Sent to Coventry: lessons from place-based systems research in Coventry

Earlier this year, Collaborate carried out a piece of action research in Coventry, exploring place-based systems change in Coventry. Funded by Lankelly Chase and following the critical Hard Edges report, our research focused on place-based systems change for those facing multiple and severe disadvantage.

The following questions provided the frame and context for our research:

  • Why are small-scale place-based collaborations that address severe disadvantage so hard to scale up sustainably?
  • Are there systemic blocks to collaboration and are these place, institution, individual specific?
  • And if there are, what does that tell us about the ways in which our understanding of collaboration, co-production and system change might need to adapt?

Collaborate will be publishing the report, Behaving Like a System?, next week with the findings from our research.  However, in the meantime La Toyah McAllister-Jones shares 3 lessons/observations from her experience in Coventry:

It’s the people, stupid!

People make the place. The relationships between different parts of any system will be shaped by the people and their relationships; to each other and to the place.  In Stage 1 of our research, one of the things I remember being struck by was the strength of the relationships in Coventry. I met many people who had lived in Coventry their whole lives; went to school, grew up, got married, had a family, etc. The phrase that kept jumping out in our initial interviews was ‘Coventry is like a village’, implying what we know about village life; everyone knows each other, we know what’s happening in our communities, our connections run deep.

This is certainly true of Coventry and this has a significant impact on the shape and behaviour of its systems. The nature of these relationships provides both opportunity and challenge to a place-based approach (you can read more about this in our report). However, what all this means is that it is impossible to separate the people from the systems because ultimately, systems and people-led.

Disruptive innovators

In a place-based approach disruptive innovators are needed. They are the ones who are prepared to challenge the status quo, question perceived wisdom and throw the rule book away. There was lots of evidence of this in Coventry, from the faith-community’s leadership in programmes in housing and the Foodbank to the CAB’s partnership with the private sector (more on this in our report!).

What is interesting is that in most cases, these disruptive innovators were to be found outside of the established organisations and institutions. One of Coventry’s strengths is that these innovators are welcomed and supported to maximise outcomes for the communities they work with. So the question I am left with is ‘how can place-based systems approach nurture disruptive innovation from inside the ‘tent’ and make it constructive’?

There is a benefit to retaining outsiders who kick against the systems and force change but the next step must be focused on exploring how more risk-averse providers can provide space for natural disrupters to thrive and make a difference.

Defining ‘service provider’

I had an interesting conversation with a colleague in Brighton about local authorities and their role and responsibilities in this changing and uncertain landscape. My colleague mentioned that local authorities are ‘delivering less for less’. My experience in Coventry made me think about whether this is actually the case.

The perception of ‘less for less’ is really an unhelpful narrative and one that I would challenge. As local authorities up and down the country face the challenge of engaging citizens in the design and delivery of services to the public, there is a need to develop a narrative that supports this new approach.

In Coventry, we saw that strong evidence of a local authority exploring its new role within the community. In some cases, Coventry City Council provided the ‘frame around the picture’; acting as a broker or providing at platform for others to lead the delivery of services. Is this delivering ‘less for less’? Or is the ‘provider’ just delivering in a different way?

In this space, service providers ask themselves ‘who is best-placed to deliver?’.  Answering this question honestly can lead to unlikely partnerships and creative solutions to complex situations. I now have a different perspective on what ‘provider’ or ‘delivery’ might mean within a systems approach.

Systems change is messy and complex. The big question is how comfortable we are with getting messy?

Behaving Like A System? will be published on Friday. If our work in Coventry interests you and you’d like to know more, please contact or


Image courtesy of report Behaving Like A System?

About La Toyah McAllister-Jones

La Toyah is an Associate for Citizen Engagement and worked at Collaborate until February this year. She was a 2013 Clore Social Fellow and worked for Movement for Change, a community organising agency founded by David Miliband with its roots in the Labour movement. She has over 15 years of experience in the social justice field, with extensive experience working with vulnerable and complex needs groups for St Mungo's Broadway. She has also worked in the youth criminal justice system, developing a restorative justice programme across a range of services for young people living in Brighton and Hove, working closely with Sussex Police and the Youth Offending Team. This model developed in Brighton from this work became the foundation of the Community Resolution disposal now used by across the Sussex Police Force.

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