Tag Archive for system development


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

Children in Distress: Responding to known and unknown needs.

There is a, quite correct, intense focus on the needs of children variously categorised as being at risk, in need of care, or in distress because of neglect or abuse. The numbers of such children varies and has recently been rising. What are the factors within families that are most likely to lead to children being abused or neglected? What is the threshold for statutory intervention? What is the current and likely future scale of the issue? Are there new kinds of abuse emerging, or unrecognised forms that are not yet on the radar of those watching out for such things? How prepared are we, as a society, to respond rapidly to any new sources of distress to vulnerable children?

It is clear that the neglect and abuse of children is far from a new phenomenon. My own first academic contact with the issue was Alec Clegg and Barbara Megson’s book ‘Children in Distress’ in 1968 and the UK White Paper ‘Children in Trouble’ which led up to the 1969 Children and Young Person’s Act.

Children’s everyday experience of distressful lives did not start with their public accounting in such documents. This is an old and extensive problem that continues to take new forms and occur over fluctuating scales – always demanding new attentions and expecting new responses.

Currently the focus is on the expectation that something should be done, immediately and robustly, whenever abuse or neglect is suspected; that preventative mechanisms should be in place for early detection of such risks in order to head things off before they become more serious; that being alert to such situations is the responsibility of everyone and not to be left to particular individuals; and that new forms of neglect and abuse are constantly emerging so that vigilance and foresight are required more than ever.

The threshold between the rigours of childrearing and the spill-over into abuse or neglect is not crisp. The extremes are obvious. Just as healthy contexts for childrearing will ‘make’ children – so there are a number of risky contexts that, if not addressed, can ‘break’ children. Around the boundary between these two are family contexts which may, or may not, turn into something risky – but things cannot always be assumed to be problematic. Family behaviours may simply be transient, may sort themselves out, especially if early help is on offer. 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 2007-2011Birmingham 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 is 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


Employability programmes: Getting the best outcomes for learners

Employability programmes are seen as being to improve those basic generic skills that employers are looking for, and which are likely to help the person secure initial employment and maintain ongoing employment. Sometimes employability programmes supplement these generic skills with access to more vocationally-specific training and awareness. Sometimes there is heavier emphasis on the practicalities of sorting out a way forward for each participant, or dealing more substantially with underlying issues of attitudes and motivations.

There are a range of people for whom employability is seen as a key learning need. Whilst employability courses are often thought of as being for young people disengaged from regular routes to employment, this is not always the case. There are also young people who are motivated, and on track, but simply lack some simple skills or knowledge relating to the world of work. An employability group may contain a variety of people. Programmes may thus need to be flexible enough to be able to meet a range of needs.

This article outlines the features of successful employability programmes. Read more

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

By 2013, from a start in 1995 when Birmingham began 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 administrator@thewordsthething.org.uk as the link email address for all enquiries about the work of the Birmingham Core Skills Development Partnership).

Some thoughts on the approach to change

Over the years I have been involved in various larger-scale programmes meant to change the ways that services get provided in a big and complex city. As part of the ongoing evaluation of one of these, the partnership I worked through was challenged to make more explicit its change-model. If it was bringing about system-wide change, how did it think it was it doing it? There seemed to be four interconnecting strands.

Although these applied at the whole-partnership level there may be value in looking at any use the tools listed may have in other contexts (eg at the level of a single organisation; within a family, at the personal interactions level) changing the wording slightly to match each context.

1. Making use of factors influencing for change

There was an early recognition that the partnership was being established at a time of rapid change and that it would not be able to work in isolation. It would need to be highly alert to its environment. By its very nature it was driven by, and in turn added momentum to, the planning processes within the several major service provider agencies in the city each of which had its own set of agendas and priorities outside of coming together as partners to focus on one specific set of developments. The partnership arrangements were established at a time of rapid national policy change and was expected to forge a way forward through the national changes that would have impacts across the area. The partners, collectively, needed to be rapidly responsive to (and able to feed back into) shifting national and local developments.

