Tag Archive for managing change

Bureaucracy

Bureaucracy has got a bad name. It is seen as a relatively recent disease in society, yet it has had a long history. Based on rationality and fixed procedures, it can be seen as having stemmed from very positive attempts to deal with variability, unpredictability and patronage – injecting transparency and fairness into social processes.

Bureaucracy has changed as society has changed. With the advent of mechanised mass production and the search for ever more efficiency, it became variously associated with totalitarian regimes, rule-based systems and a lack of humanity. As society continues to change new forms of bureaucracy are emerging. These can be viewed positively as adaptations to flexibility and creativity, or can be viewed more critically as the permeating of all social interaction by procedures and attitudes that are relatively meaningless yet which operate as a means of control. Read more

Some exploratory thoughts on Progress

The idea of progress is a complex concept. Normally it is taken to mean that the human condition is improving over time and will continue to improve into the foreseeable future.

This conceptualisation of progress include a sense of advancement, forward movement, and gaining a higher understanding or ability. It is an upward linear progression, a continuation, a development. Progress is Onwards and Upwards.

It also has the more subtle sense of simple passage of time; a going from place to place, a procession or journey, things being underway – as work being in progress: an unfinished thing that may or may not work out well.

The Enlightenment struggles with the idea of Progress were attempts to rationalise ways forward. Do we have similar impulses and methodologies that allow us to sense ways forward, to make contemporary progress, in a world that seems more fragmented, with uncertain sets of relationships. How will we agree what constitutes progress in a context that is complex, ambiguous, and kaleidoscopic? Read more

R:2025 – a contemporary exploration of ideas, people and places

R:2025 is an extended, fifteen year, creative programme of activities within a flexible framework, constructed from notions around: contemporary; writing in a range of styles, for a variety of purposes; cities and urban living; places, spaces, neighbourhoods and locations; construction of identities; learning and development; wellbeing and flourishing; evidence, research, knowledge and understandings;  emergence, complexity, uncertainty and contingency.

The overall driving idea is:  To use creative activity to make demonstrable contributions to changing the ways in which people think, behave and interact, in order to better understand social processes and developments; and gain potential for some leverage on a number of shared social issues.

A fuller description follows, including

  • A more detailed  development prospectus
  • a flexible framework  which summarises the work is being carried forward
  • the range of social issues being thought about and worked on
  • a possible change model
  • A link to the ThinkingForwards blog, which shows background workings-out

Read more

Child Poverty: What can a large complex city do to reduce levels?

In response to national legislation Birmingham (UK) set out the range of planned actions that were most likely to have an impact on levels of child poverty across the city, and that were already contained within City Council plans and within the plans set out by partner agencies. These included actions with immediate impact on child poverty; actions that will impact on child poverty in the near future; and actions that will impact on child poverty in the longer term.

Across the four-year period 2007-2011 Birmingham reduced its level of child poverty at four times the national rate. Not only has Birmingham has been making better than national average progress in reducing the level of child poverty (closing the gap to national figures), most progress was being made in the wards with highest levels of child poverty (closing the gaps between high-poverty wards and the city average).

Child poverty remains a significant issue for Birmingham, not least because of the size of the child population. Of the major cities, Birmingham had the fifth largest proportion of children living in poverty but, because of its population size, Birmingham continues to have by far the largest volume of child poverty to deal with of any local authority in England.

The next 3-5 year period presents new challenges to combatting levels of child poverty in the city, not least because of the impact of several recent national budgetary and local economic decisions. With all this is mind, in moving forward 2014-2017, there is a continuing need to ensure that this work gets carried forward at the scale and pace needed in the city, with sufficient traction to continue to make differences, and plugged into other social inclusion processes already in place. The city’s thinking framework and the successful actions can be maintained such that – despite national austerity measures impacting heavily on poor families in the city – Birmingham can continue to take seriously its duty to counter levels of family poverty in the city.

A link to a fuller account with statistics is here: combatting child poverty in Birmingham

Poverty and some of its impacts: What might be done?

This article is a composite write-up based on a number of presentations and interviews undertaken in September 2014 in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada. It intended as a broad-ranging, general interest exploration of a set of ideas, puzzles and practicalities, covering: 

  • Recent economic trends  
  • How poverty gets thought about, recorded and measured;  the realities in some people’s lives
  • Policy and social approaches that affect levels of poverty
  • How poverty links to the development of children and families
  • How these influence life chances
  • What things might reduce the numbers of people growing up in poverty

A full write-up of the inputs can be read here:  Poverty and some of its impacts

 

What – if anything – can be learnt from the so-called Trojan Horse Affair?

