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  • Writer's pictureProf Donna Hall

Radical Place Leadership - how we can change public services for the better

Updated: Apr 4

MV Non-Executive Director Director Donna Hall argues that, even with more powers devolved to local areas, we will be overwhelmed with demand pressures, bureaucracy and silo interventions if we stick with traditional methods of public service delivery. Donna makes the case for a new and radical form of Place Leadership designed around the reality of life and human relationships.

We all know the current system is broken…

There have been a lot of well-intentioned place-based initiatives over the last thirty years which many of us have tried to deliver on the ground in local neighbourhoods. The Urban Programme, European Regional Development Fund, City Challenge, Single Regeneration Budget, Public Service Agreements, Total Place, Health Action Zones, Better Care Fund, Levelling Up, Integrated Care Systems etc etc… All operate as individual initiatives in something of a strategic vacuum.


All of the above were centrally originated, time limited programmes with pots of funding (sometimes integrated funding) and commissioning structures designed to address particular aspects of public services: and therein lies part of the problem, they are partial, emanating from different government departments they don’t connect around places, neighbourhoods, communities, families, people and the reality of their lives. They address one dimension, e.g. health, employment, regeneration, early years etc. A project team is quickly set up, descends on an unsuspecting area and when the money dries up or the initiative stops nationally the team find new jobs, leaving communities bewildered and wondering, “what was all that about?”


We know that working with communities to improve a local areas and reform public services makes much more sense at the neighbourhood and place level than at the national level. We can address the particular features and demographics of an area and the wants and needs of local people in a more specific and bespoke way. We can also try to make sense of the myriad of different initiatives, schemes, programmes, services by redesigning them around the reality of life rather than the way we organise ourselves and make policy in silos.


Understanding what makes a difference to local people’s lives…

So how do we make place leadership just the way we work across difference organisations and with communities every day? How do we mainstream integrated place-based working as THE default setting for public service delivery and public service reform? How do we shake up the traditional mode of departmental services to be truly integrated and bespoke; how do we take the radical leadership decisions we need to really make a difference in local communities?


Whilst organisation and system leaders allocate resources and make commissioning and policy decisions, we know in our heart of hearts that it is front line teams of public servants working together in a place, around a person, a family, a community that make the biggest difference people’s lives and the outcomes for a place. Yet often we tie those teams up with assessment rules, eligibility criteria to ration services and procedures that prevent them from actually helping people in a meaningful way. Very often this is to manage the anxiety of senior leaders scared of a bad inspection result.


Frontline teams know best… give them permission to innovate

Frontline teams can always see the badly stitched together joins between public health, community, social and primary care, mental health, acute providers, housing and other specialist services. They see it and they want to work together to get the best outcomes for the people they serve. Giving them the permission to innovate, to step back as organisational leaders, give them a flexible budget and the time and the headspace to develop bespoke solutions rather than one size fits all (which works out as more expensive in the long run as it can increase pressures).


But it’s scary sometimes for organisational leaders to step back, to set an outcomes framework, agree common values and then trust their teams to just get on with supporting people to live their best lives. It takes a courageous middle manager to invest in their teams and place confidence and trust in them to do the right thing not just the traditionally defined “safe” thing. We know if we stick with traditional methods of public service delivery we will be overwhelmed with pressures, bureaucracy and silo interventions.


Breaking down siloes…

Public servants, whether they work in organisations or integrated systems, have been trained in working to their own individual professional standards, whether its children’s or adult social care, acute medicine, primary care, housing etc. They have been taught to judge need against eligibility criteria and by doing so we can sometimes lose the person and the whole of their life; their hopes and dreams. Genuine radical place leadership is about refocusing professionals to see the person behind the unit of need and allow their frontline teams to build relationships rather than transact multiple times with the same individuals. Human to human public services is radical in a world where we see people who draw on social care needing to be “warehoused”


Radical place leadership is about much more than a place based pooled budget. This doesn’t automatically bring about change. Funding the wrong things in a place based budget won’t bring about change.


Applying this to children’s services and wider health and wellbeing…

Josh McAllister, who led the recent national review of children’s social care, said recently “we’ve stumbled into a completely dysfunctional children’s social care system. Too many kids being sent to live far away in homes that can’t meet their needs. Too many homes that are warehousing children to manage the anxiety of professionals”. Integrated place base teams and pooled budgets won’t work without wholescale change of the dysfunctional children’s and adult’s social care system. Asking for more money to fund this dysfunctional system also isn’t the answer. We need to create pressure to change the inspection regimes that cause this behaviour amongst professionals and reform it bottom up.


Integrated care system leadership is a positive start but after almost two years few are really giving that permission to innovate to their frontline teams and radically reforming the way they work together around people and place and changing silo professions and a risk averse approach to support. Working better together to “warehouse” people isn’t the answer.

A call to action…


Communities aren’t “demand”. Seeing the people who live in the neighbourhood as assets, as what makes the place unique and exploring ways to build citizen voice into service redesign, shifting power to communities is an essential prerequisite of radical place leadership.


We all know that culture eats strategy for breakfast when it comes to making a difference in a place or a system, and yet we focus on a myriad of separate strategies to address the same issues in an area, obsess over governance structures (who sits on which board, who is the chair etc..) without addressing team culture. Most teams can’t tell you what’s in the last corporate strategy but they can explain how their teams work together. That’s culture – that’s radical place leadership.


Want to learn more?

If you are interested in thinking and working differently, the team at Mutual Ventures are looking for a small number of systems and places to explore these ideas with.

If you are up for a conversation, then drop MV’s Chief Executive Andrew Laird a line at

We are hosting a webinar on the 13th February at 11am to discuss all of this in detail. The theme is Powers and Priorities - Enabling great system and place leadership and Andrew and I will be joined by Henry Kippin, Interim Chief Executive of the North East Mayoral Combined Authority and Simon Kaye from the Reform think tank – you can register here.

You can also catch up on our recent webinar with the amazing Mark Smith where we discussed radical place leadership and the “liberated Method”.

Now is the time for a radical rebel alliance!


~ Prof Donna Hall, CBE – Mutual Ventures Non-executive Director and former Chief Executive of Wigan Council.


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