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Public services are about empowerment – not a transaction

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A guest LGC Briefing from Adam Lent, director of the New Local Government Network thinktank

This year the UK will get its first Big Picture school in Doncaster, following the example of dozens of others across the world.

Two things make these schools fundamentally different from conventional ones. One is the extent to which students can shape their own curriculum and learning. The other is the central role of community.

Under this model, students are part of an ‘advisory group’ made up of fellow students who support each other, while also learning within the wider community, spending a good part of their time working with local employers. Evaluations have shown the approach has a striking impact on engagement and attainment.

And Big Picture schools are far from alone. This principle of giving people the power and resources to shape their own services within the context of active and supportive communities is fundamentally transforming public services in the UK, as described in a new report from the New Local Government Network (NLGN).

Councils like Wigan MBC, Gateshead Council, Cambridgeshire CC and Barking & Dagenham LBC are experimenting with ways to hand service design, commissioning and even delivery over to communities. At its most innovative this goes beyond the more discretionary areas like youth services, libraries and parks, including statutory responsibilities of social care, children’s services and public health.

Different councils are taking different approaches, but the unifying goal is putting communities rather than public sector institutions in the driving seat.

Even the notoriously hierarchical NHS is experimenting with the idea. The NHS Vanguard pilots established five years ago had community power as a guiding theme. Morecambe Bay Vanguard, for example, now has NHS communications, diabetes support and a range of other crucial activities designed and delivered by a local community network, set up to work with the NHS and with representation on governance bodies in the area.

But perhaps the most radical innovation of this kind has come from within the voluntary sector in the form of Big Local. This Big Lottery funded project has handed 150 deprived neighbourhoods £1.1 m each with no strings attached.

The money is being used for a range of purposes, all led by local communities rather than public institutions, including campaigns against loan-sharking, childcare provision, community centres reopening, and park regeneration. It is a project that is revealing – in a practical way – how even the most challenged communities can proactively resolve local problems when they are given the power and resources to do so.

The NLGN’s report argues that these and many other innovations add up to an entirely new way of delivering public services. More than just interesting experiments, they are a direct response to the biggest challenge facing the public sector: rapidly rising demand.

We call it the ‘community paradigm’ and its wider adoption by public servants and policymakers is vital if rising pressure is not to permanently undermine the universal and free principles that have underpinned services for decades.

Those implementing it have recognised that you cannot simply exhort citizens and communities to take on more responsibility for their own health and wellbeing. People must be given the power and resources to exercise that responsibility.

The challenge all these innovators face is that the public sector has spent the last 70 years growing a strong tendency to hoard power and resources. A hierarchical mindset still dominates, focused on the belief that it is the public servant’s role to deliver things to people rather than with people. The marketisation reforms of the last 40 years have only exacerbated this problem, with many public servants and service users understanding their relationship in a purely transactional way.

Taking on those hierarchical and transactional ways of working requires a systemic shift. This is difficult enough under normal conditions, but it becomes near impossible while politicians plod on with old models centred on the dominant role of the state or the market.

There is a need for a major rethink of national and local policy frameworks which will allow power and resources to be placed in the hands of communities. To achieve this the NLGN report calls for four major policy shifts at national and local level.

First, we need a resumption of devolution, this time without unpopular governance conditions and convoluted deal-making. Second, we must introduce participatory and deliberative democracy to bolster our fragile representative traditions while giving people more influence over the decisions that affect their lives.

Third, we need to roll out ‘community commissioning’ to give people primary say in how their services are designed, delivered and procured. And finally, we need to adopt ‘strengths-based’ approaches to service delivery nationally and locally, emphasising collaboration between frontline public servants, service users and their networks, and to ditch punitive sanction regimes which destroy hope of working together.

Currently the community paradigm is being implemented in isolated pools of innovation. Many of those leading the change on the frontline are unaware of others doing similar projects of transformation. Many are also unaware of the historical nature of what they are doing and its capacity to fundamentally rethink the whole system.

The sooner the dots are joined and the connections made, the sooner we can create a public sector that empowers people and creates the urgently-needed shift towards prevention.

Adam Lent, director, New Local Government Network


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