Features: March 25th, 2010

The total place approach is already gaining ground and the task now is to take it forward into everyday behaviour in public services. This round up of views from the regional improvement and efficiency partnerships shows how local strategic partnerships (LSPs), which in turn bring together different parts of the private, voluntary and public sectors in promoting improvement initiatives, are being supported. It also reveals thinking about what lies ahead.

Total place thinking is radical in the extreme. It is concerned with fundamentals and involves a paradigm shift in thought. Not only does it embrace long standing ambitions such as customer focus, localism and joined up working, but it also demonstrates how these ideas can be bundled up to deliver better services at lower cost. In just one year the total place brand has been developed to the point where it is an effective driver of change. It complements the other change driver which is budget cuts. The cuts are focusing minds on doing things differently.

Developing new business models

Steve Johnson, Corporate Director of Capital Ambition, London’s improvement and efficiency partnership (RIEP) believes: “The current business models of public services are not sustainable in the new financial climate. The expenditure cuts that are likely to be demanded cannot be achieved with traditional efficiency savings. New business models are needed which involve partnerships between many disparate organisations and different ways of working.” What the new models will look like no one can predict, other than to say they will involve collaborative working. At the extreme, services in the longer term could be delivered by multi skilled client groups with no visible boundaries.

Pushing doors open

The RIEPs are all engaged in the process of transformation, but without a vision of the end result it is inevitably a messy process. But the vagueness and ambiguity are not hampering progress. Thinking total place is about changing the mindset and Andy Hancox, Director of West Midland RIEP, believes that: “Substantial progress in changing mindsets has already been made”. He went on to describe the role of the RIEP as pushing open doors with labels such as leadership, customer focus, understanding transformation and developing technologies and methodologies.

Another of Andy Hancox’s doors is shared understanding. All public services have very distinctive cultures, not to mention structures and processes. A recent conference in the north west tackled this issue of shared understanding. Chief executives of public bodies were brought together to develop a shared understanding of the longer-term agenda for local public services across the region. Bernadette Hurst, Assistant Chief Executive of NWIEP said: “The conference was a mini total place event and was delivered through a partnership between regional organizations. It reviewed progress across the NHS and local government and gave partners a clear sense of the key collaborative issues. We are continuing to build a strong network of public sector leaders across the region.”

Boundaries are not just about oraganisation charts, but are more to do with culture, with loyalties and with personal ambition. Total place pilots and the work going on in the parallel places has involved extensive boundary pushing and hearts as well as minds have been affected. In the last year there has been a growth in shared understanding, but in percentage terms it must be a very low number.

Culture is sometimes described as ‘the way things are done around here’. Changing it is a slow process because minds and hearts are influenced by experience rather than edicts and memos. Working together at street level, as is the case with total place, is a great way to start moving away from the old culture and edging towards the new. But this movement needs support to be sustainable. There has to be some integration above the front line. Bringing organizations together at senior level is already happening, but often it is presented as a cost saving move. Appointing a chief executive or finance director to both a council and a primary care trust does save money, but the greatest benefit is that it is a catalyst in the process of integration.

Integrating organizations brings benefits such as limiting duplication, but it also exposes issues that need to be tackled vigorously. The complex financial structures and management processes of public bodies not only hamper the development of innovative solutions, they are also a cost burden. These issues are being addressed in the south west. Bryony Houlden, Chief Executive, South West IEP said: “In the south west, authorities strongly believe that by working collectively, partners can deliver more efficient and cost effective services. They can work to unravel the labyrinth of financing and joining up the delivery of services. A number of local authorities are also already exploring a variety of mechanisms to make efficiencies in the delivery of infrastructure and development including ‘asset backed vehicles’, ‘total capital’ and joined up infrastructure planning. These examples will be important in helping to deliver the outcomes from total place, which has been rolled out across all our authorities.”

