In what ways might a city need to think differently if it is to get to where it wants to be?

The Sustainable Community Strategy for Birmingham (UK) has as its goal that, by 2026, the city will demonstrably be a good place to live, to work and to bring up children. The strategy sets out some broad ways forward but on the surface these can look quite similar to the existing plans for progress that are not taking the city forward at the scale and pace necessary to achieve that goal.

In order to get to where it has set the marker down, the city as a whole (whatever that may mean in practice) will need to adopt some changes to the ways that certain things – progress; outcomes; systems; engagement; diversity of views etc – are thought about. Birmingham knows that it can improve such things by understanding them better. All of this raises the question of how a city (as a learning, developing system) learns to change by changing the ways that puzzles are conceptualised and acted upon. What are the most-likely-to-succeed approaches for the future? What more does such a city need to know and understand if it is to attain the aim of being a flourishing, connected, diverse, sustainable community by 2026?

This is not unique to Birmingham. Other cities want to make similar progress. The thinking that follows may equally well also apply at the level of towns, organisations, networks and so on.

Given the complex nature of developments, the scale of changes to be made, the pace at which many interconnecting things need to happen at the same time, and the shifting nature of local, national and global contexts there is a sense that thinking ways forward is unlikely to be simply linear and definitive. Planning, innovating and moderating ways of being and ways of doing things may be much more of an unfolding exploration. It may not be adequate to sketch out grand-scale inflexible pathways. There may need to be more reliance put on modest, contingent, conditional and interpretative sets of changes to ensure progress continues to be made with a larger, looser but equally robust framework that is able to sustain progress year-on-year towards the desired state of things.

Reflecting back on system-changes that have been more or less successful in the city over recent years there are a number of understandings that can be clustered in different ways so that emerging key lines of influence might be glimpsed. From the work done in Birmingham it seems that there may be at least five such lines of influence. These are:

  • The understandings of middle managers
  • The capacity to harvest past learnings and make sense (and sensible use) of them
  • The extent to which a variety of views are able to count within the drive for system-wide change
  • The abilities to maximise leverages that can move things along from being plans to being impacts and further on to being real changes in outcomes of the lives of people
  • The various understandings around accountabilities, values, expectations ..

It is quite feasible that there could be other ways of articulating the interplays between various fragments of understanding, and come up with a different set of key influences. Nor are the five listed above discrete lines of thought. They are proposed here on a ‘good enough for now’ basis in order to take the exploration forward. Each is unravelled in turn.

The understandings of middle managers

  • There are likely to be expectations that managers at a number of levels will have increased freedoms and flexibilities (as opposed to fixed centrally-managed roles) in ways that bring them into areas that are new and sometimes ambiguous. The way managers view their roles determines the ways they feel able to act in practice.
  • There is already an increased focus on outcomes and accountabilities at the same time as an integration of efforts that de-emphasises notions of ‘being the lead for’, single-agency ownership of issues, traditional structures (of management or governance) etc.. This often requires a new mindset about what managers are there for and how they might operate in a changing, adapting world.
  • There is no shortage of data : it comes thicker and faster than ever before. Frontline staff are expected to both collect and use a wide range of information, with more and more information being fed to middle managers. The managers’ wider understandings of the bigger picture, their operating principles and values, determine how they make use of this information, the frameworks they use to create understandable stories from it, and how the information becomes good professional knowledge that can guide decisions about future paths to take or better deployment of reducing resources.
  • Key managers have direct responsibilities for the welfare of staff and the maintenance of routines (and, ultimately, for demonstrating the need for their own continued employment). This can often lead to situations where parts of the system try to preserve the problems to which they are (or have been in the past) the solution.
  • In a rapidly changing world where solutions often are expected to be more complex or sophisticated, managers are increasingly expected to respond rapidly, flexibly, in responsive ways that can still be shown to be policy-led. At the same time these managers may still be operating in a system that has a legacy of being hierarchical, with its share of silos, and with fixed expectations of how things are to be done.
  • Middle managers may increasingly be seen as responsible for bringing about change (as opposed to their old role of service delivery) may need a different vocabulary or narrative which places less emphasis on reporting ‘things we do’ and more emphasis on reporting the changes made, the journey so far, the distance still to travel, how best to ‘get there’.
  • There are issues for managers around local/central rationalities: who decides what is the best thing to do, the sense of purpose behind decisions to be made, where those views come from, and so on. It is unrealistic maybe to assume that there is coherence to all of this: that everyone shares the same perspectives, or that everyone talks or acts in the same ways when constructing meaning within the daily realities of professional activity.
  • There are balances to be struck by managers between the extent to whichtheir job is to support learning/understanding that takes place ‘vertically’ (reporting up/ disseminating down) and the extent to which learning/understandings might occur ‘horizontally’ (through sharing knowledge across; communities of practitioners challenging each other’s understandings). There are increasing attempts to understand the dilemmas, pressures and rewards that are a feature of the ‘swampy lowlands’ of professional practices; and attempts to reconcile the notions of practice-based evidence and evidence-based practice.


