How can communities mobilise to shape public policy and service delivery in new and creative ways?

Catherine Durose, Jonathan Justice and Chris Skelcher

Community organising and co-production can shape public policy making and service delivery in new and creative ways, providing an alternative to privatisation and the outsourcing of public services. This is the claim made in our new pamphlet, ‘Beyond the state: mobilising and co-producing with communities’. The pamphlet is written with community activists and policy researchers, and provides case studies and analysis of UK and US experience in community organising to solve problems and improve public services. The pamphlet features contributors from CitizensUK, Locality and Scope and a Chicago-based organisation, Pilsen Alliance.

Community organising has a long tradition internationally. It offers a way for communities to recognise their common interests and mobilise to achieve change.  Often their target is government, and their desire is to redress disadvantage by actively campaigning for changes in policy and practice.  Sometimes this is to overcome the effects of existing policy, but it is also about shaping emerging policy to ensure that affected communities become beneficiaries rather than bearing the costs. Co-production is becoming an important way of thinking about the active design and delivery of services through collaboration between users and providers.  While its origins are in social care and health services, it has much wider applications.  But to be effective, it requires ways of redressing the power imbalance between users and producers.  Here, community organising can be an important mechanism. Together, the contributions show how community organising and co-production are powerful instruments to open up the policy process, potentially deepening democratic engagement and administrative responsiveness.  As such, they offer a challenge to the way in which governing beyond the state sometimes obscures accountability, privileges private interests, or facilitates governments’ off-loading of responsibilities to civil society.

This pamphlet’s contributions show the value of moving beyond a perspective that recognises the state as the only legitimate centre of authority. At the same time, however, the contributors challenge an assumption in our title. For ‘beyond the state’ implies that non-state models of collective choice and action are somehow secondary or less fundamental than those of government. The evidence from the contributors is that community organising and co-production are not somehow second best models, when compared to government provision.  They show that there is a vital energy that can be mobilised, but that it cannot be shaped to government’s agendas.  Community organising and co-production are political processes that create new possibilities that are not solely oppositional but also collaborative.

This can be a struggle for those in government, used to traditional models of policy making and service delivery, and trying to reconcile the political legitimacy of politicians with the demands and campaigns of users and communities. The state has become and is likely to remain a focal institution for defining and accomplishing shared purposes. But its monopoly on the legitimate use of coercion need not imply a monopoly on the legitimate use of collective decision and action. So we should continue to look past the language to observe the actual processes and results of power, and to look beyond the state alone for solutions.

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Catherine Durose is Director of Research at INLOGOV. Catherine is interested in the restructuring of relationships between citizens, communities and the state. Catherine is currently advising the Office of Civil Society’s evaluation of the Community Organisers  initiatives and leading a policy review for the AHRC’s Connected Communities programme on re-thinking local public services.

 

Jonathan Justice

Jonathan Justice is Associate Professor in the School of Public Policy and Administration at the University of Delaware. Jonathan previously worked for the City of New York and for non-profit organisations in the New York metropolitan area. His areas of specialisation include public budgeting and finance, accountability and decision making and local economic development.

 

skelcher-chris

Chris Skelcher is Professor of Public Governance in the University of Birmingham’s School of Government and Society. His research and teaching focus on the transformation of UK governance in an international context. Chris is currently leading a three year ESRC study of the reform of public bodies and their changing relationships with sponsor departments.

Councillors: Engage more and engage differently, but not at the expense of the basics

Karin Bottom, Catherine Mangan and Thom Oliver

This month saw the ‘Communities and Local Government Committee’ release its report on the role of the modern councillor. Focusing on  the impact of the Localism Act (and associated  developments in recent years),  Clive Betts MP,  Chair of the Committee,  suggested that local representatives are now spending less time in council and more in the community. As a result, they now shoulder the majority of responsibility for ensuring that  that their local communities have the tools to make the most of the localities in which they live. While the Report’s findings held few surprises, it did suggest that those we elect to be the local democratic voice of our communities must embrace this challenge and meet it head on. This position resonates with early findings from an INLOGOV project concerned with local engagement and the role of the local representative.

