Share war stories face-to-face to avoid reinventing the wheel

By David Donaldson

August 3, 2016

Reinventing the wheel is a common problem across the government sector.

While policymakers are increasingly aware of the benefits of sharing expertise across policy silos, there’s one thing many still find difficult to do: sharing stories of failure.

Policy is not the only area that sees this — academic journals are loath to publish results of failed experiments — but sharing stories about what didn’t work is as important as tales success if government is to avoid making the same mistakes over and over.

Increasing peer learning is a key means of improving the integration of social services, argues a report by UK think tank Institute for Government.

The report notes that countless attempts to integrate key services in England “have not translated into significant improvements on the ground”, citing limited sharing of experience about what works, and what doesn’t, as a barrier to progress:

“Although variation is crucial in ensuring that public services meet local needs, not learning from what has been tried before, or elsewhere, is costly, time intensive and risks duplicating the progress made in other parts of the country.”

The institute spoke to people in central and local government (many services in the UK are delivered by councils) as well as NGOs and the wider policy community to discover what would help people learn from one another to improve services. They found:

  • People need more real-time learning from progress, challenges and setbacks. Time and again, the criticism the institute heard is that online case studies, large conferences and national guidance based on ‘best practice’ are all about showcasing success and promoting particular places, programs or individuals. They do not provide the space to have frank discussions about what didn’t work, including the mistakes, pitfalls and difficulties that people faced along the way.”
  • People need opportunities to ‘dig deeper’ into the messy reality of implementation as much as what programs involved and why they were introduced. People have had enough of general and descriptive examples that focus too much on the merits of a particular model — for example, key workers or co-located teams — without insights into how this was practically achieved and the journey that organisations have been on to get there.
  • The best way to do this is through face-to-face conversations that allow people to break out of organisational and professional silos. Connecting people virtually, or uploading case studies online, does not provide opportunities to get into the detail of a program, reflect on what is working and not working, and build the relationships that are needed to make cross-sector and organisational collaboration a reality.
  • Sector- and peer-led approaches help build the necessary trust and credibility to make learning relevant to local priorities. In contrast, initiatives led by central government departments or agencies, no matter how well intentioned, can be perceived as performance management in disguise, preventing honest and purposeful conversations from taking place.

Know what’s happening on the ground

IfG recommends central government ensure it’s spending its money on services that incorporate real-time learning, maintain strong links with those at the coal-face so they know how implementation is going, and build strong relationships with intermediaries to maintain strong feedback loops between policymakers and implementers.

At the service delivery level, creating open, outward-looking cultures “where staff at all levels are encouraged to share concerns and learn on the go with their peers” is is not just a nice to have, the institute thinks. It’s a vital element of successful delivery — not something that can be dropped when resources are scarce.

Encouraging staff to take cross-sector secondments, making clear that broad experience and diverse contacts are essential to career progression and hosting cross-sector events will help to build in effective peer learning.

The institute is also critical of the over-use of the term “best practice”, arguing that while it makes sense to have best practice in medical procedures, for example, the complexity and variability involved in something like the integration of social services means it is often difficult to be prescriptive about what should be done. It suggests thinking about examples in such areas as “best fit”, and approaching them something to be adapted, rather than applied off the shelf.

The complexity involved in implementation means it’s difficult to reduce lessons down to a few key points. This is why face-to-face learning opportunities are important. “People need the opportunity to ask questions face-to-face and delve deeper into what can and cannot be applied to a particular context,” the report argues.

The report follows on from an IfG briefing paper last year that offered solutions to five perennial challenges to joining up public services:

  • Short-term policy and funding cycles can restrict the ability of local actors to invest in the long-term partnerships needed to meet local, citizen needs.
  • Misaligned geographies and the patchwork of commissioning, funding and regulatory processes can make it difficult for local actors to design services around a ‘whole person’.
  • Cultural differences between professions and organisations can discourage collaboration on the ground.
  • Barriers to data sharing can make joint working between distinct teams or organisations practically difficult.
  • Limited sharing of ‘what works’ in different circumstances can mean that lessons from effective models and practices are rarely built on.
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