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Boundaries – are they barriers or spaces?

Phil Swann, Si Managing Director writes

I‘ve got boundaries on my mind.

Frontera by Brookebinkowski on Flickr

US/Mexico border by Brookebinkowski on Flickr

In one county in which I’m working the economic pushes and pulls from neighbouring areas are so strong that they risk undermining coherent governance across the area. New forms of cross boundary collaboration are needed there for economic, service delivery and political reasons.

I’m also doing some work on ways of improving local commissioning for people with learning disabilities and challenging behaviour. This group of people uncomfortably straddle every boundary there is, between health and social care, between children’s and adult services, between clinicians and others, and between care in institutions and in the community.

At best cross boundary working is perceived as a requirement which slows things down. At worst it is a barrier behind which people and organisations can hide. Yet we all know that the action needed to improve or maintain the quality of public services in the continuing age of austerity requires new forms of collaboration, spanning geographical, organisation and professional boundaries.

We have to find a way of shifting cross boundary working from being a barrier to change to a driver of innovation. Here are three linked ideas that might help us to do that.

First, the importance of play. As any parent knows, children learn from playing. They try things out, they experiment, they have fun and they learn. We all know that the best organisations are learning organisations, so do we need to think about what organisational play might look like in order to enable more effective organisational learning?

Second, the idea of creative space. This might mean time, licensed exemptions from rules and regulations, perhaps even physical space to develop new ideas and approaches. Try asking a group of senior officers to build a new approach to a policy or service delivery challenge – literally build, with card, paper, bricks, sticky-back-plastic- and the result is always revealing and instructive.

Third, what if we begin to think about boundaries as a space rather than a wall?

In practice people often do just that. A new exhibition by Alexander Gronsky features photographs of families using the half-completed developments on the edge of Moscow as a playground – having picnics, playing football, relaxing in the sun (www.thewappingproject.com).

The FT Magazine quotes Gronsky saying: “I liked these undefined places that don’t suggest what you should do there. I enjoyed them as places that don’t require you to follow any urban rules.”

Imagine what an organisational edgeland might be like.

Isn’t this where cross-border, pan organisational working could take place? A space where people from more than one organisation can break the rules and take risks together, safe in the knowledge that the stability or viability of none of their individual organisations is at stake because only a small part of it is invested there.

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