Reflections on what might have been
The announcement, on Friday, that our local council was considering cutting the most expensive bus routes struck a chord with me. I remember when the bus services were centralised, it was a good example of target driven policy making. Community transport had been offering a service to people for years and they had it down to a fine art but when services were centralised nobody thought to ask them and now here we are with the most costly services running at £13.83 per passenger. At that price, nobody can blame the council for cutting the service but that’s not what is at stake here. When the services were centralised who asked the communities what they wanted, who asked the community transport how they did it and who asked the people what they could do to make the service viable? Well nobody. There was extensive consultation, but that was in the form of what the local authority was prepared to do and the question was whether the community agreed with it – agreed strongly even.
“Local authorities must engage more people in commissioning local goods and services. Citizens should have a say in how services are delivered, to improve decision-making and value-for-money.” Communities in Control, 2008
The Government’s Empowerment agenda is in trouble, believe me. Those Local Authorities who have signed up to NI 4. (The % of people who feel that they can I can influence decisions in their locality), are back tracking. Empowerment is being reinterpreted in terms of the much less threatening, Engagement. I can imagine a number of reasons for this: organisational culture being the main culprit, an inherent fear of popular referenda being another. A tendency to see communities as part of a problem, not part of a solution and a lost understanding of what it means to consult. This is not about consulting with people, this is about managing expectations. Deciding what you are going to do and then asking people if they agree is not consultation.
Alongside the publication of the Comprehensive Spending Review of 2007 the Government made it clear what its intentions were for encouraging local democracy. Through the Government White Paper and The Comprehensive Spending Review they laid out a strategic framework for the localisation of decision making about service delivery and economic development. To enable this at the citizen level they put forward an agenda for empowerment.
“We want to shift power, influence and responsibility away from existing centres of power into the hands of communities and individual citizens. This is because we believe that they can take difficult decisions and solve complex problems for themselves. The state’s role should be to set national priorities and minimum standards, while providing support and a fair distribution of resources.” Communities in Control, 2008
The rational for this was clear:
“Unless we give citizens similar choices in our democratic system to those they have in their everyday lives – and the same rights to demand the best – we will see a further erosion of trust and participation in democracy…..” Communities in Control, 2008
How does the need for trust sound today in the light of the Parliamentary expenses scandal? This was not just about giving people what they felt they ought to have by right, there was a clearly perceived added value for service delivery. There was also a quid pro quo, people wouldn’t just want a say in how thing were run, they wanted to be heard, to know that they were making a difference:
Now, we hear that in the most deprived wards of England we are to see Local Intensive Engagement!
“Giving people a voice— Local people must have the chance to express their worries and know that someone will act on their behalf. I want to enable an open debate about what the challenges really are in these areas—even if this raises difficult and uncomfortable issues. This means giving people the space to air their grievances to political and community leaders. Alongside measures to increase the visibility of more formal leaders, individuals will be encouraged to act as community champions or tenants and have a bigger say in local issues. This will help build up the confidence and self-esteem of residents so that they feel that they can regain control over their estates, their lives and their futures.”
We are, effectively, funding what people should have anyway a real voice, a say in how things are done. What I find most disturbing it the lack of faith in the people and the lack of courage in local authorities to trust the people. In truth, people in communities are already empowered. They have their networks of friends and trusted agents. There are community brokers, community representative both official and unofficial and individuals who can speak with the community voice. There is a social capital in all communities what we don’t have is the channels for those voices to be heard by those that are making the decisions.
“But while people want to have a greater say, they need also to be convinced that their involvement will make a difference. If they speak up, they want to know that their voices will be heard. This is what empowerment is all about – passing more and more political power to more and more people through every practical means.” Communities in Control, 2008
In order to make this happen the Government recognised that they would have to create routes and channels for people to have their say and to make their wishes known and one such route was through modern media:
“A strong independent media is a vital part of any democracy. We will continue to support a range of media outlets and support innovation in community and social media. We will pilot a mentoring scheme in deprived areas on using the Internet.” Communities in Control, 2008
What the Government saw was that innovation in service delivery was urgently needed and that re-designing services to meet the need of the citizen could only be realistically achieved by involving the citizen in the design of those services:
“Encouraging innovation – reduced central prescription will allow more space for localities and public sector professionals to respond to local needs and citizen input to the design and delivery of services and through a commitment to the sharing of good practice across delivery partners.
Achieving outstanding performance in the public sector cannot be done without substantial devolution to unlock the initiative, creativity and motivation of leaders throughout the system.” Local Performance Framework, 2007
One of the biggest losses to local government service design is a failure to capitalise on the holy trinity of service design: the local authority, the third sector and the community.
“the enablers of innovation and improvement, such as the quality of partnership working, effective strategic commissioning, strong political leadership and community involvement; negotiating and influence to prepare excellent LAAs and managing risks to outcomes;” Local Performance Framework, 2007
We seem to have lost, somewhere along the way, the knowledge that arises from the emergent stories that communities tell. Out of those stories, whether they are told on line, in real time, in hard copy, in words or pictures comes the knowledge that describes outcomes of current service delivery and informs the re-design to improve the next generation of services. The belief that everything must flow from the centre and that citizens are recipients, not participants ignores the potential for social capital to create value out of service delivery. The centralisation of community transport was a classic example of this.
None of this foresaw the economic crisis of 2008/9 and the unprecedented expenditure of taxpayers’ money by the Government. Already, local authorities were contemplating massive cuts in public expenditure now they were faced with making difficult decisions about service delivery. Now we come to a place where the problems that our society faces can only be solved with the wisdom of the crowd and the opportunity to capture the wisdom of the crowd has been suppressed through lack of understanding on the part of local government. We need a knowledge society.
In 2004 Professor Ann Macintosh at Edinburgh Napier University proposed a progression to citizen empowerment through the use of ICTs; engagement, participation and empowerment. She saw this as a way to reach a wider audience to enable broader participation and to support participation through a range of technologies “to cater for the diverse technical and communicative skills of citizens.”
In short, she saw the potential in ICTs not just to inform and engage but to enable participation and empowerment. With the rapid growth of Web 2.0 we have an even greater opportunity to realize the potential for citizen empowerment. Charles Leadbeater points out that in Social Enterprise and Social Innovation we can approach public services in a way that is “more personalised, engaging, joined-up, adaptable – providing better outcomes and value for money.” Dominic Campbell has recently pointed out that “Social innovation exists at the intersection between government business and social action, both taking on and improving government services and/or meeting a unmet need” and proposes a fourth strand to the relationship with government and service delivery: social innovation.
The result is that the potential resource of innovative thought remains untapped and local authorities try to deliver what they can’t possibly deliver. What’s wrong with saying to people: this is how much money we have, this is what it will buy, what do you want to keep and what can you deliver yourselves? People have strong views about what they want for their community and if there are things they can do for themselves they will.