There was a shift to be made in the way that the partner agencies worked. All of them were traditional/ formal/ , managerial organisations used to fixed annual planning cycles, with budgets allocated annually against predetermined headings. Responding in more agile ways as contexts changed around them would imply a different way of doing things that might not sit easily with their established routines.

Tools used:

  • Turning any national and local reviews, reports and evaluations into a checklist of action points re changes to be made within partner agencies’ own activities
  • Regularly scanning horizons for changes and updating (e.g. checking internet updates; ensuring local receipt of key documents; securing appropriate involvement in national and local key groups)
  • Reading the waves; knowing what is coming re changes in local and national arrangements and strategies; interpreting wider trends for the local context, allowing partners to be in the right place when waves of change swept across the area.
  • Keeping some capacity for rapid reaction and repositioning of resources; not tying everything up so tightly that agility became impossible
  • Covering changed emphases through short term flexible team attachments; having a strong centrally-directed project-development approach
  • Close financial monitoring and continuous redeployment of resources to best effect
  • Setting times for outcome/vision focusing, ‘Where was it we were supposed to be getting to?’; identifying ‘distance still to be travelled’
  • Target setting, not as tick-box items that might get artificially met but as aspirations to be collectively achieved in terms of real changes to services or improvements in outcomes for groups of people; having an approach to action planning that was flexible and adaptable as the year went on

2. Managing change

The reasons the various agencies had agreed to work in partnership was partly driven by the availability of some shared resources (although previous models had seen one agency simply holding all the money and asking the others to join them in a required list of partners but not playing any active role after that), but mostly because of a shared commitment early on that things in the city needed to be changed and that this could only be done in collaboration, if real structural progress was to be made over the long term. There was a moral dimension as well as a pragmatic one.

Some necessary early principles were worked on:

The need to reiterate a common, consistent, transparent purpose; keeping to the same overall aim of changing the ways that mainstream services operate

Consistent leadership: pushing for change whilst appreciating the constraints that different agencies were working with

Repeated messages: establishing a culture of change that all could agree with

Strategic objectives: identifying a small number of key levers of change and using these as a framework for agreeing development activities year on year

Steerage: actively engaging particular senior managers from partners, those with the power to immediately change things within their own organisation

Flexible development team, not seconded to the partnership but continuing to work within their home organisation, but able to be brought together as necessary to focus on specific common issues: people with the ability to directly operationalise change back on the ground

Retaining sufficient/adequate resources to be able to respond when opportunities arise to push changes through ; includes keeping any central infrastructure/expenditure as small as possible so resources aren’t spent on internal processes

Ensuring reputation is built up through practice rather than through promotions (More of a ‘Get down to work’ focus than over-concern with high profile launches/publicity)

Recognising the respective roles both of partners and of the partnership ways of working; working in ways to avoid the development of boundary wars between partners by stressing the common cause

Tools used:

  • Early agreement of key principles and systems
  • Use of key intermediaries from partners, loosely attached as a network of knowledgeable practitioners/developers able to focus on partnership’s objectives from within the day-to-day work of their own organisation
  • Annual business planning, in shifting context – identifies the agreed progress to be made each year
  • Appraisal of development proposals by someone other than the organisation responsible for delivery
  • Partnership represented within key steering groups/ planning groups -able to influence things at their early stages of developments
  • Communications promote the work of partners (as much as promoting the partnership) keeping a focus on broad developments
  • Partnership level reviews undertaken of various aspects re strategic objectives. Partnership mechanisms reviewed annually
  • Early system-compliance work done to ensure that partners aren’t distracted by having to constantly do later remedial work

3. Leverage on Partners

The partnership was set up to operate through its partners rather than take on a high-profile up-front role for itself. This was quite different from previous partnership arrangements which had spent energy and resources on having their own building, their own dedicated large team of staff, their own separate structures, and a clear identity that others were expected to subscribe to etc. The partnership referred to here was to remain in the background, to be more of a way of operating rather than a visible structure, yet have powerful leverage on the plans and actions of the varied partners. This required some mechanisms for influencing partner organisations at a number of levels. This would entail leverage on the content of organisational plans; but would also mean exerting some leverage on the style of planning: taking organisations away from fixed annual planning, action charts etc towards looser, more flexible, more uncertain ways of aiming to bring about widespread changes to mainstream Activities.

