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Earlier this year, I travelled up to Greater Manchester to meet some of the pioneers of what we call ‘enablement’: a mindset that aims to cultivate the conditions from which good solutions are more likely to emerge, rather than controlling them from the top. The Greater Manchester Combined Authorities and the districts of Greater Manchester are recognised within the UK as being at the forefront of successful devolution and have championed ways of working in the public sector that have freed up the frontline, devolved power, and allocated resources around need more effectively.

I spoke to John Wrathmell at the Greater Manchester Combined Authority, Vicky Sugars at Oldham Metropolitan Borough Council, Sarah Palmer at Wigan Council and Emily Nickson-Williams and Dave Baker at Rochdale Borough Council to learn more about their approach to this complex challenge

All of them work in the public sector in Greater Manchester and have invaluable insights into what it means to challenge the traditional way that government works and fight for more local power.

Here are five things I learned from them:

1. There  is a role for evidence, but it’s not what you’d expect

For a long time, evidence-based policy was lauded as the holy grail of policymaking. However, in recent times, increasingly people – including us – are are starting to question whether, in a push for too much of the wrong evidence, we are actually stifling innovation.

John Wrathmell from Manchester’s Mayor’s Office had an interesting take on evidence: to him, evidence was important insofar as it helped to make the case for devolution. Having a credible evidence base that proves that you really understand the situation in your local area can go a long way in helping advocate for more local powers. So in this case, evidence was less about learning ‘what works’ in Greater Manchester, and more about demonstrating the positives of greater devolution:

“[The evidence] is a bit of that glue that binds the city region together… Having a credible evidence base helps to make the case that actually, if you give us more powers, if you give us more resources in these areas, we can deliver better at a city region level than you can in your silos from Whitehall.”

Evidence here is not used to definitively prove ‘what works’ – although it can give an indication of what might work – but rather to understand ‘what needs attention’, and ultimately to prove that it’s easier to understand a problem when you’re standing close to it.

2. Local authorities need more power – Whitehall needs to let go even more

Almost everyone I talked to in Greater Manchester agreed that the UK is still too centralised, and that local authorities and city regions need more power in order to be able to better support their local citizens.

John: “Even after the devolution has taken place, the UK’s still a centralised country in the developed world, so we’re clearly miles behind comparative cities in Europe or the U.S., in terms of the power. We have virtually no fiscal powers at all. We’re reliant on central government for funding streams. But central government always likes to attach strings, so they’re like, “Here’s a hundred million pounds, but you’ve got to spend it on these five things, and you’ve got to prove these outcomes.” So we fight a constant battle to say, ‘Don’t ring fence things, don’t put conditions on things. We need to be able to use the funding flexibly.’ Where the default within government is actually to very tightly control these things from the centre.”

Vicky: “I think we desperately need more powers around welfare. I think that’s the biggie for us … If we want to work in this way, we will only achieve so much if we don’t have those upper powers. We should be able to set our own destiny in Greater Manchester for welfare.”

While most of this relates to how the current system and distribution of power are set up, there was also a recognition that people can make a difference in shifting power:

Dave: “I’ve risen through the system, from part time youth worker to service manager. If I was foolish and trying to hold on to power I’d have a lot of vested interest in not listening to some people because this system works for me. ‘It might not be working for you, Mr. Resident or Mr. Customer, but it works pretty well for me, so just fit in. Why can’t you fit in?’… There’s a whole range of people who’ve got a vested interest in power in the government sector. It’s quite difficult to let that go or give it away. And you’ve got to convince them somehow that’s it’s a good idea.” 

“Those in power need to let go of their vested interests and recognise that those on the receiving end of a systems’ operation can contribute significantly to making the system more effective.”

Sarah from Wigan also mentioned that it’s not just about getting more power from central government – it’s also about giving power away yourself, from local authorities to communities.

