5 June 2019

In search of effective collaborative challenge for a more equitable society

James Henderson, Research Associate with What Works Scotland, considers the final reflective learning report from the Aberdeenshire case site and the challenges of 'putting Christie into action'.


This report – At the frontier of collaborative and participatory governance – builds on What Works Scotland's action research work with both local and central community planning partnership (CPP) partners in Aberdeenshire over 20 months to the end of 2016. It draws from reflective interviews (summer 2017) with 23 local and central practitioners and policy-makers working across the CPP.

I've used (interpreted and analysed) this material to create eight discussions (Part 2 of the report) that could be used to inform ongoing dialogue with a public service partnership that is aiming to:

  • build shared understandings of 'where have we now got to with the Christie Commission agenda?' – the current frontier of complex partnership and participation
  • commit to intentional, sustained long-term working on complex social problems ('wicked issues') that require urgent preventative actions e.g. health inequalities.

The report provides a rich picture of the opportunities, challenges and dilemmas that practitioners are facing and generates testing questions to inform such dialogue. One key dilemma that continues to emerge across the report is whether collaborative approaches are up to the task of sustaining the necessary levels of change across partners and communities.

"The reluctance of human beings to change is just immense … And so sensible processes that (seek) change ahead of the curve, on the whole, don't happen quickly enough … . It's just impossible to get people to accept that, and to actually voluntarily change at a fast-enough rate. They're happy to change everyone else's services, but not their own." 
(research participant)

The existing evidence base should give pause for thought, with some researchers more optimistic as to the prospects for partnership and participation to create innovation; and, others more pessimistic given the history of partnership and participation in relation to reducing inequalities since the 1980s… although it seems plausible to hold both positions.

The eight discussions therefore offer 'spaces' – reflections and examples – that seek to fuel the imagination as to how strategies for sufficiently effective 'collaborative challenge' might be developed and sustained, for example, through:

  • building local leadership networks and use of on-going external facilitation for 'constructive disruption'
  • long-term investing in local civil society e.g. community organisations, equalities groups, local trades union branches. 
  • action research networks and related local deliberative (democratic) activities that keep these issues visible over the longer term.

However, the report also flags the sense of urgency via the Commission’s agenda: the need for change 'right now' in relation to health inequalities – to tackle current human misery and poverty (social justice) and to work towards sustainable future state finances in the longer-term - given increasing demand. And these aspirations feel ill-fitting with the slower, steady pace of change that the stronger examples of local public service partnerships would seem to offer.

In this context, I’m find more optimism in linking to the wider workings of the state, economy and communities. And these are also flagged up by the Commission through its concerns for the relationship between public services, inclusive economic development and local democracy/autonomy. The report, in this light, therefore points to one key area of challenge for public service partnerships as their willingness to actively engage and advocate more widely for wider systems and social change – for instance, as engagement and advocacy in relation to: local economic and related social development strategies (the local economy); other forms of public and citizen planning e.g. spatial planning and local place plans; and, citizen access to welfare and benefits.

The Commission's ambitious social vision for public service reform and social change in pursuit of a more equitable society somehow feels tantalising out of our grasp. If 'we' could learn how to keep this vision clearly in focus, both locally and centrally and so to continue to wrestle (active dialogue) with the complex, wicked social issues it inevitably embodies then... we'd be better placed to keep working out  how to build the necessary levels and types of challenge to support such complex collaborative  change.

The full report and a range of summaries (shorter and longer) are available on the What Works Scotland website.

In a related blog, Chris Littlejohn, Deputy Director of Public Health with NHS Grampian, reflects on the long-standing public health agenda on health inequalities and the report's relevance to this approach.

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