Firmly grounded in the belief that councillors’ responsibilities and remits vary, the current climate suggests they require a more nuanced and responsive skill set than ever.  In this sense, elected representatives must be outward looking, open to new ideas and welcoming of new approaches, but they must take care not to throw out the baby with the bath water.  Instead, our research suggests that what councillors need to do is integrate new learning into their existing repertoire of behaviours, while at the same time being more dynamic and responsive in their increasingly frontline role.[i]

For respondents, one of the main challenges they felt they faced was engagement. Whereas it is natural for all councillors to ‘do engagement’, a variety of approaches were evident in our research and for those who had moved into executive positions, the role shift was accompanied by community activities having to be curtailed. Respondents were very clear that the Localism Act was beginning to have an impact, for example in the mediating role that  has now been allocated to councillors: this meant developing skills as a community organiser and ultimately being on top of a great volume of information while managing a number of resources and contacts. This form of community engagement, though hard, was thought to have clear  rewards: a number saw the benefits of having shared aims and  a deeper understanding of the people they represented,  which in turn provided greater insight into the experience of being on the receiving end of council services; in contrast others thought wider community engagement created opportunities to lead opinion and ultimately change behaviour, for example one councillor worked with environmental groups to shape the ward’s attitude towards refuse collections and recycling.

Our interviews also surfaced information suggesting that that the majority of traditional communication methods continue alongside a slow evolution to greater online engagement and use of social media. While one councillor referred to sending regular email shots and creating a web page to articulate local information, activities and updates,  another described  how Facebook had enabled him to engage with people – often young people – who  generally chose not to participate in politics and local policy conversations. Finally, a number of councillors explained that twitter enabled them to aggregate opinions en mass, engage in debates and learn information they would otherwise be unaware of,  while some with cabinet responsibilities stated that this particular medium was unique in that it enabled them to keep on top of their portfolio while also providing opportunities to build and consolidate relationships they would otherwise not have had time to address..

One factor that was evident in almost every interview was that councillors always needed to be aware of the bigger picture: different methods worked in different situations and knowing a ward’s story or the history behind a particular community group could make the difference between successful and unsuccessful engagement. Just because a particular approach might work in one instance, there is no assurance it will work in another, despite apparent similarities. So, while councillors may see their responsibilities increasing and their community role broadening, it is vital that they maintain depth in their representative activities: if they don’t, potentially successful initiatives run the risk of failing.  

The authors are grateful to the School of Government and Society, University of Birmingham, for providing funds to assist in this research. With thanks also to NLGN for their contribution to this work.  For further information about the research project, contact Karin A. Bottom: k.a.bottom@bham.ac.uk

bottom-karin

Karin Bottom is Lecturer in British Politics and Research Methods at INLOGOV, University of Birmingham.  Her core research areas comprise parties (particularly small and the BNP), party systems and party theory.  She is particularly interested in concepts of relevance and how national level theories can be utilised at the sub-national level.

Portrait of OPM staff member

Catherine Mangan is a Senior Fellow at INLOGOV.  Her interests include public sector re-design, outcomes based commissioning and behaviour change.  Prior to joining INLOGOV she managed the organisational development and change work for a not-for-profit consultancy, specialising in supporting local government; and has also worked for the Local Government Association, and as Deputy Director of the County Councils Network.  She specialises in adult social care, children’s services and partnerships.

thom

Thom Oliver is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Oxford Brookes Business School.  He completed his PhD, exploring the representative role of councillors on appointed bodies, at INLOGOV in 2011. He currently lives in Bristol and has recently rejoined INLOGOV as an Associate.  Follow his Twitter account here, and read his own blog here.


[i] Research to date provides initial findings from interviews in three councils (one London Borough and two Metropolitan).  Interviews comprised a broad mix of age, seniority, roles and experience. Approximately equivalent numbers of men and women were interviewed.

City deals: A missed opportunity?