Through a 3 level matrix of influence with partners (strategy level;

management level and doing level), the partnership was able to impact on:

Staffing capacity for change within partners

Leadership for change within partners

Culture/language of change within partners

Inter-relationships between partners

Quality of planning within partners

Effectiveness of operational mechanisms within partners

Use of partners’ own resources for development

Quality standards in partners’ own provider networks

Establishing and maintaining the reputation of partners i.e. partners’ capacity to implement change

Tools used:

  • Annual agreements between partners re the next-steps changes and each agency’s contribution to these developments (and how feasible and cost effective these were)
  • Quarterly monitoring of progress to keep momentum going; to identify any potential underspend for reallocation
  • Tracking back to identify the remaining ‘gap to outcome’, stress ‘getting there’ re strategic objectives
  • Working back from target outcomes – focus on numbers still to be worked with in order to get whole-system progress; no falling back on small-scale projects when things get difficult
  • ‘At the right time’ conversations across sets of people who are the best ones to focus on a specific issue, taking a task-and-finish approach. Few regularly scheduled meetings other than the minimum number needed for good governance.
  • Reviews at level of broad developments, each covering a range of developments within different agencies
  • Whole-system querying rather than worrying about small activity detail
  • Central structures kept small, and things done right, so that energies can go on futures-thinking

4. Key phrases are used to establish working culture

Most of the agencies’ core role was to ensure the effective delivery of their own programmes (at certain quality standards) for target client groups.

‘Changing the system’ needed a different way of thinking, and work needed to be done via the Partnership re thinking for change. This required a language for change, in the sense of a set of frequently repeated phrases used between partners to establish a culture:

being well positioned in shifting landscapes

keeping stable relationships with each partner, even where relationships between partners are not strong

the basic operating rules are well known, and complied with

promoting change as opportunity as well as necessity

communicating a compelling purpose for change – keeping an eye on ‘What’s it all for?’

inspiring trust, through behaviours – ‘This is the way we do things, isn’t it?’

adequate resources, deployed in agreed framework; ensuring that money doesn’t become the main discussion. Money (once adequate) is not as important as having properly planned ways forward

Tools used:

  • Rehearsing the track record of changes brought about – consolidating the success of how far we have come together
  • Repeated emphasis on work through the partners- it’s not about the partnership as a separate entity
  • Emphasis on getting there; descriptions of ‘How will we know when we’ve got there?’; focus on distance still to go in terms of desired outcomes for groups of people (even if the exact direction and speed of travel remained relatively uncertain).
  • Strategies clear yet flexible to use in context: key thrust kept to consistently repeated strategic objectives/purposes – not getting bogged down in fine detail of activity
  • Bigger picture regularly rehearsed: ‘What was it we were supposed to be doing; How does it all fit together?’
  • Support collaboration across agencies; language is that of joint and collaborative etc with dampening down language of fragmented and competitive
  • Right mix of leadership and management; linkage between bigger directional statements and day-to-day operational statements. Not all vague intents.
  • Keeping ‘progress’ the topic of discussions/meetings/plans/reports rather than letting agendas become dominated by a focus only on the money or procedures.
  • Critical friend role – challenge and support; stressing partnership not as an organisation, or as funding mechanisms  but as a function that supports organisations re change, but also pushes them to do that bit more.

This has outlined the responses when challenged to make more explicit our approach to bringing about system-wide change, across a range of partner agencies’ service deliveries, within a large and complex city through joint working across several years. It tries to capture the approaches taken as well as highlighting some of the specific mechanisms/tools that were consistently applied in order to maintain credible momentum for change.