Jason Lowther

“Welcome to the Ivory Tower” was a surprisingly frequent greeting when I started my secondment from Birmingham City Council to the University of Birmingham in the autumn.  It was usually said with tongue firmly planted in cheek – certainly by my new boss, Inlogov’s Director Catherine Staite.  Catherine runs one of the most applied research units in the country, housed in a tower of brightly shining steel!

The 21CPS research suggested that future public servants will be working across sectors, for different people at the same time.  After eleven years developing strategy with the Council, it’s exciting to be delivering a new programme working across BCC, the University, and Combined Authority partners.  My main focus is on how the council and partners can make best use of evidence in its various forms, including the outputs of academic research.

I have always enjoyed working in different sectors.  One of the joys of my job with the Audit Commission prior to BCC was the opportunity not just to see practice in dozens of local authorities, but also to explore how things worked in health authorities and trusts, and the blue light services.  For example, applying the principles of good workflow management from a local authority vehicle workshop to an ambulance trust workshop showed that at process level many of our issues are similar.

Working across sectors though raises several issues, not least the need to navigate different agencies’ cultures and motivations.  My first few months in higher education have included swimming through a flood of new acronyms such as the REF (Research Evaluation Framework), various perspectives on what excellent (“4 star”) research looks like, and lively debates about how academic research can best achieve “impact”.  Fortunately the lifeguards here are friendly and helpful!

It’s interesting to bring the very urgent, delivery-focussed world of local government together with the reflexivity and academic rigour of researchers, and I am looking forward to developing new opportunities for networking, mutual understanding and building synergies between the “two communities”.

Work shadowing, coaching and mentoring are all highlighted in 21CPS as useful mechanisms for building these critical skills to work across sectors.  The downside of course is that all require investment (at least of staff time) without obvious immediate outputs.

One approach which perhaps fits best with the extreme cuts local government is facing at present is around “action learning”.  By collaborating on a specific piece of work that needs to be delivered, rather than attempting to deliver this purely inside the council, we can build cross-sector understanding as a by-product of delivery.  To do this efficiently requires councils to know where their (potential) partners’ skills, competencies and areas of interest lie.  This of course links to other 21CPS skills around networking, brokering and weaving resources…

An example of this action research approach came in 2013 when Birmingham City Council’s Strategic Research Team partnered up with staff from the University of Birmingham’s Social Work Academy to research parent’s experiences of Child Protection Processes.   The Council approached the University after gaining internal approval for the research, seeking an expert advisor and critical friend on the project.  Thanks to the University’s commitment to support public services through its Public Service Academy, the Council were able to gain in-kind support.  Throughout the research process senior academics in the field were pivotal in supporting the design and implementation of the research, ensuring it was well embedded in Children’s Social Care policy and practice developments.  Following the Council’s fieldwork activities, the University provided support in the interpretation of the research findings, ensuring the results were examined from a number of perspectives and angles.  The University also provided a robust critique on the research recommendations and report pushing the research to the highest standard possible.  Following the research the Council staff have also delivered sessions on the research findings to the University’s Social Care courses, and a joint article is scheduled for publish in the immediate future.

 

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Before his secondment to Inlogov, Jason led Birmingham City Council’s corporate strategy function since 2004.  Previously he has worked for the Audit Commission as national value for money lead, for HSBC in credit and risk management, and for the Metropolitan Police as an internal management consultant. He tweets as @jasonlowther