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The Great Transition: what it means for Local Authorities

October 10, 2010

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Phew, what a week. About ten fringes, a five hour debate in the Lords on the role of charity in strengthening civil society (read my speech here), Newsnight in Hastings, and a dinner speech last night.

One of the major points I made this week was that there is evidence from around the world that what we are facing is a dramatic transition happening across many industrialised nations, which happens to coincide with the current fiscal crisis but which started in the last decade and will likely continue for a decade or more to come. In Japan, for example, the government struggles to maintain its post-war welfare model in a society in which 1 in 4 adults is of retirement age. This demographic shift, combined with changing lifestyles and expectations fueled by the internet and the habits and choices of the up and coming Millennial Generation, together with the shift in economic power from West to East, will define Western countries (and China’s) future. There are several possible responses. One is to ignore it, and continue as if nothing is happening, which will lead to greater debt and ultimately emergency action, another is to spend even more in the hope of stimulating growth, or the other is to refashion a welfare state and society closer to the original Beveridge vision in which responsibility stood alongside state action, with any money left over invested in future sources of growth (seeding the local, and often small efforts of entrepreneurs both for profit and social on the ground). What is a family practice doctor?

All parts of society and our economy will have to grapple with this period of change, whether it be in businesses seeking to be supportive of more local action and sustainable, in government seeking to be more empowering and less statist, and in the voluntary sector seeking to continue its local work but also work with the other sectors in providing scalable and replicable opportunities for citizens to engage with each other, local services, and society at large. The aim is to put citizens in charge, and less vested interests that lie either in Big Government, Big Business, or Big Charity (which is more how people are made to feel small rather than actual size or turnover) – whose models will need to change if they are to keep up with the changing times. One way large organisations can find their place in the new world is to see themselves increasingly as markets for innovation, allowing the small and local to thrive in their supply chain or on their platform, as we see in Innocentive or in the Iphone itself with its appstore. The skills needed to do this will see a shift from being the direct service provider in almost all but the most necessary cases, to one of being the facilitator and part-purchasor with the citizen (see how Apple first filters a short-list of applications first to provide a quality experience, with ratings, and then lets users choose services from that short-list).

No where will this be more the case with local authorities in the Great Transition. They in the Coalition’s programme and with the upcoming Localism Bill will literally receive more independence and autonomy than has seen in one or more generations, with the right to competence and a whole host of budgets deringfenced and additional powers granted to them, such as over public health. There will be three challenges for Local Authorities during this period of transition, which also present real opportunities.

The first will be to make cuts intelligently rather than in a knee jerk fashion, safeguarding effective and connective local community projects and other external suppliers rather than avoiding to make savings closer to home or spinning out functions as mutuals or social enterprises – at least until many of them have been able themselves to transition to a more diversified financial position. Tools that may help here include participatory budgeting, making budgets and income transparent so that citizens can help suggest ideas or scrutinise contracts, as well as harnessing the council balance sheet to offer bridging loans to local businesses and charitable organisations. Funds such as the community first fund for deprived communities with low social capital, and over time ward-level devolved budgets could also help fill a crucial gap for the smaller resident-led community groups over time.

The second will be to be more innovative and to continue to build partnerships both internally and externally to draw in resources from business, (social) investors – harnessing Big Society Capital and other sources of support, and expert citizens, as well as with community and voluntary groups to come up with innovative ways of doing more for less. These might include public or community or asset-transferred multi-service spaces (e.g. harnessing the church or mosque and not just the public building to provide statutory and non-statutory services, alongside the library/museum/gallery/school/post-office/empty shop/street/kiosks), perhaps combined with public sector time credits in every public service and housing association context to make the most of underutilised assets, incentives such as council tax rebates or vouchers (see Windsor’s Recycle Bank scheme),  internet-supported booking and information systems tiered so that council-owned spaces that often are rented out at the highest commercial rates (often left empty during downturns) can be utilised by the community or start up businesses in the interim, and joining up different statutory budgets through service redesign.

The third will be to genuinely empower citizens, by putting them in charge not just through the ballot box and their council tax payments, and not just through formal consultations and citizen panels, but also directly harnessing a range of tools. The first of these is to genuinely empower local councillors at the level of the ward of parish (and if parishes don’t exist, to encourage their creation). The second is to nurture local community organisers (whose training can be funded) with local anchor groups as supporters, who can get inputs in an impartial and non-partisan way (as will be their promise when taking on the role) and enable citizens to have the skills and capacity to be more involved in local decision-making and local social action. The third is to genuinely devolve budgets to citizens, which will allow them to pay for local activities, organisers and other staff part-time or full-time, and commission public-services, get advice on local open source planning options, or asset transfers using the rights to bid/buy/consult that will be available to them. The fourth is to encourage citizen journalism through blogs and hyperlocal websites, which can provide a rich source of citizen-produced information that will help the council better target its services (e.g. picking up abandoned white goods). The fifth is to directly train up citizens to help support service teams as volunteers, where it is in their own interest and where they have the time, to carry out episodic non-acute or emergency tasks possibly also in conjunction with the above incentives.

All of the above will involve both risk and logistical complexity. Here too a number of tools can be used. The first is familiar in the business world, which is portfolio risk management. The key is to start first with services and assets that it would be least risky to get citizens to participate in, keeping the very essential and core services closer to home, whilst harnessing existing or potential incoming organisations (private, mutual, social enterprise) for the bits in the middle. Over time as such organisations prove they can handle small initial commissions, encourage them to take on even bigger ones. The second is mapping, which will be familiar to those that have been involved in Total Place, and which the localism bill and open source planning will take to another level (look out here for Local Integrated Services as a tool and an approach). The third is to encourage greater transparency through the above mentioned citizen journalism and tools such as Quiet Riots and Pownum to get citizens to give feedback on third parties and citizens groups that have been given resources, and make sure your councillors are tracking these sites. The fourth, if participatory budgeting or co-commissioning with citizens and councillors is involved, is to accept, particularly for some small amounts, that not everything will work, but that this is ok – since the local stakeholders have some reason to try to make it work if they live there and anyway the cost of monitoring small amounts can at times amount to up to half the amount of money deployed so you can afford for up to half to not work and still not be in the red as a result. The fifth is to make sure your frontline staff are really good (even better paid!) and are trained up and trusted and empowered to make common sense decisions, which over time will become possible as more is shifted to citizens and groups through self-service.

All of this is enough on top of the day job to make any local authority nervous I suspect. However, the prize, if you can even pull off a fraction of the above will be happier citizens (and voters), less cost, better quality service, a more cohesive community, higher employment, better health, less crime etc. And above all, the opportunity to spread good practice across the country and even the world! To not move and enable citizens as much as possible to be more in control, on the other hand, would demonstrate to future generations that giving Local Authorities more power inevitably leads to a hoarding of it at that level, which might usher in another fifty years of centralisation.

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