intelligences to gain access to a diverse range of settings, both locally and nationally. They seek out and connect with those who have similar interests to build coalitions and alliances that can lever the outcomes that they desire in different parts or levels within the system.
- Strategic in orientation – Public service reticulists see the ‘big picture’ and understand the contributions that partners can make. These leaders have the ability to get the appropriate expertise and experience around the table and can make the case for collaboration, so individuals can see the value added in working together strategically to generate long-term productive relationships.
- Contextually astute – Public service reticulists understand the relationship between organisational conditions, individuals’ behaviours and outcomes. These leaders understand the power of context and are astute in developing solutions that optimise the capability and capacity residing in specific settings.
- Problem solvers – Public service reticulists think laterally and creatively to seek solutions. These leaders are not linear thinkers. They make connections that most of us fail to see. This means that they tend to be innovative, challenge orthodoxies and push the boundaries of practice.
- Self-managing – Public service reticulists are adept at risk-taking within a framework that understands organisational capacity. These leaders dare to challenge the status quo and take risks without being reckless. When something is not working, or looks problematic, they fail fast and adapt their approach to achieve success.
The experiences from CNS suggest that the leadership challenges associated with developing successful place-based interventions are complex and often not straight forward. We conclude with three key reflections. First, traditional forms of leadership that find solace in their own professional identity and working within rather than across professional boundaries are outmoded and undermine holistic place-based approaches such as CNS. Second, we need leaders that are comfortable working at different levels within the system rather than being pigeon-holed in a hierarchy, and can work across a range of different boundaries. Therefore, CNS will need to build a team of public service reticulsts that are confident boundary spanners over the next phase of development. Third and finally, that this situation presents a significant professional learning challenge for the system. As yet, there is no systematic professional development in place to support growing this type of leadership. As we emerge out of the COVID-19 pandemic we have an opportunity to do things differently and given the impacts of the pandemic working across boundaries will be more important than ever and we will need a new form of leadership that is fit for purpose and can support authentic collaboration to achieve collective impact.
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