Community power: top questions answered

April 8, 2024  

Adam Lent tackles some of the most common questions about community power in the public sector, from its benefits, to real-life examples, to why its time has come in today’s ‘permacrisis’.

Hello. I’m Adam Lent. And we at New Local thought it’d be a good idea to record a little video about some of the key questions that I get asked as I travel around the country about community power and some of the answers I try to give.

What is community power?

Community power is quite a broad term, which refers to the idea that local communities, communities of place, but also communities of experience and interest should be given much greater say and control over the decisions and the services and the amenities and the places that shape their lives and affect their lives very deeply.

In the work that we do at New Local, it tends to refer to specifically how public services themselves work. Community power as an idea has really gathered pace in the public sector. It is based upon the idea that the future of public services is to work much more closely in collaboration with their communities, to really put a very strong focus on putting communities in the driving seat in the delivery of services and in the design of services. Moving away from the conventional public sector mindset, which is that public services is delivered by an institution, staffed largely by experts and professionals, and moving towards a model of public services which is really about services being designed and delivered on an equal footing by public sector institutions and the communities they serve.

How could public services work in a more community-powered way?

In the work that we do at New Local, we have a peer learning network of around about 70 councils and NHS bodies and some other organisations across the country, but we also do a lot of one-to-one work with the NHS and councils helping them become more community powered. Through that work, we’ve identified the three practical routes to working in a more community-powered way.

The first of those is around voice. It’s around really opening up the decision making process so that communities, residents, patients, service users can get much more deeply involved in the big strategic decisions that shape the way public services are delivered and designed.

The second route is through the way that public services are delivered. So rather than the public sector institution alone delivering the public service, that service is redesigned and rethought alongside the community using the assets, the energy that exists within a community to help deliver that service.

And the third route, which is the one that everyone tells us is the most important, is around shifting the organisational culture of the public sector institution. So moving away from what some people call the ‘we know best’ mindset, this idea that has been built into public services for many decades that we are the experts. We know how to deliver service. We know how to care for people and address the challenges of a local area or local community, whatever it is, moving towards a mindset that actually recognises that if you’re going to solve the big challenges that an area or a service or a community faces, the solution to that is to be found outside the institution in the community, with the institution working with the community to help resolve a particular challenge.

What are some real-life examples of community power?

So one of the most exciting things about community power is the way that we’re seeing loads of really exciting innovations and initiatives growing up across the country that are experimenting and delivering a community-power type approach. So you can look, for example, at councils like Camden in London, Test Valley in Hampshire, where they’re really making use of open decision making using things like citizens assemblies, other forms of deliberative meetings and groups, just really opening themselves up to really draw residents, communities, neighbourhoods into the big decisions that affect their lives.

You can look to a council like Gateshead that have transferred 45 assets like libraries and theatres into community hands. They’re actually being run by community groups with the support of the council. Somewhere like Warwickshire County Council that has identified the 22 poorest areas in the county and are really working very, very closely with those neighbourhoods, with those communities.

It’s a very open way to identify agendas for change for those communities. And then a council up in Scotland like East Ayrshire, that has basically been developing a community-powered approach for a decade now, probably one of the longest across the whole of the UK, where practically everything they do is now led by community plans that are designed and developed and delivered in association with the communities, in particular localities, across the council’s area.

There are loads of other examples on our website of really practical initiatives to work in a community powered way.

What are the benefits of community power?

So there are loads of benefits we’ve identified from moving towards a more community powered approach.

There are three key ones that we see public sector institutions find the most important and are most motivating the shift to community power.

The first is simply around adding to the resources that you have as a public sector institution to address big challenges, and address huge demand on public services. There is loads of untapped energy and insight out there in the community, and moving towards a more community powered way means you can start using that energy, that insight, those assets that exist in the community to help deliver services and meet rising demand and address the challenges of a particular area. That is probably the main motivation.

The second is around moving towards a more preventative model. There’s a widespread recognition across the public sector now that we need to move towards a much more preventative model where we stop people getting ill, families getting into trouble, people being made homeless before that happens. And that’s just because it’s more humane, but also because it reduces this huge explosion of demand for public services that we’ve seen in recent years. And community power just works really well with prevention because it’s about getting into communities and supporting them and working with them to take responsibility for their own health and well being. And that’s what keeps people well, keeps people’s mental health strong, keeps people in a good wellbeing space. It’s not something that can be done by public servants alone.