The capabilities of the system to harness and make use of learning

  • Systems are, to a degree, unpredictable; time may be needed to see how things unfold and yet the pressure is on to manage emails/meetings etc in rapid, short-focus ways. At the same time much of the available information may appear contestable, ambiguous, even contradictory: things may be less clear cut than seemed to be the case in past years. Key individuals may need to develop new skills in in managing contradiction and lack of clarity.
  • In order to get the best understanding from information there may be a need to take intelligent overviews, to have interrogative frameworks, to exert critical thinking, and to allow time and space for various explorations to take place within the pressures to take things forward.
  • Within a drive to streamline decision-making and to provide quicker responses there is also a need to keep more people within knowledge-loops, allowing for more discussion that captures the variety of perspectives – implying a greater use of time-limited, highly focused, thinktank, guided conversations.
  • Increasingly communications need to be across boundaries or in contexts where no formal boundaries exist. In these situations ‘normal rules’ may not apply and people may operate much more via informal self-arranged subsystems that develop their own theoretical assumptions about what is possible.
  • Whilst there is an increased emphasis on evidence-based practice and outcomes-based planning there is often a lack of agreed understandings about what brings about change in particular outcomes, about how to translate robust knowledge into effective practices, and how the system may best operate in order to foster the implementation of change.


The ability to maximise leverages to move from planning intent, to practical impact, to shifts in outcomes in people’s lives

  • Whilst there has been an increased emphasis on securing planned outcomes there has been less practical demonstration of the mechanisms that move from policy to planning frameworks to action schedules for implementation of things likely to shift outcomes at the (almost ‘industrial’) pace and scale needed.
  • There have been strong parallel narratives around closing achievement gaps, health gaps etc – but slower progress in achieving closure of such gaps across the board through system-wide improvements. The same issues stay on the to-do agenda with little forward momentum.
  • Action plans tend to be at the level of lists of activities/ projects/ interventions or, occasionally, at the level of overarching frameworks. There is less articulation of the relationships between strategic frameworks, implemented activities and secured quantifiable improvements in outcomes. Where such descriptions are being put in place these tend to be linear, ‘boxed’, single-action rather than reflecting that things may emerge, that patterns may change, and that things may be reliant on other things being in place.


Understandings around accountabilities, values, expectations etc

  • Much use has been made of the idea of ‘value for money’ but without any clear explanations of ‘value’ this tends to be mostly judgements about ‘money’. There is increased concern for Public Value or Social Value. This puts more of an emphasis on attempting to quantify the less tangible notions of ‘use’ or ‘value’ when determining practical ways forward.
  • Where people are concerned with systems approaches and interagency/partnership approaches it is sometimes easier to be unclear about which part of the system is responsible for securing which set of changes within the whole forward enterprise. Even less clear is where any accountabilities may lie (To direct managers? To higher-level governance arrangements? To the beneficiaries of proposed changes? To the wider public in general?). Accountabilities and responsibilities get lost within dotted lines and overlapping boxes, or within shared plans etc.. Accountabilities are not always clear (for what; by whom, by when etc) around ensuring that changes occur at the scale and pace necessary to ensure substantial progress on key priorities.


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