Abigail Melville: Merry Cooperative Christmas and a Productive New Year!

AbigailBy Abigail Melville

In this last week I have spent two days engaging with managers and staff about what being a Cooperative Council means. (Here are my slides in case you find them useful.) I visited two very different places.

Sandwell has a hugely impressive story to tell about how, through strong leadership from Darren Cooper, they have handled enormous budget cuts by taking out layers of management while maintaining services. They have done it so well that citizens haven’t noticed! Both public and employee satisfaction has actually increased. Sandwell now have a strong, lean management team and are poised to make real progress on the cooperative agenda. Sandwell is a pragmatic, can-do kind of place and cooperative values are clearly already in their DNA. Their big challenge is place shaping: working with citizens and business to build a clear vision for what sort of place they want Sandwell, or West Bromwich, to be – and how they link their Black Country heritage and Birmingham fringe location into a convincing story about the future that makes Sandwell a place people want to live.

Croydon, one of our newest members since turning Labour in May, has always been an ambitious place. But that ambition is now married with clear commitment to cooperative values. Tony Newton, their leader, is already on our Executive and lots is happening. Staff at the session I attended were talking about their recently launched Opportunity and Fairness Commission; about market making from a cooperative perspective, a Croydon Value initiative which is bringing private sector provides and social enterprises together in a big marketplace event in January; a focus on asset based community development and how they are already using physical assets in new ways such as making vacant buildings available for social enterprise and local food businesses. Watch this space!

As I was talking about what being cooperative means, I found myself drawing a distinction between old ways of thinking about public management and cooperative thinking.

The old ways of doing things is increasingly being challenged and we seem to be moving towards a new paradigm of public services. I think it is important to recognise that both traditional public administration and new public management are rooted in an engineering way of looking at the world. We are now being asked to work very differently, as brokers and connectors. But this whole-system, relationship based way of working can seem very chaotic and unpredictable to those of us used to planning and predictability. So how do we approach it?

My advice is to think of yourself as a gardener. Let me explain by drawing a characterisation of each approach.

Are we engineers or gardeners?

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Typically in public management we work in a planned, linear way. We make decisions, allocate resources, manage risk, design systems and measure performance at each stage of delivery. We try and make things predictable. We eliminate waste, we create specialised tasks and recruit experts. The way we work is really trying to get humans to behave as much as possible like machines – efficient and systematic – and to make sure this happens we put in a lot of control. Processes and systems are optimised, procedures are followed and performance according to pre-planned targets is rewarded.

Now, how about we take a completely different way of looking at our task? What if public service is not about optimising performance within a given set of resources. What if it is about developing a self-sustaining system that will thrive and grow? Our citizens are not machines, they are not predictable, but like plants, they need sunshine and rain. So imagine that you are gardener. What would you do?

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A gardener plants lots of seeds – but doesn’t expect them all to succeed. As they start growing the gardener nurtures them, feeds them, and tends them. The gardener invests in good foundations and strong roots, and then leaves plants alone. The gardener intervenes selectively to support growth – an occasional bit of pruning may be all that’s required. Sometimes plants get sick or diseased and need more fundamental treatment. Feedback is constant – the greener is watching, checking, seeing what works, and adapting. The best thing about a garden is that as it gets established you get back more than you put in – it becomes productive. There are lots of different kinds of gardens designed for different purposes. But you can immediately see how successful your garden is, and of course you get a harvest!

So let’s start thinking of ourselves as gardeners, here to help our places grow and be productive so people can thrive.

Have a very Merry Christmas and see you in 2015.

Abigail Melville is the RSA’s CCIN lead.