Background

The so-called Trojan Horse Affair arose from an anonymous letter that was circulating within Birmingham in November 2013. This letter set out mechanisms for the takeover of schools by new governors (and senior staff) in order to implement a more restrictive faith-based curriculum and ethos. The letter was aimed at people in a number of other cities and claimed that such events were already underway in some schools in predominantly Muslim areas of Birmingham.

There was considerable doubt about the authenticity of the letter. Nevertheless, it was passed to the local counter-terrorism police on the basis of needing to establish if any crime had been committed and because some of the sentiments in the letter verged on things that could be regarded as extremist. The police found no immediate links to terrorism. The letter was subsequently referred on to central government departments. It was, at that stage, felt that the letter exposed issues serious enough to warrant deeper investigation.

There were various discussions at local and national levels and a number of reviews were set up to explore what (if anything) was happening. Ofsted (the national body for inspecting education) was sent into a number of schools, some of which had only recently been inspected and judged to have good management in place.

Some of the schools were under the control of Birmingham City Council, as the local authority. The rest had converted to Academy status, independent of the local authority and run under contract by the national government Department for Education.

The whole episode attracted considerable media interest, over an extended period of time. It is hard to believe that some of the issues raised were of significance to Birmingham alone, but since the letter (and its reported activities) arose within Birmingham the episode became labelled the Birmingham Trojan Horse Affair. The daily news repetition of that label, in an essentially negative context, created a degree of damage to the reputation of the city as a whole and, to some local communities, it began to feel like a form of Islamophobia – particularly when the Secretary of State for Education appointed the former head of counterterrorism to head up the government’s review.

This article:

  • Looks at the wider historic factors around the issue.
  • Asks if it could all have been foreseen and prevented from developing as a big issue
  • Reviews the ability of language to clarify or cloud the issues.
  • Sets out the core issues
  • Looks at the outcomes from the various reviews, inspections and investigations
  • Explores the puzzles/issues raised and insights gained
  • Asks is this the end of the Affair, or are there similar beliefs and practices still at play – and how would anyone know?

The full article can be read here:  Trojan Horse lessons

 

 

Core skills achievements in Birmingham: Surely a reason to claim success

Since 1995, when Birmingham started its determined push to raise whole-city levels of literacy and numeracy, there have been a number of structural changes to both the local and the national education and skills landscape. Throughout all of these changes the city has been able to make meaningful statements about the progress within Birmingham and how it is doing compared with other major cities, and against national average figures. At the same time there have been contradictory statements about whether those national averages are improving or declining; or improving in absolute terms yet falling behind the improvements being made by other countries.

Birmingham’s initial development investments in children 0-5 are now showing through in attainments for those children at age 16. The investments in primary and secondary age pupils are showing through in young people aged 16-25. The investments in adults are showing through in the improved skills levels of the workforce. In 1995 we believed that it might take 15-20 years to get Birmingham, from its very low base, up to national standards for all-age literacy and numeracy. So what do the available 2012/2013 figures tell us?

  • In 1995 only one third of Birmingham children entered the first years of schooling with basic language/number skills in place. In 2013 the early language and numerical understandings and skills, on entry to school, are now at national levels – with double the number of children having the required basic skills. Given the diverse population of Birmingham, the number of under-fives growing up in families recently arrived from countries where English is not a national language, and the persistently disrupting effects of poverty on too many families in the city – this is a very good achievement.
  • In 1995 less than half of the city’s children made the transition from primary to secondary school with sufficient language, literacy and numeracy to tackle the secondary curriculum. Up to 2000 there was a rapid boost to the skills of primary-age children but this then began to lose momentum as schools over-focused on national testing and has only recently accelerated again. The English and Maths abilities of Birmingham children are now double what they were in 1995 and, again, are at national levels.
  • In 1995 Birmingham was in the lowest part of the national performance list for success levels in core subjects at the end of five years of secondary school education. Only one third of 16 year olds had at least five good passes in major subjects. The overall figure for such young people, in 2012, now stands at 88%, above the average for the country as a whole. Even if high-level passes in the core skills of English and Maths are included as a requirement within the five good performances, this was achieved (2012) by 60% of young people – slightly better than national average. By 2013 this percentage had risen to 62%.
  • The number of 16-18 year olds in some form of employment, education or training has increased substantially, meaning that far more young people have a continuing opportunity to improve their core skills, with 95% of young people now being functionally literate and numerate. Functional skills improvement is now a part of all education and training programmes for young people and adults.
  • Birmingham was a national pathfinder in developing whole-city approaches to raising overall levels of adult literacy, English language, and numerical skills. The city established a national and international reputation for this work. Regular skills’ testing has shown substantial incremental increases in adult basic skills levels between 1997 and 2012. Aspirational floor targets aimed at (‘No locality below this skills level’) were all surpassed, with most progress being made in the lowest-skill areas of the city.
  • Community organisations, housing associations, schools, employability training agencies, major employers, trade unions, probation and prison services: all see themselves as having a role in improving the ways that the young people and adults they work with access opportunities to improve their literacy, language and numeracy skills. This is far removed from the situation in 1995 when developing skills in adults and young people was seen almost entirely as the preserve of colleges and adult education services. The aim, in 1995, was to get the improvement of core skills built in as a connecting thread woven through the infrastructures of the city. There has been considerable success in this.