Martin Stott

Today is the deadline for the submission of the second round of ‘City Deals’.  Twenty cities and city regions are putting proposals to DCLG based around four ambitious objectives to:

    • Boost local economic growth
    • Rebalance the economy spatially and sectorally
    • Decentralise the powers and levers cities need to drive local economic growth and
    • Strengthen their governance and leadership

When they were originally announced by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg in a speech in Leeds in December 2011, City Deals were part of the carrot to encourage large cities to opt for elected mayors. Devolution of major new powers and budgets to new city leaders were promised. Unfortunately with the exception of Bristol, the electorates didn’t play ball. But DCLG pressed on and the deals were announced in July 2012, with Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham and Sheffield – thereby ironically, cutting the new mayor in Bristol, George Ferguson (who wasn’t elected until November 2012), out of the process. At the time of the DPM’s announcement, there was a sense that this might be a real and significant constitutional change, in tandem with the arrival of the new city mayors. But between the launch speech and the reality of policy on the ground, things became a lot more prosaic, as the agreements struck in 2012 lay bare.

As ever with central-local government relations, the reality has in no way matched the original hype and  in a time of retrenchment generally and ever smaller budgets for local government in particular, DCLG have been in no position to  provide anything very much in the way of new resources. Staff in Councils and Local Enterprise Partnerships (who are key players in the proposed new ‘city deals’ because of their focus on private sector led economic growth) comment that ‘there is no real money in it’, and that the process and likely outcome is similar to that seen in the negotiation of Local Public Service Agreements (LPSA) and the abortive ‘Total Place’ initiatives under the last Government.

There is one striking difference between city deals and LPSA’s, picked up by the Green Alliance in their report Green Cities; using city deals to drive low carbon growth. Whereas LPSAs all had a climate change/green economy strand in them, the city deals struck with the ‘big eight’ cities have this dimension largely as an add-on, if that. The Green Alliance found that only Leeds framed its approach to growth with a low carbon vision for the city and that apart from Newcastle, few deals acknowledged the role of tackling climate change in securing resilient economic growth. Bristol, a city whose image has been predicated on an at least vaguely greenish tinge, has a City Deal that makes no mention of the subject.

Now the programme is being extended to a ‘second wave’ of twenty localities from ‘Sunderland and the North East’ to Plymouth. The group is made up of the 14 next largest English cities (after the ‘big eight’) plus a further six – such as Greater Cambridge and Milton Keynes – which recorded the highest population growth between 2001 and 2010.  One of the striking aspects of this group of cities – the smaller and fast growing ones – is that they in many cases already have a significant ‘green economy’ dimension, or are cities whose location  brings opportunities waiting to be exploited, such as Hull and Teeside. But if the poor record of the first round of City Deals is any kind of baseline – and with the second round of city deals focussing on a single initiative rather than a range of measures – the prognosis for more than a handful ending up taking advantage of this crucial part of the ‘rebalancing’ of the UK economy looks pretty bleak.

stott

Martin Stott was Head of Environment and Resources at Warwickshire County Council until the autumn of 2011, when he concluded a 25 year career in local government.  He has recently become an INLOGOV Associate.

To what extent is it reasonable to profit from the public purse?

Ian Briggs

By 1830 the East India Company had grown in size and influence to be a government in all but name. It had control over a population that was at the time ten times greater than that covered by the British Crown and amounted in economic terms to over one third of the then British economy. The power of the company was such that it has led to a deep seated suspicion of the profit motive in the private sector and individuals that has remained in national and local government ever since – whichever political party has been in control.

By the end of the first decade of the twenty first century concern over public expenditure and a fear that ‘our’ money is not being spent with our interests at heart remains. The thousands of FOI requests now received by governmental organisations from both individuals and organised groups such as the Taxpayers’ Alliance may seem like an unreasonable challenge to the primacy of those who are our elected representatives and their agents. Yet, as seemingly no stone is being unturned in the search to lift the UK economy from recession, the question remains: what is reasonable profit to make from public sector activity?

