Reflections on the Solace Summit 2012

This is a slightly modified version of the blog originally published at localgovernmentmatters.

As with last year’s summit a formal communiqué will be issued so I will take some space here to talk about the mood of the meeting and offer a personal perspective, rather than trying to be comprehensive.

  • The bulk of the work of this Summit (and it was work – not just passive receipt of talks) took place in workstreams, but opening plenaries from Martin Reeves, Coventry CE and Solace’s new president, and Matthew Taylor, CEO of the RSA painted a picture of organisations grappling with an extraordinary amount of change, and having to deploy new approaches, and new partnerships, in order to do that.  Matthew Taylor proposed a model that identified three sources of change-power, all of which needed to be aligned to create effective change: 1. Hierarchical formal power, 2. Social power – the group norms and 3. Individual interests and actions.  The Olympics were an excellent example of these three elements all coming together –some of the historical top-down government initiatives were not.  Matthew’s closing thought was that local authorities are far better able to tap into these three sources of power than any national government can be.
  • I followed closely a workstream entitled “Informed Future” which considered the role for hard evidence in supporting some of the difficult choices that councils need to make.In particular complex societal interventions in troubled families, and preventative and supportive actions for the ageing population. There is going to be a significant cultural journey for many local authorities to embrace deeply evidence-based actions, and the first step is to realize that evidence doesn’t remove the scope for judgement or democratic determination, rather it informs and shapes it.
  • There was a an excellent case study from Birmingham City Council, presented by the Dartington Social Research Unit, which showed that well-structured evaluation of complex interventions can add real value to decision-making without supplanting it.
  • Francis Maude, Minister in the Cabinet office spoke on the last day.  He spoke well with a number of important comments about taking some of the mythology and complexity out of procurement. He suggests having really good conversations with suppliers about the art of the possible well before you frame an actual procurement, which you can then expedite quickly.  Talk to the market about what you want to achieve rather than specify exactly how things should be done – which stifles innovation.
  • The minister was also strong in his conviction about the role of employee-owned mutuals in liberating staff to better performance.  Furthermore he was keen to see 25% of public sector money going through the supply chain or directly to SMEs, against which it is perhaps interesting to note that 32% of Capita’s spend is with SMEs.
  • Lastly, I was struck that an increasing number of Solace members are people who (like me) are currently out of local government in the private sector or other sectors: this felt like a real strength this year with more people able to make comments which could straddle perspectives – if Solace can continue to hang on to its alumni it can only increase its reach.  There are also a number of “Friends of Solace” from other organisations who have now been to a number of summits and through their personal continuity are well positioned to add value.

I have blogged at greater length about the “Informed Futures” Summit and this can be found here.

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