3 ways to move beyond a service provider mentality

April 21, 2021   By Andy Galloway, New Citizenship

Andy Galloway shares the ‘culture hacks’ that can help you put people first in your organisation, from the impact of job titles to changing what you measure.

At the New Citizenship Project, we work with all kinds of organisations – charities, businesses, and public sector organisations of all shapes and sizes.

Over the last few years, though, inspired by the similarities between our understanding of this moment in time as the Citizen Shift to New Local’s work on the Community Paradigm and Community Power, we’ve started getting much more involved in local government. 

As we’ve developed our thinking, we’ve shared ideas a few times:  

In 2019, we supported New Local’s call for a Community Power Act.

In 2020, we suggested what the future would look like for local governments to step into a Citizen future.

Now, in 2021, momentum is continuing to build behind the concept of Community Power – bolstered by the significant community response to the pandemic all over the UK.

But as we’ve started working more with local government ourselves, we’ve identified a deep challenge that isn’t yet being fully addressed: a challenge at the level of mindset and culture. 

Changing mindsets

Our view is that even in the most community-focused local authorities, there is still a powerful gravitational pull in their culture towards what we call the Service Provider Mindset: the idea that ultimately, the role of local government is to deliver services, to do things for people.

We want to call out that this is actually at odds with Community Power and deeply undermining it – and to name the Community Power Mindset as something local authorities should aim to cultivate and build.

We shared our work and the theory underpinning it at Stronger Things 2021. Specifically, we set out the concept of what we call ‘Culture Hacks’. These are the things you can do in your workplace to change psychological prompts and build the organisational culture in which Community Power ways of working will thrive.

We’re hoping to work with New Local to build our understanding of this. We want to get you involved, so we’ve created a simple Wiki Survey, where you can vote on your favourite ideas and add your own.

To get you started, here are three Culture Hacks we think are particularly powerful, each with an example to inspire you, and a question to get you thinking.

Culture Hack 1: Mind your language

The language organisations use is often so ingrained that no even notices – but it also often tells a story about the kind of organisation we are and the way we think of people.

Whether it’s referring to citizens as “customers” or using job titles that include the phrase “Democratic Services” (democracy is not a service!) – the words we choose matter.

Job titles, indeed, are a particularly good place to start thinking about language. Away from local government, in our work with the National Trust, we focused in on one staff cohort to make a difference.

‘Wardens’ were a camouflaged team of protectors, ready to jump out from behind a tree the moment someone looked like they might step on the grass.

In a subtle but powerful shift, they became ‘rangers’: a visible, red coat-wearing bunch of nature-lovers, there to help people connect with the outdoors and discover it for themselves, and trained to speak for the cause on social media.

The question: What language might you want to change to help build the Community Power Mindset in your organisation?

Culture Hack 2: Bring the community in

We often hear of citizen engagement being limited to feedback and consultation exercises, carried out by a different team or department to the one actually making the decision.

That doesn’t give people genuine agency in a process, but it also contributes to an ‘us the Council, them the Citizens’ vibe that is fundamentally opposed to Community Power.

That’s why our second culture hack is very simply about bringing people in. This might be through representations – naming meeting rooms after local areas, decorating them with photographs of community groups. Or it might be literal.

The inspiration we draw on here is from the world of news. A new organisation called Tortoise are doing things differently, aiming to break down the traditional newsroom structure where journalists are the experts who provide the news, and involve people much more directly.

One way they do this is by hosting ‘ThinkIns’ – online events where members are invited to help shape the news alongside journalists and expert speakers.

ThinkIns not only build relationships and begin to rebalance power (assuming people’s input is genuinely valued), but they can also produce better results by including more people’s contributions and perspectives.

The question: How might you experiment with different ways of opening up conversations with citizens, beyond consultation alone?

Culture Hack 3: You are what you measure

Increasing attention is being paid towards how we measure success in society, from the London Prosperity Index to New Zealand’s Wellbeing Budget.

What we choose to measure has a huge effect on the mindset of an organisation – these choices tell everyone, internally and externally, what an organisation values, what is important.

So when a local council defines its success by a metric like ‘efficient and effective delivery’, it’s no surprise that the Service Provider Mindset proves to be sticky. 

This is exactly what was in place at Kirklees Council when we started working with the team there to reframe their relationship with citizens.

A big part of the work we are doing involves co-creating with residents from across the borough a new ‘shared goal’ about how much agency and influence people feel they have in their local places. Then, finding ways to make it measurable using participatory, conversation-driven methods.

You’ve probably heard of the Consumer Confidence Index; we’ve been talking about what we’re doing as a Citizen Confidence Index.

The question: What might you start measuring to signal a shift towards community power?

We want your insights

These are just a few starting points, and we’d love to hear your ideas and insights via our Wiki Survey.

We believe that Community Power, built around an idea of people as Citizens not just Consumers, is the future – and the faster we can get there, the better.

It starts with the stories we inhabit, and by stepping away from the Service Provider Mindset in the ways we’ve described, local authorities can start enabling more people to thrive -boosting their own relevance along the way.

Andy Galloway is Business Manager at New Citizenship Project, a consultancy business that is all about putting these ideas into practice – supporting organisations of all kinds to work with people as Citizens, instead of doing stuff to them as Subjects or for them as Consumers.

Image credit: Lead ranger Carole Burnett, director general Hilary McGrady and area ranger Victoria Stanfield talking about veteran trees at Leigh Woods near Bristol © National Trust Images

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