The Christie Commission report is made clear that the future of public services is inextricable from the future of its workforce, across public, third and community sectors.
It is not enough to talk about co-production with communities; if services are to be successful those implementing and delivering the services also have to feel ownership of the approach, and need the skills to use evidence and to facilitate dialogue. Co-production, participation and partnership working can challenge professional identities and this has to be addressed.
In addition, the current context of austerity policy and financial constraints adds uncertainty about the sustainability of initiatives and funding streams, which can have an impact in the morale and capacity of frontline staff across sectors.
Much of our learning about this theme comes from the intensive work with practitioners through our collaborative action research (CAR) programme. The CAR approach to service improvement has its strengths, including rich knowledge generation, co-production of evidence, and impact opportunities, such as support for partnership working and multi-sectoral collaborations. However, it also raises issues regarding the time, resource, and the ways of working within complex multi-agency systems.[ii]
CAR demonstrates the value of bringing professionals and practitioners from very different backgrounds together into one group to co-produce work involving diverse sources of knowledge and evidence. The value given to the knowledge and evidence of different levels and types of practitioner is unequal. It is therefore easy to overlook how important it can be to simply bring people into the same room and into a collaborative process that values equally their knowledge, skills and experience. The perspective of frontline officers in particular must be heard and valued.
Our CAR illustrates how this can be done using professional, external researcher-facilitators, namely: providing safe, protected, facilitated spaces for dialogue and deliberation; building relationships between practitioners with diverse backgrounds and knowledges, including diverse roles and at a variety of levels within organisations; and engaging critically with diverse sources of evidence in order to deepen understanding of a policy area or problem and inform future policy and practice decisions. The application of CAR in the context of public service reform is challenged by the mismatch between the normal timescales for research and the fast-paced environment of policy and decision-making; and the current institutional context of budget cuts, restructuring and high levels of staff turnover. Our experience throughout the What Works Scotland programme has been that frontline workers are stretched in many directions and their resilience and creativity is often tested as they try to navigate a complex context of multiple national and local policy agendas.
Implications for policy and practice
- Supporting the development and consolidation of skills across the workforce is required to enable community participation and effective partnership working. This includes core skills such as process design, organisation, coordination, communication, mediation and facilitation. It also takes local knowledge and the necessary know-how to build trust, negotiate competing agendas and create spaces for meaningful dialogue and deliberation.
- Approaches to using evidence may differ depending on context and purpose, and on the previous experience of staff in using evidence in their work. People will also vary in their capability to interpret and use evidence, suggesting that there are potentially training needs to consider. There should be further support for capacity-building and skills development in community planning teams – in particular analytical training – to make effective use of evidence from a range of sources. Other skills in high demand amongst community planning workers relate to leadership and facilitation, suggesting there is scope for a national programme to support professional development and peer learning.
- At present, there is little systematic, independent evaluation of partnership and prevention activity across Scotland. Addressing this could involve a combination of upskilling the workforce in evaluation methods and collaborating with external researchers by, for example, forming local partnerships with universities.
- If the real benefits of the Self-directed Support Act (2013) are to be realized, local authorities, care providers, and the Scottish Government need to act to bring social care providers more in line with the policy. They need to ensure that the necessary structures are in place for engagement with disabled people, and it is only then that they will be able to take advantage of the Act.
- Transformation in working practices and cultures is key to successful community-led action planning. Successful community-led action planning needs to be linked to wider transformations in working practices and cultures. In practice this means increasing the decision-making autonomy and capacity of staff to listen to a diversity of views, to learn from local people, to compromise and respond positively to change.
- Good governance, through effective participation and partnership, must be supported by properly resourced and stable teams of partnership workers and community organisers with capacity to develop processes that can address local issues, priorities, needs and aspirations. In these circumstances, communities of practice can be developed across practitioners.
- The CAR programme has demonstrated how public service workers can learn from international evidence, and use this in ongoing forms to further develop relationships and impact on policy and practice debates across Scotland.
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