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Neil McInroy

All posts tagged: civil society

Local government and social sector must be friends not foes

11 April, 2011 Posted by: -

Far too much debate around local government and big society has focussed on crude caricatures. This has distracted us from the fundamental questions around social and economic inclusion and masked the real issues facing local services and the needs of citizens. Its time to create new outcome focussed relationships. The social sector and Local Government need to be friends in this endeavour not foes.

The government inspired debate, reinforced by ministerial speeches have accused local authorities of unnecessary cutting, whereas, the voluntary and community sector (VCS) has been praised and lauded as the future of service delivery.  This has created some unease between the public and VCS sector.

Furthermore, nationally driven and at times overblown and chimeric claims for the big society, have also translated into some mistrust between these local bedfellows.

This is worrying, and local government, the VCS and advocates of the big society need to be mindful of this tension and avoid it. Some advocates of the big society will no doubt construe this as constructive disruption, and maybe even some in local government will say bring it on! However, no good will come of this tension, and I fear there will be only losers and these will be local service users, residents and communities.

Far too much debate around local public service reform and talk about big society has focussed on a crude caricatures, which has broadly portrayed local government as inefficient, self serving, lacking in innovation, slow and wasteful, whilst the VCS has been cast as creative, efficient, speedy and responsive.

This is baloney and dangerous, as it masks the real issues facing local service delivery and the needs of citizens in the future as regards ageing, increasing demand on services, how we pay for them and ongoing environmental change.

It also avoids pressing questions around local social and economic inclusion. These are the real issues we should be concerned about, and we need positive and creative relationships to overcome them. The powerful, paternal and at times overly grant dependent based relationship between local government and the VCS is changing.

This is mostly a good thing. However, as the power balance shifts, this is not a time to either criticise the VCS or for the VCS to start undermining the sovereignty and representative role of local government. However, it is the time to create commonalities and rally around new localist values, bespoke to place. 

CLES’s work on economic and place resilience, tells us that the stronger places have a good relationship between the public and social sectors. I have argued consistently about the need to maintain and develop a place stewardship role for local government. 

Part of this role is about an active and activist local state, working with the wider society of residents, community and voluntary groups. This involves a plural delivery of service, including a range of delivery options, including a greater role for the VCS in this.

However plurality is not an end in itself. For CLES, plural service delivery and the associated contracts and service relationships need to forged on the basis of delivering high levels of social, economic inclusion and environmental justice. Many advocates of the big society, and some in local government have lost sight of this.Local government must work with the VCS in ways which are not solely based on service competition, price and efficiencies.

They need to be forged on the basis of creative partnerships, networks and relationships, which have effective and progressive outcomes for service employees and citizens at their core.  Mistrust and acrimony are the enemies of this.

Local Government must ensure they retain a place stewardship role

15 March, 2011 Posted by: -

 ‘You know what, I am not sure I got into local politics to just manage contracts’.  This statement, uttered to me a few weeks ago by an experienced local (Conservative) councillor, goes to the nub of fears around the future of local government

Should local government and elected members just outsource all service contracts to the ‘big society’ and commercial deliverers of services and/or should it play a democratically accountable place stewardship and coordinating role?  I would argue that too much of the former, fetters the latter.  Some areas may be fast approaching this tipping point and we need a much deeper debate about the consequences.

The cuts have created a dynamic and head of steam which make outsourcing a strong option.  Firstly, the big society and commercial delivery are perceived as more efficient.  Secondly, it gets the costs isolated as part of a contract and reduces the liabilities.  These factors have created a dynamic where direct service delivery responsibility is moving away from Local government.

I am not suggesting that the use of the private and social sectors in service delivery is a bad thing.  Quite the reverse, some services have always been delivered by a blend of public, private and social sectors.  A plurality of service delivery is a good thing.   However, there is a key place stewardship role, which too much willy nilly and short term outsourcing will kill. 

This place stewardship role is about the qualities and values of public service.  It is the ability to ensure a sense of fairness, and equality of access to services.  It is also about governance and connecting up different services in creative ways.  And fundamentally, its about sovereignty and maintaining direct democratic accountability over a service. 

As a resident, in inner city Manchester, I quite like the fact that I can speak to my local councillor about a range of local services, knowing that she and local cabinet colleagues are accountable for them.  Even if I don’t like how the service is run, I can even make a vote for an alternative candidate and party.  I have a connection, I understand the connection, as does the councillor and all my fellow residents.  In contrast, how would I influence a service, if all the local council does is manage a contract, I can’t vote against the CEO or the board of a large commercial company?