Sarah: “One of the key areas of thinking behind The Deal is about power not sitting necessarily with us as an authority, it’s power and decision-making sitting with communities and residents… So it’s very much us giving away some of that power. Where we’re investing in passing power onto our communities and our residents, we would definitely welcome more of that from central government too.”

3. Power shifts require a culture and mindset change – and they take time

Everyone stressed the importance of understanding that changing the way that you work, from a top-down way to one where power is more distributed, necessitates a culture change. You cannot just change the processes, you really need to change the mindset of how people think about things, what people value and how they relate to others. This is not a quick process, but often takes a substantial amount of time.

John: “You can’t rush these things. You couldn’t sort of say, ‘Oh well, next year we’re going to devolve everything around the UK, and all these powers are gonna go to a local level next April.’ There are just places that wouldn’t be in a position to cope with it… It doesn’t necessarily have to take you 20 years, but you do need to have done the groundwork, in terms of the institutions, the political relationships, the resources, the expertise, the analytical base to work of off. You can’t do it in 12 months, it is a longer journey than that. Particularly given that most local governments in the UK haven’t had those sorts of powers for 30 years, so are starting pretty much from scratch.”

Sarah: “It’s not something that you could necessarily just drop in and parachute into another organisation. It’s a whole way of working. So it permeates everything we do. Right from the way the senior management operate, from the way the frontline operate, from the way we do our transformation, from the way we speak to and communicate with our residents, to the way we take decisions… So it’s not just something that the council talks about, and it’s not PR or spin, it’s very much about the way that the council does things.”

4. Even though the philosophy is bottom up, senior management has to be bought in

While the whole philosophy of enablement is about distributing more power away from the centre, the people I talked to clearly stressed the importance of having buy-in from senior leaders and middle management. In order to distribute power, people with power have to be willing to let it go.

Vicky: “You have to have a really strong strategic leadership. If you don’t have that culture of wanting to work together and take risks, then you are not going to get anywhere.”

Sarah: “I guess senior management need to be very much bought into it and be committed to it… It needs to be led from the top, I would say, and with everyone on board. And the politicians [need to be] very much on board with it as well.”

Emily: “Whatever the organisation is that you’re working in, you need the people at the top of the organisation to believe in the same things and to believe that things can change, and for good reasons. Anybody working in the public sector or in government could end up feeling as if they’re stuck in a machine. But you’ve got to find ways to get out of it… Because I suppose if you think about it, if our strategic leaders has said ‘this is a really silly idea, can you do something else’ [in relation to the Rochdale Relationship Revolution], then we would have done that. Fortunately, we have leadership that allows us to work experimentally, innovatively and creatively.”

5. Persevere and don’t give up

Lastly, changing the way a system works and the way that we work as people takes time and effort, and it is not always easy. Surrounding yourself with the people who are following the same mission, and not giving up when you know that you’re doing the right thing can go a long way in making things happen.

Sarah: “Practical advice? Being brave, being relentless, not giving up… I think one of the things that Wigan does which is very brave as well, is that we don’t sit back and wait. I think that again, it’s partly because of the leadership of the organisation… very much around, ‘let’s not just sit back and wait, let’s just do what we feel is right for the place.'”

Dave: “Perseverance. A lot of people are either gonna say, ‘It’s old hat. It’s twee. It’s a bit simple.’ So you just persevere with it. You persevere on the basis of a really strong rationale – if you are right eventually that will win through.”

Emily: “You have to surround yourself with people who have the same vision as well. That really helps. You need people with the same strong vision and the same willingness to want to change things… And I do think things are changing. I think people are changing. The public sector is changing.”

***

Manchester’s experience with devolution and integrated services is part of what we have been exploring at the Centre for Public Impact as part of our enablement research. Watch this space for more about our travels throughout the UK to discover cases of government experimenting with this approach. We would love to hear from you if you work in the public sector and have a story to share about how you are empowering and collaborating for a more people-centred government.

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