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How cross-sector collaboration can fight inactivity

Blackpool Council's Lisa Arnold blogs about her recent learnings on collaborative work, her cooperation with different leisure and health leaders - including us - and how successful teamwork can improve the fitness and wellbeing levels of our communities.

22nd April 2022

by Lisa Arnold
Strategic head of community and wellbeing services, Blackpool Council

I’ve worked in the leisure industry for 22 years, first starting out as an outdoor activity instructor and now as a head of service for Blackpool Council.

I owe my progression, in part, to professional curiosity – always asking ‘why’ – sometimes oblivious to the frustration I’m causing along with a drive to always want to improve the services we provide.

I’m passionate about the role of local authorities, particularly in improving the health and wellbeing of local people, but also at times frustrated at the lack of progress and silo working I often see.

I recently had the opportunity to do an MBA through work and having done very little formal learning for nearly 20 years, I was both excited and apprehensive about it.

Having completed it in June 2021, I have to say its one of the best things I’ve ever done. I loved learning new things every week and love the way it has shaped and rounded me as a leader.

I’ve been asked to write this blog as my dissertation explored the role of cross-sector collaboration in tackling inactivity.

Before undertaking this piece of research, I used the word ‘collaboration’ regularly, but now looking back I had a very superficial understanding of it.

I knew what it meant in terms of working with other people or partners, but didn’t truly understand how to do it or what the benefits really were.

This was probably in part because I saw local authority leisure as a huge player in tackling physical inactivity, whereas I realise now we are one part of a very big and complex jigsaw.

My project involved reading literature and previous research on cross sector collaboration, as well as interviewing sector leaders in both leisure and health, including leaders from Sport England, ukactive and Public Health England (as they were then), to name a few.

I’m passionate about the role of local authorities particularly in improving the health and wellbeing of local people.

I was surprised to find out through my research that complex problems cannot be solved by a single sector, therefore collaboration is a must if we are to start to have an impact on the complex challenge of physical inactivity.

This made me start to question how to achieve successful collaboration and, in reading the literature, it was clear that there were a number of factors that were critical to successful cross-sector collaboration. 

These were further confirmed from themes which were identified from interviews with sector leaders. 

These critical success factors are:

  • Trust
  • Shared learning
  • Framing
  • Shared value
  • Organisational and self-interest
  • Shared vision.

Whilst ‘trust’ was the most critical, all six factors are required to achieve successful, ongoing collaboration and the challenge with these is that none of them can be achieved in isolation, nor can they ever be ticked as ‘complete’ – they require constant care and attention to make sure that they aren’t neglected throughout the process, which is what makes collaboration so difficult.

I’ve been able to put some of my learning into practice by setting up a collaborative group involving a number of third sector providers who the council has traditionally had a challenging relationship with to undertake a youth review across the town. 

It has been a very interesting process and another learning curve for me, trying to build trust between partners whilst being honest about the reasons we’re round the table.

Whilst we definitely haven’t cracked it yet, all partners have said that they’ve found the approach productive and refreshing so it will be interesting to see whether we can sustain the progress we have made to date.

Whilst my research hasn’t been able to give me the perfect model for successful collaboration, it has definitely opened my eyes to the key areas that are critical.

It has also enabled me to identify, at an earlier stage, if a collaboration isn’t quite working, and more crucially why, by considering the critical success factors and whether they’re being given the attention and consideration required.

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