In a series of blogs in summer 2023, Carol Jacklin-Jarvis and Steven Parker from the Centre for Voluntary Sector Leadership consider current theory and practice for multi-agency collaboration, drawing on the ideas of hybridity and ecosystems.
In this final blog, Steve and Carol reflect on how the experience of engaging with an ecosystem can be different for people working in back-office roles.
We often hear about frontline perspectives in service delivery. Staff delivering services at the frontline (such as nurses and police) are sometime described as angels and heroes as they deal with crisis situations and difficult issues in society. However, as public services are underpinned by rules and legislation, there is a whole layer of expertise required behind the front-line, with managers and professionals responsible for the contractual, legal, procurement and commissioning aspects of service delivery. Their role is increasingly central to the delivery of public services and well established in local government and health services (Loeffler and Bovaird 2019; Ongaro et al. 2022). However, these back-office functions are often perceived as overly bureaucratic by those working on the frontline as they wrestle with lengthy forms and complex processes. Moreover, people in frontline and back-office roles encounter a very different set of stakeholders, individual and organisational. Their experiences and perceptions of the service delivery eco-system are at a different level.
The transition to this back-office policy world can feel like crossing over the Rubicon. We each experienced this ourselves in our previous working lives in children’s services as we transitioned into strategy and policy roles. Our strategy working practice was ‘marinated’ in multi-agency partnership working in the public and voluntary sector organisations. Activity at the strategic level rarely proceeded without liaison with other organisational partners or a mandate from strategic boards involving representatives from the public and third sectors, service users and elected councillors. This involved interacting with different parts of the ecosystem to those encountered by frontline social work practitioners. The latter involved engaging with teachers, health visitors and extended family members, constructed around the needs of the individual and their ‘case.’ In the back-office the ecosystem operated at a senior level, with stakeholders including directors, contracting and procurement staff, accountants and lawyers, together with departmental advisors. The specialist language of the back-office, including performance management, strategic outcomes and complex legislation felt very distant from the emotionally laden care needs of children, vulnerable adults and carers.
Osborne et al. (2022) write about the different ‘levels’ of a service delivery ecosystem – macro (societal), meso (organisational), and micro (individual). Front-line workers in children’s services are influenced and constrained by the ecosystem at macro and meso levels, but their primary everyday interactions are at the micro/individual level. Back-office workers continually interact with others as organisational, community and institutional representatives at the meso level. At both levels, collaboration is essential to access resources to achieve good outcomes for children, but the actors and processes of collaboration will be quite different in these different parts of the children’s services ecosystem.
This leads to questions about how strong connections are developed across different parts of an ecosystem and who delivers key communications, and how. A challenge for these ‘boundary spanners’ (Williams, 2013) is to find a shared language that links together different parts of an ecosystem in a meaningful way. We suggest that workers with experience and insight from frontline and back-office are well placed to do this in a way that is not simply the one-way transmission of messages from the strategy office to the frontline, but rather increases awareness and understanding of the different priorities and insights generated in different parts of the ecosystem. Furthermore, understanding the different priorities of actors at different levels of the ecosystem, within and beyond local government, is important for third sector organisations setting out to influence the shape of service delivery.
In conclusion, the metaphor of the ecosystem can be helpful for thinking through and understanding collaborative working, but it also leads to many questions, including whether service delivery really operates as a balanced ecosystem, or is rather unbalanced, lacking in coherence, and precarious. We will be reflecting more on the questions that arise out of this metaphor. Please do email if you are interested in exploring this idea further.
Loeffler, E. and Bovaird, T., 2019. Co-commissioning of public services and outcomes in the UK: Bringing co-production into the strategic commissioning cycle. Public Money & Management, 39(4), pp.241-252.
Ongaro, E., Mititelu, C. and Sancino, A., 2021. A strategic management approach to co-commissioning public services. The Palgrave Handbook of Co-Production of Public Services and Outcomes, pp.265-283.
Osborne, S.P., Powell, M., Cui, T. and Strokosch, K., 2022. Value creation in the public service ecosystem: An integrative framework. Public Administration Review, 82(4), pp.634-645.
Williams, P., 2012. Collaboration in public policy and practice: Perspectives on boundary spanners. Bristol, Policy Press.
25th October 2023