Also, are we weakening the power of local government to act as key lynchpins and actors in times of stress?   All places are at the vagaries of unpredictable events and ongoing environmental, economic or social shocks.  When these shocks occur, the strategic place steward role of local government is to mobilise quickly, harness resources, relationships and reshape services and activity accordingly. 

Furthermore, what about opportunities?  A major investment opportunity or securing a major sporting or cultural event, is achieved through strategic capacity across a range of partners, drawn together by local government.  

Can these fundamental stewardship roles be achieved if all or the majority of our services are outsourced and part of legally binding contractual arrangements?  It could well be that outsourcing on a grand scale, weakens the stewardship and strategic role of local government.  In doing this we are making our places vulnerable to adverse change, and leaving our places weakened in attempts to realise fleeting moments of opportunity.

All of this is absent from present debate, and the localism bill is silent on them.  The future has to be about a strong local government which creates the conditions and ensures the health and wealth of local places, communities, businesses and residents.  It can’t do this alone, but it must retain the capacity to lead and steward place.

Localism needs to deliver on community cohesion

8 February, 2011 Posted by: -

In his recent speech at the Munich security conference, Prime Minister David Cameron criticised multiculturalism and called for a “shared sense of national identity” and efforts to promote “that feeling of belonging in our communities that is key to achieving true cohesion”.

However, we know there are fewer funds available for support activities relating to diversity policy and equalities issues.  In recent research by CLES, we found that cuts to Community Cohesion grants will jeopardise hard won progress on the very ‘big society’ issues such as local networks, connections and relationships, which Cameron hopes to promote.  In addition, these changes will potentially undermine future economic recovery.

In two separate pieces or research work, which have taken us to Copenhagen, Blackburn and Manchester, CLES has explored ethnic diversity policy, what its future should be and, in the UK context, the impact of cuts.  The work tells us a number of key things.

Firstly, it is abundantly clear that it is a false economy to not invest in policies that promote good relationships between communities.  Failure to invest and fund this kind of policy hinders the development of social capital and entrepreneurialism and employment skills, and hampering economic development more generally.

Secondly, it is no good just relying oneconomic success.  As proven from our work in Denmark, a focus on ethnic groups gaining employment and becoming active in the economy, does not on its own, tackle the wider issues of discrimination and lack of equality faced by certain ethnic groups. 

Thirdly, this is not just a localist agenda: national policy focus and help is still required.  In the UK, the days of nationally defined policy frameworks such as the Community Cohesion agenda and the Multiculturalist model that preceded it are gone. This undoubtedly presents an opportunity for local government to develop, creative and locally specific projects which foster good community relations and respect for ethnic diversity.  However, a lack of central steer and lack of local funds may prove problematic for the areas with growing ethnic populations, who do not have a long history of migration and ethnic diversity policy making or where population change is rapid or unexpected.

Fourthly, the notion and drive for a Big Society will falter even more, unless it addresses barriers to participation.  Our work shows that it is imperative that the government works to ensure equal access to participation in the Big Society and develops appropriate processes for monitoring diversity and equality.  Neither of these points have yet been adequately addressed as part of this emerging agenda.  As its stands, many groups face multiple barriers to accessing existing services, let alone having a ‘big society’ stake in delivering them.

Our work in this area makes the case thatcentral government must allocate sufficient funds to enable local government to develop policies that are effective in harnessing the opportunities of ethnic diversity and overcoming any potential challenges that can emerge from local population change.  Failure to do so, runs the real risk that the climate of public sector efficiencies will result in a rise in community tensions.  As such, it is crucial that local authorities retain capacity and that central government provides resources where necessary for activities that promote good community relations.

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Goodbye, but should we be saying hello to Local Strategic Partnerships?

18 January, 2011 Posted by: -

 Local Strategic partnerships (LSPs)?  Remember them?  They are now increasingly irrelevant giving the demise of the Comprehensive Area Assessment and the National Indicator set and are withering under the cuts. Many will disappear by April.  Good riddance some of you may say. At worst, they were unwieldy, bureaucratic, talking shops, plagued by a ‘tyranny of inclusion’, where bums on seats mattered more than actually doing anything. 

However, at best, they were transformative strategic service delivery think tanks, joining up services, breaking down departmental silos and institutional cultures and giving representation to the ‘big society’ of the voluntary and community groups.  Thus, lets not be too hasty in making LSPs the next entrant into the growing institutional waste basket of quangos and partnerships.  Maybe a reshaped LSP, perhaps as ‘Public innovation Partnerships’ focused on innovation, is the transformative vehicle for public services we need? 

We have had a load of talk about cuts, but not a lot about the post cut future.  Cuts in themselves will not be able to transform services.  At best the cuts will act as a trigger, but the timescale means they are being undertaken too swiftly for any serious transformative dialogue and action to be taking place at this stage.  

