Learning from innovation in a crisis: Greater Manchester

By David Jackson and Julie Temperley | 14 January 2021

With a glimmer of hope for a return to ‘normal’ life, now’s the time to ask: what do we actually want to return to?

Many organisations have adapted to meet their communities’ needs. Some have captured what they’ve learned, a few have been brave enough to challenge their ‘business as usual’. Innovation Unit (IU) worked with Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) from May to September 2020 on opportunities for change. We discovered four things:

  • Greater Manchester’s response prompted new and necessary ways of working - overcoming bureaucracy, standard procedures and role profiles - to deliver what was needed
  • Early on, ‘the way we’ve always done things’ potentially threatened the response - some colleagues worried about KPIs, budgets, and sharing data and information
  • Once the shift was made, there were a few bumps but not chaos, corruption or failure 
  • The reluctance to return to ‘business as usual’ showed old ways were due for change.

So where did we start?

IU and GMCA’s Public Service Reform Team worked with 100 people from public services and voluntary and community groups across the 10 authorities. We used storytelling for people to explain their contribution; we shared similar activity from elsewhere as a source of inspiration; and we asked people to identify what should be kept, amplified, discarded and created for the future.

We collated the responses into four areas:

  • Practice and citizen experience: what happened on the frontline
  • Workforce and culture: what it was like to work in GM
  • Leadership and governance: how direction was set and who made decisions 
  • System conditions: what regulations, funding, data, accountability were required.

What have we learned?

In leadership and governance, we found unity of purpose across different organisations, affiliations and hierarchies. Leaders created a sense of mission and built confidence in teams to act. Informal leaders emerged from local groups. There was rapid and participatory decision-making, revealing new forms of local governance.

On the ground, the ‘citizen experience’ changed. Self-organising local groups met people’s immediate needs with minimal assessment. Groups coordinated work without concerns over who should, or shouldn’t, be the lead provider.

Churches and schools became hubs, offering support where people live. Many providers refined their services and moved online, reaching more people in less time, often for free.

As support moved nearer to people’s homes, staff left their offices to set up community workforces close to residents and volunteers. Colleagues took on new roles beyond their job descriptions often working with residents and volunteers on an equal footing. For colleagues at home, flexible working meant increased productivity and satisfaction.

Expectations around managing quality, risk and resource eased as local teams developed their own accountability. Data and intelligence were gathered by, and shared across, health providers, voluntary and community groups as well as residents, so support was given when and where it was needed. 

How do we make the most of our learning?

We asked GMCA colleagues what they wanted to keep, amplify, discard and create from their new ways of working. 

They wanted to keep a sense of urgency with fewer meetings, shared data, intelligence and information and faster-decision making. They wanted to keep partnership and collegiality across VCSE, schools and private providers, building on a shared mission and mutual trust. They wanted to step outside of their existing roles, be creative, and make the most of home-working.

Colleagues wanted to amplify the role of volunteers and businesses, building on new networks. Colleagues were keen to create new ways of sharing responsibility and risk-taking, to include residents in co-production, decision-making, commissioning and accountability. They wanted to know how to empower community actors, set up more community-owned assets and spaces, find sustainable funding methods and reflect their community’s diversity in their own workforce.

The flipside meant discarding what no longer worked. A long list of barriers appeared around bureaucracy and elaborate processes, risk aversion, KPIs and role profile constraints, silo working and presenteeism.

So what do we do next?

As an external force, COVID has been a great disruptor, forcing new ways of working and revealing new possibilities for the future. Sustaining long-term change, driven from within, will be much, much harder. Embedding fundamental changes for the long term will require us to actively tackle power, money and risk differently. We must ‘design forward differently’ as well as ‘build back better’. 

Next steps focus on following the energy, liberating new leaders, supporting new collaborations and devolving resources to communities. It has taken energy, ingenuity and determination to respond to COVID, it will take more of the same to overcome the risk of regression to old norms.

David Jackson and Julie Temperley, senior associates, Innovation Unit

You can read the full report here and you can follow Innovation Unit on Twitter @innovation_unit

To talk to Innovation Unit, contact julie.temperley@innovationunit.org

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