Driving transformation

The RIEPs have adopted different approaches to transformation by moving the culture away from seeking improvements from within organisational boundaries using allocated budgets and towards a boundaryless context where expenditure decisions start with the customer. Chris Allison, Director, East Midlands RIEP expressed it this way: “If public sector providers can place the citizen at the heart of service re-design, rather than sectorial interest of providers, there is an opportunity to complete some really innovative service re-engineering. This is the approach being adoptd in the east midlands. For local authorities over the next five years, collaboration with other public sector partners will be the name of the game, given the financial constraints.”

Moving beyond boundaries has long been a characteristic of working in the north east. Martin Ryan Director of the North East RIEP said: From the outset there has been a focus on the fundamentals of effective partnership working and promoting ways of helping partners to pay conscious attention to how they work. The essential behaviours that facilitate good partnership, and the commitment to surmounting structural barriers such as ring-fenced budgets, departmental targets or restrictions on data and intelligence sharing, are as valid in the context of total place as in any other partnership setting.” He added that: “Total place needs that spirit of tenacity and commitment if it is going to stick as a way of working. As we prepare practical and defined projects based on the learning from pilots nationally, the North East will continue to promote good partnership behaviour as the core of its partnerships programme.”

The Yorkshire and Humberside approach is to take learning from the local pilot project in a region wide programme of events. Chris Taylor, Director of YoHr Space said: “As a first step, sharing the experiences from Bradford gives all our authorities an ideal platform from which to apply learning. Many of our authorities have undertaken projects using total place principles, the challenge now is how the learning from these can be delivered to drive the efficiencies we know can be realised”

Although total place is a radical shift from the traditional approach to the governance and management of public services, it is not applied to a greenfield site where the sheet of paper is blank. Many features of total place thinking, such as customer focus, have been around for a long time. In the same way much development work pre-dates the launch of the total place pilots. Bringing existing ideas and current work into total place is a feature of the approach in the south east. The asset management project of the Kent pilot has a history of collaboration with partners and it is now a learning vehicle for the region. Andrew Larner, Director of South East RIEP believes that it is important to blend the old with the new: “We are planning an event which will take the learning from the Kent pilot across the region. This is one example of the way we are facilitating learning from the pilots so that the 74 councils and 251 public bodies and registered social landlords can get the total place message and see the progress that has been made. Although a shared understanding across all these organization is some way off, there is a shared willingness to get there.”

All this industry of change has to be seen against the background of keeping the show on the road with day to day business. As Dick Sorabji, Director of Policy at London Councils, expressed it: “There needs to be a balance between change and maintenance”.

Risks to progressing total place thinking

Concerns surfaced about factors which might impede the development of total place thinking. The way in which the transformation of public services is to be taken forward is a sensitive issue. Dick Sorabji is building up specific cases for devolution, such as integrated health care. London, like other parts of the country, has unique problems and the best solutions will be those developed locally. This sentiment is echoed across the RIEPs and any national total place plan rolled out from the centre would be unwelcome.

The other big issue is finance. Local spending decisions are at the heart of total place thinking. There needs to be freedom to invest in one area for the benefit of another. To allow innovation and creativity to flourish it must be possible to move money around. Aligning budgets is a helpful first step in this direction. But Steve Johnson, a former senior civil servant and now Corporate Director of Capital Ambition, has some doubts about how far budgets will be delegated: “Budgets in Whitehall are about more than just money, they are also about trust and the standing of Ministerial departments.”

The message from the regions is that, if you are in the business of transformational change, as the RIEPs are, the climate is right for a successful outcome. This remains true, despite not knowing what the outcome will be. The total place brand has become the flagship of change and the dire state of the nations finances make cost cutting imperative. The space has been created to allow the experts on the ground who understand the problem to display innovation and creativity. But it is not just a matter of binning the rule book and allowing everyone to get on with it. Local and central structures and processes have to be modified progressively and the mindsets of a great many people have yet to be changed. Also, change needs support and nurturing. Top down commitment is vital, but the real change will be created bottom up. It is clear that the RIEPs are playing a key role in supporting localities to deliver better and more efficient public services.