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We’re inviting senior, strategic leaders from across local government to form a pilot cohort of the Upstream Collaborative Network. Together, they will test how to build a shared movement of local government leaders experimenting with new operating models to find more effective and sustainable ways to meet citizens’ needs.

Nesta will facilitate the network over a period of 12 months by hosting events, gathering and publishing insights and creating tools that advance and promote the Collaborative’s work. We will host two, expenses paid, two day residentials for two people to attend from each council. We will also offer resources, including consultancy support and a small experimentation fund from which small grants (£10-20k each) can be requested to help a few network members progress experiments that provide evidence, demonstrate replicability or help evaluation in a way which will benefit the wider group.

We aim to have a geographical and political spread of up to 20 local authorities working on relevant initiatives. The intention is that participants will either already be working on - or planning to start work on - a project relevant to the Collaborative’s goals. This network will focus on learning by doing, rather than abstract discussion.

1. Background

"Imagine yourself walking up a river with a group of friends. Suddenly you see a baby in the water and so you dive in to save the child. But as you rescue one baby then you see another, and after a while you are busy picking one baby after another out of the water. Then one of your friends gets out of the water and starts to walk upstream. You shout, “Hey, where are you going? We’ve got all these babies to save.” But she replies, “I’m going upstream to find out who’s throwing babies in the river.”"

As retold by Dr Simon Duffy in 'Heading Upstream - Barnsley’s Innovations for Social Justice

The backdrop of austerity is not one that easily fosters a creative mindset, especially after so long a time, during which all the obvious ideas have presented themselves. But the changing needs of aging populations, the rapid rise of technology, changes in the way we work, impending climate crisis, combined with the ongoing pressure on funding, all demand new ideas and fresh ways of looking at the options.

Alternative ideas are starting to emerge - Preston City Council are democratising their local economy through community wealth building initiatives, Barnsley Council are working with citizens to reinvent service provision, Plymouth City Council has addressed fuel poverty by forming a community-owned energy company, in Wigan they’re radically re-imagining the relationship between citizen and state. The more we look, the more examples we find.

Many of these alternative ways of addressing needs, or ‘New Operating Models’, entail local authorities creating or working with different types of organisation (e.g. cooperatives) and groups of people (e.g. volunteers); moving from centralised and hierarchical structures to more distributed or horizontal ones (e.g. platform models for social care); redistributing power (e.g. Buurtzorg’s self-managing frontline teams) and playing different roles from their usual functions as service deliverer and commissioner, instead acting as (for example) convenor, matchmaker or incentiviser (see Essex County Council’s use of Challenge prizes). These common characteristics are explored in more depth in this article.

But the really interesting and potentially game-changing ideas all tend to be working ‘upstream’ of service delivery to focus instead on creating the conditions from which good outcomes are more likely to emerge.

It is these ideas that we want to identify, amplify and accelerate, by bringing together the innovators behind them to support and learn from each other through the Upstream Collaborative.

2. Purpose of the Upstream Collaborative

The Collaborative aims to help local authorities to develop and adopt new operating models by thinking, doing and learning together. It will create and disseminate robust new knowledge about what works, informing practice and policy to help reshape the system by which social needs are met.

Collectively, we aim to:

  • build awareness of emerging options for new operating models, particularly those that function upstream to affect the underlying causes of need
  • build evidence of how they work in practice in different geographies and service areas
  • understand what is required culturally, organisationally and financially to put them into practice
  • explore the different roles that local authorities can play in their communities to be effective agents of wider system change.

During the pilot year of the network, we will have learned much more about the needs, challenges and opportunities facing local authorities in adopting new operating models in different service areas. This will form an evidence base from which Nesta can make informed decisions about the future direction of the programme and how new operating models might be supported by more substantial grant funding by Nesta and others.

3. What kind of initiatives would qualify to be included in the Upstream Collaborative?

We aim to have a geographical and political spread of up to 20 local authorities working on relevant initiatives. Participants will either already be working on - or planning to start work on - a project relevant to the Collaborative’s goals. This network will focus on learning by doing, rather than abstract discussion.