Furthermore, whilst cuts may herald change, unless we retain some cross sector partnership perspective, the cuts may trigger a whole set of potentially damaging set of unintended consequences.  Without something akin to an LSP, where is the forum for discussions about all public sector budgets (health, local government, police, housing etc), and how they need to connect up and effectively respond to the people’s needs?  How do we get discussion and a work programme for the transformation to a big society in which communities and voluntary groups work to deliver public sector services?  Top down strategic plans won’t work.  Where are we discussing public sector spend and the development of a range of delivery options via cooperatives, joint trading companies and mutuals? 

Without something like an LSP, we may well just get back door deals.  We may end up with public services which through various contractual arrangements don’t meet or add up.  Or we get a dangerous willy nilly outsourcing of services, a hollowing out of local government’s strategic capacity and a reduction not an increase, in opportunities for creativity and innovation. 

Too many people are talking the talk about innovation and creativity in public services.  However to walk the walk, we need dedicated public sector staff and elected members, openness and a forum or space in which discussion and ideas can be explored.  Where best to do this, but in a transformed existing partnership body, which already has some buy in?

For example, I was recently conducting a workshop with Cornwall Strategic partnership (CSP).  This is to be disbanded, but we looked at some ideas in terms of legacy.  Some of their plans for the future did point to a partnership body as a way of maintaining dialogue and looking strategically at shared, combined and innovative ways of delivering services.

As I write, I can already hear the critics saying, ‘Are you out of your mind?’ LSPs were policy at its worst, all bureaucracy, structures and process and no delivery.  However, in many countries, strategic partnerships are an institutional fix to the problems of silos and straight line service thinking, which are such a block to creativity and innovation in governance and transforming service delivery. 

This would not need to cost any money.  Many partners are willing.  Thus, before we slump off back to our silos and protect ourselves and our own institutions from the cuts, we desperately need to start talking and connect up the strategic spaces between local organisations.  This is where innovation and the future for public services lies.


Cooperatives cannot be the bargain basement for local services

22 November, 2010 Posted by: -

TheRochdale Pioneerswould be turning the grave if they thought cooperatives were about ‘more for less’!  It is laudable of theCabinet Officeminister Francis Maude to set out his vision across public services of a ‘rights to provide’in which mutuals and cooperatives would herald in ‘radical shifts in ownership, accountability and financing’ in public services.  I am all for experimentation, innovation and creativity in the delivery of public services.  However, there are valid questions of creeping privatisation or whether the delivery of a public service such as a Sure Start centre can be likened to the retail offer of John Lewis.  Furthermore, we cannot assume, that cooperatives and their rich heritage will be some elixir for public sector cuts.  

I am not the best placed to speak up for the cooperative movement, but my raw enthusiasm for the movement is grounded in the core values of theRochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers, who first set out the principles on which co-operatives around the world operate to this day. These are now reflected in the International Cooperative Alliance, who state that:

‘Co-operatives are based on the values of self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity and solidarity. In the tradition of their founders, co-operative members believe in the ethical values of honesty, openness, social responsibility and caring for others’

These values, to my understanding, must be reflected in operational terms to indubitable standards of effectiveness. Standards of employment, cooperation and of service. Efficiency is not the main driver here.  We must ensure the proposed flourishing of cooperatives in the deliver of public services, reflect these values and standards.  For example, they cannot be a Trojan horse for inferior employment terms and conditions.

Place leadership is something which you do not hear a lot about at the moment. We should be mindful, that local government performs vital overarching stewardship and coordination of  activities and services within the places we live. However, the deployment of cooperatives, could lead to the atomisation of service delivery within any given locality, through splintered ownership.  This will be recipe for a local government losing more strategic capacity.  This indeed would be ironic give the cooperative movement is all about collaboration.    

As Francis Maude says lets ‘challenge traditional public service structures and unleash pent-up ideas and innovation’.  However, we must not unleash an abuse of cooperative traditions, which fragment and denude the standard of public service delivery, and create a hollowed out local government who can no longer effectively steward the destiny of local places. 

Big society needs to strengthen the way we already live - not undermine it

10 November, 2010 Posted by: -

For all the talk about how bad Britain is and how we need a big society not a big state, it is worth remembering that the communities and places of Britain have some great strengths.  In the rush to cut and change, we need to be careful that we do not inadvertently start undermining some of the good things about the way we live and jeopardise the resilience and strength of many local places.  

I write this having just returned from a trip to Australia.  Invited as an international guest speaker to the Melbourne Place Making Series and having then kicked off another CLES economic resilience pilot project, followed by a lecture tour with villagewell and PPS - Project for Public Places, I saw, discussed and debated many old and new places which did or did not work well.  Some places lacked things that we in Britain often just take for granted.

Economically Australia is in a much better place than the UK, buoyed by a mineral rich commodity based economy.  However, many local places suffer from low density and car dependency dominated by housing with limited local economies and social networks.  Australia and Melbourne in particular has great thinking and plans and is making strides in densifying urban communities as part of its population growth trajectories. With Aussie boldness, they know what they need to do and are doing it.  Walkable, low carbon communities with centres of local economic and social activity are the aim. However, Melbourne craves for some of the communities many of us live in here in the UK. 

A wee walk to the locally owned shop, community centre or voluntary group, a local community garden or a incidental meet with a neighbour, are things we take for granted.  However, this is the social and economic activity which is important for creating a sense of place and vital for human well being.  This is the Big British Society and we must make it even better, shield it where it is under threat, and grow it in suburbia, and those small towns and villages and inner city places where it has never existed or has been eroded.   

We must be wary of assuming that this type of living is an indubitable presence, inscribed in perpetuity in the fabric of British life.  At this juncture, this type of place and living is vulnerable to forces which ignore local economies and think the global economy is benign.  It is threatened by centralism which thinks the economy is just about UK plc and our trade links with China.  It is undermined by cuts to voluntary activity and the centres and buildings where community activity takes place.  It is weakened by local government which no longer has the resource capacity to effectively steward and manage local places. 

Many people in Britain do not enjoy living in great places.  Inequality is growing.  However, coming back to Britain has made me realise how precious (and vulnerable) some great places are and how we really need to cherish and create them for all communities. This is not some ‘good old blighty’ nostalgic trip.  This is informed by best practice in what makes great places.   For all the talk of big society, small state we need a big awareness about what we could be losing.

Cuts could jeopardise the big society

27 May, 2010 Posted by: -

I believe the big society could be a bold and brave idea.  In essence it is about rethinking the social contract between the state and the individual, allowing space and time for the community and voluntary sector to get involved more and break down the traditional duopoly.

However, I am already worrying that cuts and the changes they are bringing to public service delivery are in danger of making this idea stillborn before it even has a chance to breathe.  We may not be getting a ‘control shift’ and a ‘big society, small state’, we may just get ‘small society’, and with this any attempts to reform the social contract will be a busted flush.

Of course, on the one hand, the cuts do represent an end of the big state era.  It is now clear that we are now entering a new type of public economic culture, with cuts dominating, and the state shrinking. 

However, on the other hand, within this context of cuts, the immediate issue for local government is not the big society or re-shaping the social contract.  Instead there is worry over change management, lean and system thinking, more for less, making do and generally more bang for the buck. 

However, for some commercial outsourcing companies, who supply the public sector, this period of contraction is not a period of trepidation.  Quite the reverse, it is being seen as a business opportunity.

For some companies the direct Local Government job losses, represents the need for interim ‘job solutions’.  The reduction in a local authorities core corporate policy capacity is a ‘developing market’ and increases in demand for ‘cost cutting strategies’, means new ‘lean thinking public management products’.

These companies are ‘offering solutions’, their share prices are already increasing as they anticipate a boom in new contracts.  All of this is taking place whilst Local Authorities reduce their direct staff costs from their balance sheet.

This trend, glaringly highlights a problem for the big society project and this desire to reshape the social contract between the individual and the state, allowing civil society to flourish.  Lets face it, in many instances, the community and voluntary sector is just not ready.  We have cuts now and immediate capacity issues will be addressed predominantly by the private sector and ‘big business’, not the community and voluntary sector.

I am suggesting that the cuts and this increase in commercial delivery (often national) of local public services, represents a significant threat to any notion of big society and a new social contract.  Cuts will not necessarily herald a big society, small state. It will merely herald a small society, small state, and we will be all the worse for it. 

THe big society project is doomed to failure if this is just about the power of the state.  This is being denuded through cuts already.  No. A big society project clearly needs to consider the power of commercial delivery.

So what does the government need to think about, and more importantly, does the government have the stomach to take this on?

For the big society project to gain traction, government will need to allow the space and time for civil society to grow and develop local delivery options. To do this, the government will have to intervene in the market. For example, this will mean it will have to be more interventionist and reform procurement practice away from raw market ‘efficiencies’ toward effectiveness, the local and less traditional commercial public service providers.

Some used to say that the public sector crowds out the commercial sector.  How times change, the commercial sector is in danger of crowding out civil society and fettering the new social contract and the big society. The government if it truly believes in radical reform, will need to act.

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