Working in partnership - with each other, with colleagues, with clients and with those they serve – is fundamental to what we do. We know how difficult it can be. But we have also learnt that unless we succeed at this, we are unlikely to succeed at anything else.
Our needs change over time, as do our public services and the money available to fund them. What remains the same is that no single service can meet all the needs of individuals or communities. As those needs increase and funding pressures grow, public sector organisations have to work together like never before if we are to achieve better outcomes.
Intellectually, most people agree that collaboration between services has to improve. Practically, what most people continue to experience and articulate are the barriers to achieving this.
There are many, many reasons given for why partnership working fails – from organisational structures and differing financial and regulatory structures, to history and culture - the list goes on. But in some areas, it is starting to work. In these areas collaboration is becoming part of the fabric of service provision, and as a result the system has started to bend itself into a shape that fits around the service user and, therefore, to look quite different. What is different about those areas, and what can we learn from them - both about how other areas can achieve similar results, and why overall it has proven so hard to achieve these at scale?
One thing that is not different is the statutory and budgetary context – there is no silver bullet to deal with the web of regulation and complex structural relationships between organisations. Budgets and responsibilities remain split, savings flow ineffectively around the system, accountability is diffuse and often difficult to identify – these areas do not get an easier ride than anyone else.
So why do some areas make progress towards integration when others struggle even to get people into the same room to have an initial conversation? The clue is in the question – it’s about the people and the relationships. In these areas, the thing that is different is the behaviours.
Areas where genuine collaboration is underway tend to tell a very similar story and it is, above all, a human story about people trying to create something different by behaving differently. People cite the ‘relationships’, ‘bottom-up collaboration’, ‘getting to know each other’, ‘co-location’ and ‘conversations’ as some of the things that have made their collaborations work.
The common theme is that these are all elements of practice that talk about ‘how’ you do things, not ‘what you do’.
Whatever we think about what the national bodies can do to help integration (and we are not saying that greater pragmatism and perspective around regulation wouldn’t be welcome), if we start to see the main, critical factor in integration as individual behaviours and, by extension, the human choices that motivate those behaviours, it is not hard to see why the solution to the current slow progress cannot come from central directives alone.
Organisations and professions are human creations; changing the way they operate means changing the way people behave. But we also know that changing behaviours is the hardest shift of all – far easier to reorganise, outsource, insource than ask people to do something differently for no reason other than that what they have been doing previously could be done better if they did so.
What we see is that there are leaders at all levels within organisations who can take their teams, colleagues and organisations on this journey. But what we also recognise is that these leaders are not “better” than other people. What they do works because they share an understanding that collaboration is a human process, with different rules of engagement from the task-led model of traditional service delivery. They find ways to reach those around them, enabling them to feel connected to each other and to the outcomes they are trying to achieve, not to the comfort blankets of custom, practice and fixed identity.
We know this is no easy task - experience demonstrates that true connection is one of the hardest things for any of us, as human beings, to achieve, but so critical in enabling us to work differently.