I’ve had a bonkers busy few weeks – meeting and talking to a wide range of people and it’s helped me start thinking through a problem with networks: they tend not to be trusted to reliably deliver solutions at any sort of scale.
Let me share how and why I’ve started looking at this (and I’m sure I’m not the first).
Catherine Howe (her govcamp piece here) and myself were both in a session at the fabulous ukgovcamp last Saturday. It was the end of the day and I think (I came in late) it was on what makes cross sector collaboration work and convened by Jag Goraya with a big dose of help from Saul Cozens.
A problem of scale?
The bit of the discussion that helped me went along the lines of. “The answer to a lot of public sector problems do sit in developing healthy networks and developing and encouraging the cultures which help networks thrive. Do that and people tend to do what makes sense, rather than what is prescribed.” I was trying to understand why achieving this is so difficult and suggested that it was a problem with scale, something along the lines of…
- Large budgets and large problems tend to lead to large things being created and commissioned.
- These have a direction of their own and – on the whole – need to be seen to succeed.
- Networked activity is different – it is often lots of small activity with little or modest innovation – that doesn’t appear to be capable of delivering at scale.
- So large organsiation charged with sorting large problems are loathe to trust to a networked approach.
In truth I think networks can deliver at scale. A city is such a thing, the families that make up a community likewise. The benefit for using networked approaches for sorting big problems is we don’t need to invest everything in one large solution then persuade ourselves it has worked.
Dollops and cock up
Instead we need to learn how to recognise the pattern of networked progress: plenty of success, a good dollop of treading water and a decent slice of cock-up, indifference, waste and failure.
I think way forward collectivity this will improve on social problems more steadily and in a way that people can more easily get involved with than a large scale service offer tends to do. It’s also relates to why I’ve had problems with unrealistic expectations – that setting expectation too high leads to harming social movement – zero expectations encourage success – high expectations make even achievements look like failures.
That was the gist of where ukgovcamp had got me to. It was built on other things recently:
- Listening to a conversation the week before at a conference I spoke at for the Hampshire Association of Local Council’s digital conference (again with Catherine Howe) amongst a group of councillors from some of the larger
- At the LSIS Governance conference in Manchester late last week I started talking to a Clerk to a Further Ed college that had been asked to improve educational attainment in a particular neighbourhood. They wanted a steady approach that built community links, strengthened social capital and relationships and built aspiration in the community. The funders wanted rapid change – so what they are likely to buy is intense extra activity with the students about to take their GCSE’s – one is the big and brittle – v the modest but maybe meaningful.
Capturing the subtle incremental change that comes through networks is partly why we have been working with Gateway Family services and Birmingham Settlement and Nominet Trust to develop an impact assessment app which measures and organises the modest – as well as the sometimes downright remarkable - shift that happens in people and places. But turning this into something that politicians and policy makers will trust to deliver is an interesting problem.
Other govcamp posts: