Participatory leadership in public services.

Building capacity at Adur & Worthing District Council

Building capacity for cross-cutting collaboration, meaningful results and fulfilling work.

  • 800 employees serving c. 800,000 local residents 

  • Creating shared leadership, participation and connection

  • 10-month programme of nurturing potential

The background

The public sector is tackling some massive challenges at the moment.  

It’s proving near impossible to deliver change at the pace that’s needed, with financial pressures, rising demand and a rapidly changing context.  

“Keeping the lights on” is about as much as most organisations can manage, and traditional structures and processes generally get in the way of attempts to improve and change.

A key strategic aim at Adur and Worthing Councils is to transition from straightforward ‘service provider’ and ‘fixer’ to community enabler, helping people and communities towards independence, harnessing a wider range of resources and support than just the councils.  

As part of this journey, they want to find ways to “de-freeze” the way they work, challenging the status quo and becoming more flexible and adaptable.

But it’s really challenging when staff are so stretched and the traditional structures and processes within the organisation work against collaboration and creativity.  

Laudable aims and strategies can hit the buffers pretty quickly if staff are feeling under pressure and they are not offered enough space and time to start being able to think and work differently.

This was the challenge that Paul Brewer, Director for Digital & Resources at Adur & Worthing District Council wanted to address.


His ambition was to begin developing a more participative approach to working within his directorate, and then across the wider organisation. 

To shift from a sense of leadership as a job role with authority to leadership as a behavioural competency that anyone is capable of and empowered to develop. 

Paul’s vision was for a workplace where senior managers and staff all share open, honest and meaningful dialogue, work to their strengths and are led by purpose and need, rather than the line of command or the rule that must be obeyed.

We began a 10 month inquiry into what would enable this kind of change in a sustainable and manageable way.

What we're doing

We knew that major structural change wasn’t going to deliver results (when does it ever?) - and that at times these structures and processes serve a real purpose.

We also felt that a structural experiment that tried to force staff to become self-managing would be costly, disruptive and potentially unwelcome.

Instead we decided to work on nurturing the potential for new ideas, behaviours and working practices that connect more parts of the organisation together and gave staff more confidence in their potential to lead, together.

By doing so, our hypothesis was that it would lead to staff instigating the change that mattered most to them, in ways that played to their strengths and drew on the collective intelligence of the organisation.

We instigated two programmes of work:

1. A shared leadership group

A monthly open invitation, drop-in session that focused on communication, inspiration and learning. Each month we’d practice open and honest dialogue that explored new ideas that people were trying out - what was working and what was proving difficult. 

People expressed their hopes, fears, offered each other help and made requests of the group. We used participative processes to work on real problems and learned how to apply these tools to our work so that the participants could immediately take new practices back to their teams. 

2. A management development group

Working with a small team of senior managers we explored how they could develop and model the behaviours required to support change in the rest of the organisation. 

We started with a series of peer-coaching sessions that gave the team a chance to explore and test their capacity for participative leadership, while bringing them closer together as a team. Following this we developed a team charter, a team member cheat sheet (which mapped how to get the best out of each of them) and worked on honing their communication skills to manage conflict and encourage creativity.

At the heart of this work are a few principles that we felt were critical to its success:

Work with what is: Rather than fixing on a specific outcome or change to the organisation, we believed that it was most important to first be clear about the complexity of our current reality and practicing curiosity about what might be possible. Having a clear intention that we kept returning to and working with whatever results emerged enabled us to continually move forward and proved the best way to deliver real results. 

The quality of dialogue is everything: In every conversation, meeting and workshop we focused attention on how we communicated. Slowing down, being clear about what we wanted to say and why we were saying it, as well as learning how to listen fully, not only created better outcomes, but led to a sense of greater understanding and connection.

No one of us is smarter than all of us: Inside the group work we did, the usual tangible and intangible trappings of authority were left at the door. The most senior staff bared all and asked for help while the more junior spoke up, gave considered and challenging feedback, and the level of equal participation allowed us to tap into the collective intelligence of the group.   

What's happened

At first there was curiosity and excitement. 

An excellent platform for all, that was practical, informative, enjoyable and above all open. Being able to talk personally and share many of those elements whether work related or not with colleagues in the workplace is refreshing and honest. Shared recognition of the same challenges and concerns can only be positive, even inspirational especially when you walk away feeling you actually have achievable outcomes.
— Participant, Shared Leadership Sessions

What we were doing was quite alien in many ways - breaking down the barriers between leaders and staff, taking big chunks of time out to simply talk about our experience and the possibilities we could imagine. 

Over time, the day-to-day stress and pressure led to our shared leadership group rising and falling in numbers, some sessions we’d have 40 attendees, others just 5.

But throughout we kept getting the same feedback from everyone - that coming together as a group in this way was fundamentally changing how they felt about the organisation and their work.

We heard how people were trying out new approaches, taking bold steps and making more active choices around their work.

Together we identified real-world problems that were preventing people from developing more leadership in their roles and enabling that for their colleagues. 

And the more we heard back what was happening in the organisation, the more we realised was that the number of people at the sessions wasn’t the critical factor. 

We found that the quality of the space we created meant that the work in the group was leading to a perceptible change beyond it. 

New initiatives that spun out were better supported with a growing confidence that participative approaches were not just possible but delivered better results.

After our initial nine months, we’re now reviewing how to develop the group’s work further and create a new programme of training and development focused on communication and coaching skills.

If there was one thing I wanted to achieve from this work, it was to send a clear and persistent message that giving ourselves time and space to think and reflect will help us in our work.  After 10 months, I can see that we are developing a new way of being at work, and talking to each other.  A more unified and positive culture is emerging. We’re seeing many initiatives spring up, and people stepping forward, and I’m delighted.  And we will absolutely carry on.
— Paul Brewer, Director of Digital and Resources