As the nation’s attention continues to be fixed on the live soap opera of Brexit – sadly with real life consequences – local government impresses by getting on with the day job, and doing serious thinking about what happens next.
A recent example of this serious thinking is ‘The community paradigm: Why public services need radical change and how it can be achieved’, published by the New Local Government Network.
It says that the history of public services lies in shifts between different ‘paradigms’ in how people think and act. Most recently the ‘market paradigm’ has been prevalent, seeing public services as transactions between the state as provider, and the public as consumer.
The think tank now sees us moving to the ‘community paradigm’. This recognises the public demand for increasing influence amid rising demand for public services. It is about participation, and producing new models for local people, their representatives, and others to collaborate, creating the change people need.
Governance in the community paradigm is messier. It is about collaboration: many partners coming together, recognising that everyone’s sense of ‘value’ will be different, recognising those differences and seeing how to work together to better understand needs and act on them.
Under this model, national systems of oversight are essentially meaningless. Value is defined locally. Governance, too, is wholly local.
If this is the way things are going, trying to apply traditional governance is likely to end in failure. Our current systems were created for a simpler world and adapted for a marketised one. Local democracy and the relationship between local people and the public bodies who work to fulfil their needs must shift – significantly.
This shift hinges on a change in culture and mindset. Of course, we and others talk about culture seemingly endlessly. Indeed, the Centre for Public Scrutiny will be publishing something on political culture in local government in the coming weeks.
This is because it is important. Changing structures only takes us part of the way. We must change how people working within those structures think, act and behave.
In our upcoming report, we will advocate for a ‘constitution for the place’ or a ‘community constitution’ (furious debate about the title continues). This is a guiding framework establishing who does what, how and when; how people should expect to work together; and critically the values and behaviours all should expect from others. It could become the bedrock on which our new political culture is based.
It places governance at the heart of new systems – avoiding a continuation of the ad hoc approach typifying many other attempts at the governance of partnership working and collaboration, which tends to build new governance mechanisms atop existing ways of working and reinforces organisational silos.
It faces the fact that, if we are moving to a markedly new paradigm in the way that we conceive of public services working, governance must provide a framework.
In the work we do, we have noted the increased frustration as local people try to develop new ways of meeting their own needs, and frustration with public bodies who appear to be acting as gatekeepers. The financial and demographic challenges we face can only be met by the kind of opening up, participation and collaboration at the heart of this new paradigm.
The market mindset took us a long way; its persistence is testament to that. But it’s time to move on, to recognise that this move is under way, and to understand how we work to strengthen local democratic systems, before their relevance is further challenged.
Jacqui McKinlay, chief executive, Centre for Public Scrutiny