The government is increasingly convinced that contracting with commercial and voluntary providers with payment by results (PBR) is a mechanism to ensure that positive social outcomes are achieved through stimulating the motivation to succeed. This has now extended to the Probation Service where providers will increase their revenue through meeting or exceeding performance targets. While it is clear the new innovative approaches such as this needs to be tried, what is unclear in this process is the means by which we decide whether the targets have been achieved or not, who has the power to decide, and what access to information they have.

The nature of contracts between governments and commercial providers can be said to be at best murky and if history is a good teacher then we should remain sceptical of the means by which performance is judged. To evidence this we have to look at the alternative method – that is where there are penalties within contracts that limit profitability to a commercial provider. For any regular rail traveller this game is all too readily apparent. Careful management of standing time at stations – often for what are termed operational reasons – can be seen as a means of ensuring that there is conformity with published performance expectations. However, for one regular journey I take, if the train were to leave a station at its published time it would have covered the distance from its last stop in a time that would mean speeds far in excess of that permitted for the line. Such quirks in the timetable exist to ensure that this train is never late at its destination and thus distorting the annually published performance report.

So if creative methods are employed to circumvent disincentives that detract from profitability, should we be equally sceptical of achieving positive results with a profit incentive that will always work in the public interest? In the same way that disincentives could have issues within power imbalances and transparency in contracting, so might profit maximisation incentives. No matter how robust a contact is, it will always bring into conflict differing interests and have certain power imbalances built in. Undoubtedly what the East India Company achieved was as much in the interests of the British Government of the time as it was in the interests of those who invested in it, but if we are to offer increased potential profitability to commercial interests through PBR mechanisms we have to be ready to have robust and open debate as to how those payments are justified.

For the Probation Service, social outcomes are at the very centre of its purpose – reducing recidivism is crucial to society but performance contracting is complex. We should perhaps remember the experience of the East India Company, becoming such a monster power at the same time that nearly all Transportation to the Colonies was undertaken on behalf of Government by private contractors. Those very contractors were well rewarded but once out of sight of land they behaved in a fashion that was more about maximising their income than meeting the contractual need established by Government. This was exemplified by the selling off of unused victuals for the journey to increase income – for them the answer was easy – starve the convicts!

So – to what extent is it reasonable to profit from the public purse? And are we putting in place a robust enough mechanism to ensure the interests of civil society are maintained?

briggs

Ian Briggs is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Local Government Studies.  He has research interests in the development and assessment of leadership, performance coaching, organisational development and change, and the establishment of shared service provision.

Council Tax Benefits: A Case of Seriously Muscular Localism

Chris Game

I noticed recently that, among the links on the right-hand side of this page, we still listed the We Love Local Government blog – which, despite its having been wound up, in characteristic style, several months ago, rather pleased me. It deserves to live on, and, should its belatedly unveiled authors, Glen Ocsko and Gareth Young, happen to see this blog, they may take it as a small personal tribute to them and their … I was going to type ‘baby’, but that would make them filicidists … creation.

WLLG was written by local government officers – often critical of aspects of the world in which they worked, but who managed at the same time to love it – or at least sizable chunks of it, for quite a bit of the time. This, of course, is what made it and them different – from so many of their fellow citizens who achieve only the harshly critical bit. This blog is addressed to these gripers, in the hope that, if ever there were a sequence of events that might arouse in them a tad of sympathy for local councils, it could well be the latest episodes of the Government’s council tax benefit changes, summarised below and using as an illustration Birmingham City Council.

These benefit changes are a pivotal and controversial Coalition policy, revealing what critics claim is the true nature of its welfare philosophy, its commitment to genuine localisation, and its sheer managerial ineptitude. Details are on Birmingham City Council’s website under ‘Council Tax Support’ – so what follows is a brief summary for the late arrivals at the Taxpayers’ Ball.

From next April, the Government is abolishing Council Tax Benefit (CTB), a means-tested benefit currently paid by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), but administered by local government – in Birmingham’s case, £100 million to approximately 137,000 council tax payers. Replacing it will be Council Tax Support – financial support schemes determined and operated by local authorities themselves.