 

Much has been said nationally claiming that any national progress could have been due to grade-inflation, mechanical teaching-to-the-tests and so on. There has undoubtedly been an element of this but the city’s progress on the scale outlined above cannot be simply explained away so simplistically. Real progress has been made and the city should be pleased with what it has been able to achieve.

Birmingham has been right therefore to celebrate the shift in achievement levels from the poor performances of 1995 to having closed virtually all the gaps to national attainment levels, and some substantial closing of the gaps between the various groups of children/young people within the city itself.

There is more to be done. Being ‘average’ is not sufficient if Birmingham is to have the national and international edge it aspires to. There are sufficient dedicated people and agencies in the city to ensure that improvements continue to be made. Progress in the near future will rely on ironing out the remaining variabilities across the city. Consolidating the gains so far will not be enough though. Further progress is likely to be highly reliant on a strong and consistent focus on the motivations, behaviours, resources, attitudes and aspirations of Birmingham’s children, young people and adults – and not letting overconcerns with structures get in the way of good learning.

 

*****

The Birmingham Core Skills Development Partnership website has been wound down. Archive material is incorporated into this www.thewordsthething.org.uk website (with admin@thewordsthething.org.uk  as the link email address for all enquiries about the work of the Birmingham Core Skills Development Partnership).

Core Skills Development, Birmingham and Geoff Bateson – progress on all fronts

Birmingham Core Skills Development Partnership was set up in 1995 as a private company to drive up levels of literacy and numeracy developments across the city. At that time levels of literacy and numeracy amongst school children, young people and adults put Birmingham close to the bottom of most lists for Local Authorities in the UK. There was an early estimation that the city may need around fifteen to twenty years to close gaps to national averages from its very low base in 1995. As it turns out, that early estimate was not far off the mark.

The nature of the support and development mechanisms have changed over time as the national and local contexts shifted. Originally the main drive came via a company board composed of the leaders of the few key learning, skills and employment development organisations in the city. It had a budget of over £30m and a strong political/officer commitment to bring about whole-city changes. Anyone wanting to backtrack over that earlier period will find a ‘Moving the Mountain’ summary archived in the Miscellany section of this website . New approaches were forged in Birmingham and, in 1997, these were taken up by the incoming New Labour government. There have been criticisms of the way that later national approaches became overformalised but, at the time, standards in Birmingham undoubtedly leapt up quite a few notches and developments ‘made in Birmingham’ were influential in the early shaping of national policy.

By 2003-2005, as partnership working had been made much more the norm, the need for a structured company declined. There was then a greater focus on regional networks, on adult Skills for Life developments and on employer-focused practices. Core Skills Development Partnership took a lead role in much of this and gained substantial national (and some international) recognition for it. Much of this has been archived in the Miscellany section of this website.

By 2007 other organisations were taking on many of the responsibilities for direct development work and the focus could be shifted onto some of the underlying causes of low skills. Core Skills Development (by now operating as a loose network of agencies) played a strong role in pushing forward the thinking around employability of young people; the need to bolster the social and emotional development of children; the links between learning and neighbourhood renewal; the need to boost English for adult employability; actions to lift Birmingham children out of poverty; and so on. This work is still being carried forward via various networks and there is a sense that the Core Skills Development Partnership can consider the bulk of its work to be done.

In parallel over the past couple of years I have been making a personal transition from full-time local authority employee, through an arm’s-length support role, and on towards an alternative existence as a writer of fiction (with four books on the Amazon Kindle site www.amazon.co.uk/kindle under ‘Geoff Bateson’ as well as a wide variety of articles held on this thewordsthething website (including a revamped History of Castle Vale, articles on ideas around flourishing/ neighbourhoods/ learning/ development/ approaches to change, alongside some ‘just for fun’ speculative pieces re progress in contemporary art; countries ending in –stan and famous people called Stanley; notions of place and space, a gallery of photographs, and so on).

