Scaling up or joining up? Size matters….

I was talking to my my friend Bob last week about how he should respond to politicians who ask “why, if there are so many pockets of good practice around, we can’t simply scale them up to create uniform and large scale good practice across the country?”   It’s an important question for him: as CEO of a Public Health body, these questions about how to improve the nation’s health and wellbeing have a pressing relevance.  He recounted a particular meeting with the NHS Director who challenged him to just ‘industrialise’  pockets of good practice on a mega scale…

We reflected that this drive to ‘scale up’ has been around the UK public sector for at least as long as we have – that’s a very long time now….   It has been manifest by ‘benchmarking clubs’, ‘beacon sites’ ‘best practice networks’ ‘leading practice’ ‘sites of special practice interest’ (I made that last one up…   I think…)     All have been motivated by the need to identify what works –  then ‘scale it up’ across its sector  – whether  that’s health, education, waste, policing, community development, to name but a few….

And after every effort, governments ask why this hasn’t worked.  Why haven’t, for example, GPs working in one part of the country slapped their foreheads in a moment of crystal clarity when presented with the best practice from another and enthusiastically adopted it forthwith?

There are two important principles at work here, drawn from complexity theory and systemic practice.

1.  Size matters.  To draw a parallel from (and anticipate) the forthcoming Royal Institutions Christmas Lectures, just like the laws of physics operate differently at different scales, so does human behaviour and social processes.  What works at the micro level – trust, relationships, connection, involvement and participation between people in their neighbourhoods and communities, does not necessarily work when scaled up into larger units of operation.   These bigger structures, whilst making sense to the organisations that construct them in the name of efficient resource management, become utterly meaningless and abstracted to their citizens or service users.

2. Context matters.  What works in one place, or in one set of conditions, does not necessarily work when transplanted into another.  Even the most forensic deconstruction will struggle to identify and understand all the subtle nuances, relationships, connections and  interdependencies in any given social context, in order to make confident assertions that what works in one community will work just as well in another, even if we can recreate such conditions.

Instead, then, rather than talking of ‘scaling up‘, perhaps we should be talking first about creating and sustaining the conditions for real local experimentation, learning and adaption at the micro scale and then ‘joining up‘ these crucibles of experimentation to build networks for learning and improvement.   This doesn’t require any more ‘exhortations’ from the top down, nor more paternalistic ‘interventions,’ nor testosterone fuelled command and control leadership.

What it requires instead is serious capacity building at the very local level and in the spaces between communities and institutions, through real engagement of all who need to be involved, genuine enquiry and curiosity about how the world looks from different perspectives and a focus on taking real purposeful productive actions – as experiments, or baby steps at times – but to get started – and then to learn through the process.

And the reality is that, thanks to social networking, the internet and widespread access to (often hitherto privileged) information, communities are, in fact, already doing this all by themselves….

Of course for the New Public Service, this requires some different forms of leadership practices….  I’ll come back to this next time…

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About suepritchard

I live a portfolio life: researcher, writer, consultant, organic/permaculture farmer, single mother of three grown-ups and social activist..... My main work is running SULEiS, a consulting network for building leadership and change capability, inside and outside traditional organisations, to make practical progress on the difficult issues.
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