This ‘localisation’ of welfare sounds a commendable transfer of responsibilities from Whitehall to town hall – until you examine the attached strings. First, the policy forms a key part of the Coalition’s deficit reduction programme, aimed at reducing the current CTB bill by 10% by strengthening councils’ incentives to get people into work, and cutting the fraud and error that the DWP was unable to control. And councils will need to achieve all this immediately, apparently, as the Government would pay them 10% less for their new schemes than for CTB, creating for Birmingham a funding gap of £10.9 million.

Second, the Government decreed that pensioners receiving CTB must be protected against any reduction in support. In Birmingham this means 54,000 pensioners are protected, while 83,000 working-age recipients (those born after October 1951) shoulder potentially the whole savings burden.

So far, so centralist, for it is only here that the localist part begins, with councils able to devise their own schemes to achieve these savings, provided they do so by January 2013.

In practice, this discretion amounts to three unenviable choices: spreading the funding cut equally across virtually all CTB recipients apart from pensioners; giving the rebate to certain groups only; or continuing with the full rebate, and filling the gap either through raising council tax or finding savings elsewhere, on top of those already being demanded by the Government – for Birmingham, a possible £600 million over the next five years.

The Council’s selected option – essentially a version of the spread-the-pain-equally model – was revealed in early September in two documents: one setting out the proposed tax support scheme, the other asking for residents’ views by 2 December. Almost all working-age people could expect to pay at least 24% of their council tax – which this year would be £178 or £3.43 a week on a Band A property. Main exceptions would be those with a dependent child under six, and those receiving a disability or disabled child premium or war-related pension. A modest contribution to the scheme’s cost should come through removing council tax discounts on second homes, as permitted when the Local Government Finance Bill eventually completes its unhurried progress through Parliament.

Now here, I thought, is where the sympathy might come in – for the contemptuous treatment councils regularly receive, even from Community and Local Government ministers who are supposed to be vaguely on their side.

First, there’s the constitutional arrogance of requiring councils to prepare and consult on detailed schemes before the authorising legislation is even passed. Yes, it’s equally contemptuous of the Queen’s Royal Assent, but it seems almost standard procedure nowadays.

Then there’s the Government’s brand of centralist localism – ‘muscular localism’, as Secretary of State Eric Pickles calls it – which involves both setting all the main rules, then changing them in what ministers must know is the middle of councils’ consultations, but that to them presumably is merely a game.

In late October, weeks after most councils had formulated their support schemes and gone out to consultation, DCLG ministers announced that they’d had a quick whip-round and found an extra £100 million ‘transition grant’ for councils whose schemes were ‘well-designed’ and maintained positive incentives to work.

As they say in professional cycling, if it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is. Ministers’ idea of ‘well-designed’ turns out mainly to mean that those currently receiving full council tax support should pay no more than 8.5% of their council tax liability, or barely a third of Birmingham’s proposed 24%.

So, back to the drawing board – or perhaps not, who knows.  An unpredictable share of the £100 million would represent a fraction of councils’ 10% funding cut and complicate budget-making. Besides which, collecting costs will cancel out much of the arbitrary 8.5% tax payments: £1.21 per week on a Birmingham Band A property. The smart money is on most councils sticking with their intended schemes.

Clearly, though, ministers have been spooked by the savage impact on the poorest households of their own inflexible funding restrictions – of which they were repeatedly warned, and which might have been largely avoided, had they allowed councils not just to remove tax discounts from empty properties, but, as proposed by the LGA, to reduce even slightly the 25% single person’s discount.

But no, that was another ministerial rule: “the Government has no intention of introducing a ‘stealth tax’ on eight million people” – a benefit cut on even more, even poorer people being apparently something other than a stealth tax, or anyway one for which councils would take the blame. Now, no doubt, they’ll get additionally blamed, whether they change their proposed schemes or not – and if that lot doesn’t earn them a scintilla of sympathy, I’m at a loss to think what might.