Birmingham has undoubtedly moved to a position much different from that worked on in 1995. At that time Birmingham was relentlessly at the bottom of most national lists for basic skills performance. The most recent figures for levels of literacy, language and numeracy put Birmingham at or above national averages for the end of primary education and the end of secondary school. Great progress has been made on levels of adult basic skills across the city and in all of this there has been fastest progress made in the lowest-skill neighbourhoods. There is much for Birmingham to be proud of and I have enjoyed every bit of my small contributions to changes in the city.

Moving forward (and Forward has always been Birmingham’s motto) I am equally enjoying the new writing-based activities I am now getting to grips with.

Further information about the work of the Birmingham Core Skills Development Partnership can be gained by emailing geoff@thewordsthething.org.uk

 

 

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.

 

The nature of cities: a way of thinking

This piece of thinking derives from a number of roots:

One strand is concerned with the importance of cities. Several years ago the nation state was taken as being the driver of much that matters politically, economically and socially. Later came a phase where Regions were given a prime driving role (within the national context). There was an increased focus on regional growth, regional economies and (politically) on the potential of elected regional assemblies. We now seem to have a broader recognition of the importance of cities. Initially this was via a hybrid concept of the city-region whereby the regional economy was driven essentially by the wide impact of the activity of cities on their regional hinterland. More recently it is being linked to the potential value of elected city mayors and the capacity of cities to manage more of their own developments.

A different strand was the work of Martin Seligman. I have had a long-lasting interest in his work. Many, many years ago I was formally registered on a chemistry undergraduate course but (not being attracted by any form of sports; and not being enticed by engagement in more than a minimum number of university social/drama/drinking/weekend activity clubs) used some of the spare time to sit in on lectures in the psychology and sociology departments – and follow up some of the recommended readings in the library. This got me interested in the work of Gregory Bateson and the early thinking on systems and on the outcomes of human interactions; the work of the Symbolic Interactionists and the way people operate as individuals within social/group/organisational settings; and Seligman’s work on learned helplessness. Over the years these interests have been woven in with other things and insights adapted as new ideas have been put forward to explain social processes. Seligman’s shift to focus on ‘flourishing’ paralleled a change in focus within Birmingham, including part of the work I was involved in, to ideas around flourishing neighbourhoods, city-level progress, organisational optimism, and so on.

A third strand was an interest in learning (at different levels) which meandered through thinking about learning organisations, learning cities and testing out the extent to which Birmingham was considering itself to be a learning city. This, itself, started to interweave with thinking about how change can be brought about at the necessary pace and scale within larger, seemingly complex organisations – and the attitudes and behaviours that prevented intended improvements being brought to fruition. Along the way this brought in notions around communities of practice (and the work of Etienne Wenger, Jean Lave etc) and the nature of community and cooperation (and eg the writings of Richard Sennett).  Some of this linked across to reading I was doing on complexity theory (with links into the work of people such as John Seddon); some connected to writings (eg Michael Fullan) on leading change in larger-scale educational settings, and work more generally on leadership (eg Adam Bryant’s writings on what makes certain chief executives more effective than average). There were connections, also, to the work of Daniel Goleman on emotional intelligence, especially emotional intelligence at work and the implications this might have for organisational processes and structures. Where writers are indicated (as in this paragraph) these are intended to be indicative of the sorts of things being explored rather than direct specific references to the only writer in that area of interest. They, and other such writers, will link into the reader’s own stock of thoughts to produce different ways forward for different people. I am, here, simply sketching out my own lines of enquiry.

A further, connected, strand was the emerging work on wellbeing and resilience – whether this be the ideas around how individuals can sustain their own wellbeing (eg the Foresight Report); or ideas around the wellbeing of organisations such as major public services in a city; or the connections  between resilience, learning, flourishing and so on. This brought me back to the latest work by Seligman – his own thinking having shifted from the topic of Helplessness, through Optimism, and on to the recent focus on Happiness and most recently onto an analysis of Flourishing. His book and website on this are well worth the visit in my view.

All of this was background, vague, and held as a loose thinking framework that enabled particular questions to be thought about in different ways. One such question was ‘How does a city such as Birmingham (UK) change itself through learning? If Birmingham can be considered to be a wide dispersed learning system how does that system learn to change? How can public services, undergoing change to new operating models – partly in the desire to deliver better outcomes in peoples’ lives and partly in response to reduced public sector budgets – build learning into these changes? ’

Another puzzle was the extent to which there might be common recurring messages arising from a range of insights that might form elements of a flexible framework through which a city can self-assess itself as having the capacity to flourish etc. – and the extent to which these might also apply at subsidiary levels (such as major organisations within the city, neighbourhoods, families, individuals …)? What might the interconnections be between the layers eg how does Birmingham influence family life; how does the activity patterns within families influence Birmingham as a city with its own perceived ethos/’spirit’ etc?

This sets a scene that can be explored in more detail ….