The third big benefit is around legitimacy. So democratic institutions, but public services in general, have suffered a real decline in legitimacy and authority in recent years and recent decades. There’s all sorts of reasons for that, but our experience is that when you open yourself up to the community, when you draw them in to decision making, when you work alongside them in delivering services and addressing challenges, it massively enhances the legitimacy of democratic bodies and public sector institutions.

What do national politicians think of community power?

Westminster is definitely waking up to community power as an idea. I think more and more politicians at the national level are starting to understand that public services need to fundamentally change the way they work because the current model is basically going into meltdown in places.

Augmenting the very limited resources of the public sector to deal with some pretty major challenges, with the assets and energy that exist out in a community is increasingly a no brainer for many national politicians. It’s taken some time to get them there, and there certainly is much more work to be done to get Westminster to really understand how community power works and how powerful it can be. But working with campaigns like the We’re Right Here campaign, which New Local is part of, is beginning to shift mindsets. And we’ve seen things like Labour announcing it’s going to introduce a Take Back Control bill, which is going to drive forward devolution. And Keir Starmer has spoken very regularly about the importance of empowering communities.

These ideas are really starting to take hold gradually in Westminster, and I would expect that over the next months and years, we will see this as an increasingly powerful theme in the thinking of national governments.

How is it different from Big Society?

Big Society was in many ways fundamentally different to community power. Big Society was a bit naive in many ways. It was this idea that the state could simply step back from doing a lot of the stuff it did and all these voluntary initiatives, all these social enterprises, would magically flourish to fill the gap.

Everything we know from the work that we do with councils and NHS bodies and others is that it doesn’t work like that. Actually, the way that you deliver change in a local area, really impactful change, is by the public sector working in really close collaboration with community groups, local charities, neighbourhoods, etc.

So community power is much more about the way the public sector works and changing its operating model and its mindset than Big Society, which is really just about the public sector gets out the way and it all magically happens.

Won’t it just benefit the privileged and confident?

When community power is done well, it is precisely about moving beyond the sort of usual suspects that public sector bodies currently engage with. It’s really important, I think, to acknowledge that it’s the current hierarchical rather opaque nature of the public sector that actually really works well for people who are confident or have the capabilities to navigate systems and push themselves forward.

The whole point about community power is actually about reaching beyond those groups to give a much wider voice to those communities, those individuals, those networks that actually the public sector has tended to ignore in the past.

There are really well established techniques and approaches to actually reaching into those communities, opening up conversations, building trust, and finding really exciting agendas to move forward.

Is community power happening in the NHS?

So community power has really started to influence the way councils work, pretty significantly, but we’re also beginning to see it taking hold in the NHS.

There’s so much more pressure on the NHS, and most people in the health sector are now beginning to recognise that something fundamental needs to shift in the way the NHS works.

And it just comes back to this idea of, you know, augmenting the resources that the NHS has, with those resources that exist out in the community, but also, really moving to a much more preventative model, stopping just treating people when they get ill. And really beginning to move to a model which is about stopping people getting ill in the first place. And that does mean working much more closely with communities and encouraging them to take more responsibility for their long-term health and wellbeing.

We’re seeing some really exciting examples of that. For example, down in Sussex, the physiotherapy service there doing an initiative called the Community Appointment Day, basically bringing people on a physiotherapy waiting list into one place at one time and working with everyone on that waiting list to identify how they can be supported in the community and helped, being very impactful and powerful.

You can look at somewhere like Fleetwood, up on the coast of Northwest England, where a GP there, Mark Spencer, completely rethought his role as a GP, got out of the surgery, got into the community and really encouraged the community to get very active, to set up lots of local support groups, to keep people healthy, address isolation rather than him just sitting there waiting for ill people to come to him.

Then things like pop up GP surgeries in Barking and Dagenham in East London, where again, taking GP services with a strong community aspect out into communities, rather than expecting communities to come to GP surgeries. And again, very impactful, really reaching out to people who may have difficulty accessing healthcare.

Why is now the time for community power?

I think one of the reasons that community power is really gathering pace across the public sector is precisely because of the awareness that we have moved into a pretty difficult period in human affairs, what some people are calling a permacrisis. The environmental crisis, international conflict, economic volatility; these are all things that have deeply local effect. These affect people in their homes, in the places they live, and make their lives much more challenging.

That’s precisely why moving to a model that enhances the resources and the skills and the insight that the state and the public sector has to meet those challenges is growing in popularity because the challenges are huge, and the resources are very limited, so we can’t just carry on thinking that the public sector alone or any single public sector institution can meet those challenges alone. They really have to find collaborative ways of working with their communities to work alongside them to address the very significant challenges we now face and which, sadly, are not going to go away anytime soon.

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