Social Council: Thinking in Public

I spent last Friday in Solihull for the first ‘proper’ meeting about the Social Council – this post to an attempt to explain what it is – but not too much as I will explain.

First then the current working definition of the social council: The Social Council will bring together social values, representing the best of public service, with the social behaviours that represent successful organisations in the 21st Century. The intent is to connect the Solihull of today to what it could be in the future. It reflects the strong public service ethic that Solihull has at the same time as being a vehicle to rebalance the work of the council in order to co-produce more local services.

The Social Council has come out of a number of projects that Solihull have been working and and reflects the Council’s thinking about how it needs to reshape itself for the future. We are involved in a ‘critical friend’ role as well as with Networked Councillor and Citizenscape projects – more on those next time I post on this.

The work is organised with a core group – called the social canteen for reasons that Steve Halliday can explain – which is responsible for ‘governance’, resources, vision and scope. The Canteen is chaired by Mark Rogers (CEX at Solihull) and has a range of membership which we expect to evolve as the projects evolve – only Mark and Steve (CIO) will be permanent members.

This group tracks projects which are in scope for the social council and makes sure that they are aligned with the qualities that we expect the Social Council to have as it grows. The idea is that as we further define these qualities but at present these include:

  • Demonstrating empathy by seeing things through the eyes of the customer
  • A stronger representative voice for citizens and a better ability to listen and ask questions – working with the public not just for them
  • Supporting people at the same time as making it easier for people to help themselves
  • Transparent and open communication – thinking and information in public
  • Use of networks in preference to hierarchies
  • Lean and agile delivery models
  • Effective use of digital – but never excluding people

These qualities are all still under debate (and we certainly need to make them a bit more elegant) and one of the aims is to do this thinking in public – hence this blogpost. Rather than defining these and telling people the intention is to keep these values as open as possible so that they can be shaped further by the Council as a whole and by the public as they start to be involved. One the things we will be doing with September is first discussing them in more detail with members.

We are trying to provide enough of a definition to make it possible to start projects but not so much that we don’t have space for more people to contribute. We were all really clear in the first meeting that we don’t yet know the full extent of what we are doing – we are trying to hold that uncertainty to leave space for wider participation.

Steve has described some of the first projects which the canteen have put in scope here and I will blog about some of the ones we will be involved with at a later date. One of the key activities will be communication and making sure that we get wide participation is the discussion about the values – which is being done using a new intranet site at Solihull and I hope some more public facing content once the team have got more comfortable with the thinking in public.

In terms of the process for putting a project into the scope of the social council all we are doing is asking project owners to pitch in much the same way as you might at an unconference.  We then have an open discussion to test the idea against the values. It will be interesting to see how this process evolves as we look at more projects.

The project structure builds on a lot of the thinking around how to create a properly agile project management approach – hence this fairly lightweight core that is holding the vision of the future and evaluating orbiting projects against that vision. The emphasis on thinking in public and action research that we are trying to design in is both to encourage participation but also to ensure that we create a learning environment that really allows projects to fail in a positive way rather than just paying lip service to the ‘fail forward’ principle. We are working on a two month cycle for the projects which should mitigate risk as well as keeping a sense of pace to the programme.

All this is supported by the process and organisational development work Solihull have been doing over the last few years around lean methods and also the adoption of approaches like ‘teachable points of view’ as a management approach – there is a lot of preparation underlying the Social Council.

This is an ambitious project but one of the interesting things about it is the fact that there is no big launch or indeed a huge plan – instead we are trying to incubate projects and service redesign work via monthly social media cafes (which are open to people inside and outside of the council) as well as more ‘traditional’ process redesign work. The vision of the future is ambitious but we are not trying to be prescriptive instead the design allows us to move forward iteratively and to learn as we go along.

Even as someone who is used to putting my thinking out there on this blog it feels slightly challenging to be talking about something which is this ambitious at such an early stage when it still contains a lot of uncertainty but we all agreed it was important to be open and transparent in the communication if this is one of the cultural qualities that we think will be important in the future – we have to start somewhere.

I think this is one of the most exciting things about this project – the fact that the project design reflects the vision of the future that Solihull are exploring – its about making these behaviours mainstream to the organisation and addressing the challenge of culture change head on in order to shift the whole system.

As an action research project I have a few initial questions that I will be looking at in the critical friend role here:

  • Will keeping the vision open in this way help as we intent or hinder participation because of uncertainty?
  • How effective is the commitment to ‘thinking in public’?
  • Will the open and practical discussion of vision and values in this way shift behaviours internally?
  • Will we be able to refine these down to common language that we can use internally and externally?
  • As we start to look at specific service areas will the organisational culture changes ‘rub up’ against practitioner cultures in a positive way?

I will also to tracking and refining the project management approach as its been something I have been thinking about for a while.

As I said I will blog separately about some of the specific projects as they get going – this is really an introduction to the design and thinking behind that design. Speaking personally its an amazing opportunity to be working on a project of this scope with a group of people who are committed to reshaping their organisation in a way which reflects their values as well as their budget – I can’t wait to see where the team at Solihull take this work.

  1. Phil Jewitt

    September 22, 2013 at 6:45 pm

    Looking in with interest from Leeds. Some similarities with our Sociable Organisation work.

  2. Ken Hawkins

    September 22, 2013 at 6:59 pm

    At our Social café this week we discussed the Lean thinking approach of the Social Council. We also realise our ‘cafe’ has a smallish core group (I hope to get to the Birmingham, one this Friday to see how they do it).

    I feel we are akin to learning to swim without first using arm floats. This is not bad practice because we are brave enough to push through with the project, realising that positive outcomes will result. However, as with all good leadership, we need to take people with us. This includes staff, councillors and the public. Some may not jump on our bus but we should not ignore those who chose not to come with us/or are not fully clear about what the project means. Here I find your comment on Policing very relevant (bullet point 6 of 20 things from the BluerLightCamp13); ‘…start by making sure that the leadership of any organisation is considering their relationship with the public in terms of being networked and digital and is considering what this means’. We do need to make sure we keep the focus on the customer.


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