Making Space for Change

I’m scheduled to speak at our Early Years Conference on Tuesday 7th February.  “Healthy Happy Bairns” This event is aimed at service providers, community members and elected members with a role, or interest, in tackling health inequality through a focus on the early years of life and supporting parents/carers.

The title of my input is Making Space for Change:

Scotland is a country with ambition and in East Lothian I think we have aspirations for excellence – to be the best of the best – we are good but we can be better.

For me the journey to excellence starts with getting it right for every child in East Lothian – and we need to get it right from the start – from the very start – not only from pre-birth but from pre-conception.

We cannot be excellent, and we cannot get it right for every child, unless we tackle the inequality in outcomes for education, health and social well being that exist in Scotland and are mirrored in our own community. For many of you this is a straight forward social justice issue –  the level of inequality in our community is wrong and we have to do something about it. However, speaking as someone with responsibility for running a major public service – it is also about efficiency and effectiveness and ultimately the resilience of public service in a time of reduced government spending. The resource costs of dealing with the consequences of inequality in our community are huge and ultimately unsustainable.

Report after report has called for greater emphasis on early intervention – and to achieve this we need to change.

The Chrsitie Commission has recently helpfully summarised some of the key pillars of change.

  • Shift towards prevention
  • Local integration of public services, driven by better partnership, collaboration & effective local delivery
  • Investment in people who deliver services by enhanced workforce development & effective leadership
  • A sharp focus on improving performance, through greater transparency, innovation & use of digital technology.

Shift towards prevention

This seems such an easy objective but in reality so much more difficult to achieve.  So much of our budget is spent addressing outcomes for children when we haven’t got everything right, for example, a child placed in secure accommodation for ten weeks costs East Lothian Council £50,000, a year would be £260,000.  Such young people are at the extreme end of negative outcomes but surely we have to believe that if we had taken earlier collective action as a community so much earlier that such outcomes need not be a child’s destiny.

Local integration of public services, driven by better partnership, collaboration & effective local delivery

The first law of corporate inertia reads: “for every action there is an equal and opposite objection”. Corporate organisations, such as councils, do not find it easy to naturally forge partnerships especially when it means giving up some power. We say we do but if you look for substantive success in partnerships such as shared services and it’s much easier to point to failures than achievements. Of course this has real resonance for us in East Lothian as we move towards shared service provision for education with Midlothian Council. Underpinning all of that work has been a recognition that the status quo is not sustainable, especially if we wish to maintain front-line services and focus an even higher proportion of our budgets on prevention.  

Investment in people who deliver services by enhanced workforce development & effective leadership

When budgets get tight the one area which comes under immediate pressure are training and workforce development budgets. I’ve done it myself as a head of service – cutting a training budget and maintaining a teacher in a classroom. Such dilemmas are going to be an ever-present for us in the short to medium term so we need to think creatively about how we develop our workforce – for with out such development we cannot hope to improve. Ideas such a peer support; learning communities; networking; and protected learning time are required if we are to make progress. Such thinking has to be embedded in the minds of leaders at all levels, i.e. “How do I help my colleagues to work together and learn from one another?”  But it’s not just learning from other professionals which is going to make a difference, it’s got to be learning from and with a wide range of other service providers where collaborative learning is the order of the day.

A sharp focus on improving performance, through greater transparency, innovation & use of digital technology. 

In East Lothian we have a notion to become the most improved authority in terms of outcomes for children and young people.  Many of these outcomes can be easily measured, such as attainment, exclusions, positive destinations for school leavers. Yet at a community level there’s a danger that we impose a simplistic “bean counting approach” solely focused upon quantitative data. I would argue that if we are really to empower our communities and trust them to come up with solutions which work for them we must come up with an alternative to methodology that works on a larger scale. That alternative must be based upon the cumulative impact of lots of small actions (outputs), none of which might have an observable impact, but taken together add up to contributing to the overall well being of the community. We need to tell our little stories, and together these stories will add up to a big book.  By linking how people are feeling with the outputs and hard outcomes we have areal chance to making a real difference to our communities.

Don’t underestimate this – to make these kind of changes will be very difficult. For positive change to happen we have to create the right environment or space that will foster and support it.

Being an Equally Well test site has helped to develop our thinking about how we create a space for change

Firstly, the importance of a shared vision or understanding about what  we are trying to change and why – I would like to take this opportunity to suggest that the concept of resilience should be part of that vision and shared understanding about what we want to achieve.

Secondly the test site has shown the importance of being ‘connected’ – Dr Harry Burns tells us about the importance of being connected socially for good health – but it is also vital in creating a space for change. We need to allow our staff from across the range of agencies to connect with each other if we expect them to be creative in the way they work with communities and each other. This doesn’t mean endless meetings and talking shops, but mangers need to support staff to achieve the kind of connectedness that will deliver better outcomes for children and parents. Shared learning space that helps staff from different backgrounds and agencies develop ‘connectedness’ is an important practical step that can help create a space for change.

Thirdly the test site has emphasised the need for involvement or engagement with the community. We need a new partnership between community and public service that is more equal and recognises the strengths that are in our communities as well as their needs and problems. In government policy documents this is being termed co production. The next phase of Support from the Start seeks to try and create that sort of partnership and you will hear more about this from my colleague Ronnie Hill this afternoon, and hopefully through the workshops you will be participating in creating that new partnership.

Fourthly, you need a bias for action – do what you can now and plan for what you can do tomorrow but be prepared to take some risks. Doing nothing fails children. A plan that doesn’t come off quite right is something you can learn from. Having a bias for action helps people identify the often small changes which can have big impacts – that impact may be for only one or two children – but that doesn’t matter, what matters is those children’s lives have been changed for the better.

Finally – a bias for action leads me onto the importance of leadership in creating a space for change – or as I would prefer to call it ‘space for innovation’.

Leaders come in all shapes and sizes and I could spend a day talking about styles of leadership, but the key thing is that leadership is a quality and a skill set we can all develop – it is not invested in a few special people.

The changes that we want to see don’t tend to happen without people driving them or making it happen.  Those people might be managers they might not be, it may be a parent, it may be a child who is driving innovation – whoever it is they are the champions we need, and we have to link them to others who can help and support them. The test site developed a model of champions for innovation because  we recognised from the outset the importance of leadership at all levels. We want to help more and more people be champions for early years in our communities

Strategic leaders have a particular leadership responsibility in creating the space for innovation. The ethos and rules that staff and community members work within set the parameters for engaging in change. If you want change keep the rules simple, and give people permission to try.

Overall being a test site for Equally Well has been positive for East Lothian and I hope others can find something in our experience that is useful to them. It’s too early to be specific about the impact that the test site has or hasn’t had on inequality in East Lothian but we have a positive story to share and that narrative doesn’t end with the test site – we will add to it and develop it in the next phase of Support from the Start











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  1. Pingback: Support from the Start » Healthy Happy Bairns Conference 7th Feb

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