We are interested in initiatives that move attention and resources upstream of service delivery to focus on creating the conditions for better outcomes for and with communities. This is an emerging field and examples could be in any service area or at a more macro social or economic level. We want to hear from Local Authorities who are experimenting with models that may include but are not limited to:

  • Models that redefine the purpose and role of a local authority by, for example:
    • Re-imagining the relationship between citizen and council.
    • Shifting the council’s role to, for example, convenor, matchmaker, incentiviser, etc.
    • Taking the lead within an ecosystem of statutory and non-statutory partners, including citizens and communities.
    • Enabling an ecosystem of innovators.
  • Models that affect economic democracy and justice by, for example:
    • Growing alternative models of economic governance which give citizens greater investment in and control over their economic future.
    • Helping citizens assume ownership of common assets and decision-making processes.
  • Models that enable radical restructuring by, for example:
    • Devolving power through changing organisational structures and culture.
    • Reshaping the system to centre on the needs of the service user.
  • Models that devolve power to communities by, for example:
    • Mobilising communities in the cause of prevention.
    • Enabling citizens to shape policy and services.
  • Are happy to share their learning more widely - the challenges as well as the successes.

4. What the network will offer?

This call is for membership of the ‘Upstream Collaborative’ which will bring together a group of senior, strategic leaders from pioneering councils from across the country to share their experiences and learn from each other as part of a collaborative network. Together, they will test how to build a shared movement of local government leaders experimenting with new operating models to find more effective and sustainable ways to meet citizens’ needs.

The network will be time bound for 12 months and focused on specific types of initiative, rather than general innovation. The Collaborative will provide a safe space in which local authority innovators can experiment with the role they play in identifying, enabling, growing and disseminating innovative responses to complex social issues.

Nesta will facilitate the Collaborative by hosting events, gathering and publishing insight and creating tools that advance and promote the Collaborative’s work. We will host two, two-day residentials (Oct 2019 & Feb 2020) with expenses being paid for two people to attend from each council.

We will also offer resources, including consultancy support and a small experimentation fund from which small grants (£10-20k each) can be requested to help a few network members progress experiments that provide evidence, demonstrate replicability or help evaluation in a way which will benefit the wider group. 

Members will have their models/initiatives profiled and have access to bespoke support and leading local authority innovators.

5. Criteria: how successful Councils will be selected

As well as demonstrating how projects contribute to the focus areas above, applicants will be assessed on how they meet the following selection criteria:

  • Innovation and ambition: is the initiative original and compelling?
  • Impact: what impact would the project have on local citizens and communities? How would the impact be measured?
  • Scale: is this an idea that can grow, or that could have broad applicability in other geographies or contexts? Does it learn from others’ work?
  • Capacity: does the team have capacity to put their initiative into practice; or an awareness of where the gaps are and how they might fill those?
  • Openness: are the team open to being challenged and supported to grow their initiative and share their experiences with others?

A panel of experts will review applications to determine which have the greatest potential to deliver our focus areas and desired outcomes, and provide the strongest evidence against the selection criteria.

6. How to apply

Phase 1 - Proposals: Register your interest in joining the Upstream Collaborative

We invite you to submit an Expression of Interest (EoI) form by 12pm on Monday 15 July 2019.

Phase 2 – Shortlisting: Telephone interviews

Based on the ideas submitted, Nesta will create a shortlist of Councils with greatest potential and conduct a telephone interview with them to understand their initiative in more detail and what they would like to achieve via the Collaborative.

Phase 3 - Selection

Based on the telephone interviews, Nesta and a panel of trusted advisors will select Collaborative members, with confirmations sent by Monday 19th August.

Key dates

  • Deadline for registering your interest: 12pm on Monday 15 July. Share details of your team and initiative via the online form
  • Telephone interviews with shortlisted councils: Monday 22 July - Friday 26 July 2019
  • Confirm network members by Monday 19 August

First Upstream Collaborative residential: October 2019

Next steps

Register your interest by 12pm on Monday 15 July