Chris is a Visiting Lecturer at INLOGOV interested in the politics of local government; local elections, electoral reform and other electoral behaviour; party politics; political  leadership and management; member-officer relations; central-local relations; use of consumer and opinion research in local government; the modernisation agenda and the implementation of executive local government.

Local Government and the Democratic Mandate: An Outdated Model?

Martin Stott

Local government could never be described as fashionable, yet today there is more talk than ever about the importance of ‘the local’.  However, this has converted into less, rather than more, freedom to act locally.  Whitehall’s desire to control is strong, as the current freeze on council tax rises demonstrates.  Local government hasn’t suffered as much at the hands of Whitehall as the NHS, where the current reorganisation follows countless previous ones – none of which have any clear rationale other than to undo the actions of a previous Minister and ‘prove’ that the new Minister is in charge.

The reason that local government has remained untouched by similar reorganisation is because it has one priceless asset that the NHS has never had.  An independent democratic mandate.

But that’s the rub.  Nothing drives Westminster politicians wilder than others challenging their supposedly democratic right to rule.  But local government did and still does.  Hence it’s abiding unpopularity in Whitehall and Westminster.  The excuses are many and varied – ‘inefficiency’ (when was democracy ever efficient?), ‘cost’ (let us try and recall local government equivalents of Whitehall’s IT and defence procurement fiascos, amongst others), ‘postcode lotteries’ (isn’t that a subjective term for local decision-making?), ‘poor quality of elected members (remind me which political parties put up these candidates?).

In the end though, the reality was summed up for me by a member of Tony Blair’s Cabinet, himself ex-local government, who when I asked him once over dinner how many local authorities he thought there should be in England, replied firmly “one”.

The government’s plan for fragmentation, competing foci of accountability and localism without democracy (‘localism lite’) has continued apace.  Examples of this include:

  • Police Commissioners.  Elections in November 2012 will confer a certain cloak of democratic legitimacy but with a few exceptions, their jurisdictions will have little connection to existing democratic jurisdictions.
  • The NHS.  It’s hard, even now, to know what the NHS reforms will really mean in practice, with local authorities having been ‘given’ responsibility for public health – as if environmental health, trading standards or waste management had nothing to do with the subject already.  And will GP Commissioners engage effectively with local authorities about the health of their populations when their accountability remains to Whitehall?
  • Schools.  Not long ago, local authorities were deliverers of education from 4-18, however this is now disappearing with the introduction of academies, foundation schools, free schools and the like.  The mantra is ‘freeing schools from local authority control’, but this means that the schools will have no direct democratic link with their localities.
  • The planning system.  The right of individual property owners to develop their land was nationalised under the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act.  The process of granting or refusing ‘planning permission’ was then delegated to local authorities.  Brick by brick, the Localism Act, and the Infrastructure Planning Commission and its successors have removed the foundations of democratic local determination.
  • Elected Mayors.  The argument for mayors is simple.  A single point of accountability for things that go wrong – or right – in a locality.  The problem is that giving a single person a lot of power can be a recipe for corruption, and doesn’t allow for the nuances, ambiguities and consensus-building that is so important in local democracy.

Despite all this, by and large, local government has risen to the challenges of the last two decades.  Gone are the command and control attitudes – the diverse ecology of local public service provision has made a new way of working essential and local government has found itself sharing responsibility rather than working alone.

There remains a distinct division of opinion in local government between the ‘local authority as service provider’ view and the ‘local authority as community leader and local voice’ perspective.  The two aren’t necessarily in conflict, but the rise of the customer has led to a view in some quarters that service provision is all.  High quality value for money public services are a very important part of what local government offers.  But if that was all it offered, why both with the democracy bit?

There are plenty of companies delivering high quality public services efficiently, but there is a gap in the market for local leadership, the championing of ‘place’, the focus for the expression of local democratic legitimacy.  Sadly the trend seems to be in the wrong direction as, rather than bolstering local government, its powers and responsibilities are being stripped.

Martin Stott was Head of Environment and Resources at Warwickshire County Council until the autumn of 2011, when he concluded a 25 year career in local government.  He has recently become an INLOGOV Associate.