Place is the space

Our director Dr Henry Kippin writes for the MJ on place based leadership in a digital world.

The late, great Nigerian author Chinua Achebe once defined art as the constant effort to create for ourselves a ‘different order of reality from that which is given to us’. I wonder if it tells us something about the art of local leadership?

At this week’s SOLACE Summit I will be speaking at a session on ‘Place based leadership in a digital world’. Not much art in that title, you might argue, but plenty to be curious about.

If we are indeed heading to a new (digital) world, what is the nature of our struggle that will make it a positive one for people and places? As a guiding question for the leadership challenge in local government, it isn’t bad.

Here are three implications:

1. The world is changing, so our notions of good public service leadership need to change with it.

There is good reason to believe the context for local public leadership is getting more complex and difficult: a supply-and-demand gap of £25bn by 2025 (according to the Local Government Association) created by unevenly spread cuts and rising demand. That means around 25 in every 1,000 people experiencing multiple and complex forms of disadvantage, according to the Lankelly Chase Foundation. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation highlights entrenched poverty which defines the life chances of some kids by the age of three.

These are examples of challenges that are locally felt but cannot be solved with local services, organisations or even sectors acting in isolation. This makes purposeful collaboration an explicit part of the contemporary skillset for leaders.

2. Place is the space, so leaders need to work out what that means for their role.

The re-emergence of place-based working as a mechanism for change is welcome and somewhat counter-cultural in an era of foundation trusts, free schools and community rehabilitation companies.

As ever, the onus is on local leaders to create narratives that can bind local partners together around the things that matter to place.

Earlier this year we hosted the Place-Based Health Commission with the NLGN. Working in Sunderland, Suffolk, Sutton and Birmingham, we pulled out two vital ingredients from emerging examples of place-based working: the right people who can ‘translate’ the system across its constituent parts, and the right ‘commitment devices’ to help turn nascent collaborations into cultures and practices that are weighty enough to challenge the status quo.

Senior leaders don’t need to play these roles but they do need to understand who does, and create the space for them to act.

3. System change won’t stick without the right system infrastructure.

Working through points one and two is rather useless if we have no means to sustain collaborative working within a place above and beyond the personalities of good leaders.

This means getting the ‘hard wiring’ right: re-thinking the role of existing infrastructure so that it supports collaboration and drives collective purpose.

If place really is the space, then the toolbox of public management needs to be about system sustainability as well as organisational excellence.

We cannot afford another round of last man standing, which damages the long term capability of councils and their social partners to act together.

The extent to which digital – or indeed any – solutions can support this collaborative alternative is the basis on which they should be held to account. And by the way, Mr Achebe also famously wrote that ‘if you don’t like someone’s story; write your own’. The challenge is well set.

About Henry Kippin

Dr Henry Kippin is executive director of Collaborate. He is a visiting fellow at the School of Politics and International Relations at Queen Mary University of London, and at the UNDP Global Centre for Public Service Excellence. Henry was previously a founding partner of the RSA 2020 Public Services Hub, an advisor to Accenture’s global Public Services for the Future programme, and head of research at an international development agency. He has a PhD from the University of Sheffield and is co-editor of ‘Public Services: a new reform agenda’, published in 2013 by Bloomsbury Press.

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