Escaping the Community Power Evidence Paradox

February 23, 2021  

Community power produces far-ranging benefits. But an ‘evidence paradox’, hard-wired into our policy-making system, is holding back its potential. As we launch our latest report, Community Power: The Evidence, co-author Jessica Studdert addresses the counteractive way we measure success, why this matters and how to change it.   

So you think decisions would be better made locally, not at Westminster? And that communities are best placed to know what would make them thrive, rather than professionals? Prove it.

This is the challenge set by those who hold power within our current system, to anyone who imagines that it could be distributed more evenly across the country. It is the gauntlet laid down by people with vested interests, to dispute the idea that communities know how public services can best support them, rather than the big state or big markets.

And it’s an impossibly high bar. Our new report Community Power: The Evidence demonstrates the wide-ranging positive impacts community-led approaches have, on everything from individual wellbeing, to trust in democracy and reducing demand on services. 

when dealing with human life and complex circumstances, the efficacy of a randomised control trial is unattainable. And yet our system of policymaking holds out for evidence with that level of rigour.

But the burden of proof for reform that would disrupt concentrations of power essentially requires demonstrating a counterfactual. It would involve setting up a parallel universe in which power was more diffuse, which would then allow a comparison of outcomes with a centralised model, while controlling for all other variables. 

Of course, we can only operate in the real world. And when dealing with human life and complex circumstances, the efficacy of a randomised control trial is unattainable. And yet our system of policymaking holds out for evidence with that level of rigour. What is meaningful to people is often qualitative – relationships or wellbeing, for example. Yet what is required to inform a case for change is largely quantitative – focussed on measurable service outputs. This disconnect between value and metrics is systematically overlooked. And until anyone can establish water-tight proof that a different version of our present reality is better, the status quo holds.  

This ‘evidence paradox’ holds back the potential of community power. It is trapped in an impossible situation whereby it is required to prove its worth according to measures that are not set up to recognise its value.

Our research reveals that there is a wealth of evidence that community power initiatives and practice have a real impact on our lives. Whether by having say over resource spending, working as equals with professionals or by taking direct responsibility for assets, communities are playing increasingly proactive roles within our system of public services.  

And there is proof that these approaches generate tangible outcomes. Asset-based community development in Ayrshire that sought to strengthen social ties led to an increase in mental wellbeing and a reduced reliance on clinical care. Using deliberative and participatory methods is improving trust and legitimacy. Pioneers in Camden, Barking & DagenhamPeterhead in North East Scotland and internationally in Poland and Belgium are shifting the power dynamic between people and their governing institutions. And from the perspective of public services, approaches that start with the community can save costs and boost prevention as evaluations of Local Area Coordination have shown.

[Community Power] is trapped in an impossible situation whereby it is required to prove its worth according to measures that are not set up to recognise its value. 

Although these impacts are real and keenly felt by people, as evidence for policy change on the terms of the current system, they only take us so far. Traditional policymaking is heavily influenced by the evaluation framework of the Treasury Green Book, which requires a particular type of evidence to inform decisions about resource allocation. This is largely data-driven and at scale, in order to inform business cases for shifts in investment and expected outcomes. Of course, a significant onus is on reducing spend. Although savings are only narrowly defined as in-year and within a service silo, knock-on costs in the future or in other services aren’t fully captured.

And yet, as the grid below shows – the nature of community power is almost diametrically opposed to the narrow scope for value our current system recognises. By definition, community power initiatives are small scale and adaptive to particular sets of circumstances, so they are hard to replicate elsewhere. They require a system that is comfortable with pluralism, rather than one which forces standardisation. They may produce a range of benefits which impact on wellbeing and create resilience with less need for professional support. But such potential to bring about a system-wide shift towards prevention isn’t captured by a framework which can’t quantify what doesn’t happen.

As a result, community power approaches operate on the margins of a system that demands uniformity, linearity and scale. They are often fragile, led by uniquely determined individuals and so vulnerable to shifts in personnel. They might take time to be nurtured and develop, beyond the immediacy of budget and election cycles. They are certainly not incentivised through the hardwiring of the system financing, accountability or regulations, all of which reinforce the siloed, short-termist status quo.

Even when there is strong evidence of the failure of the current state-market model, the overriding system logic forces conclusions that the remedy is simply more of the same. The real-time demands of the pandemic have demonstrated this self-reinforcing tendency. The data proving the poor performance of the national outsourced test and trace model compared to local public health teams has not stopped contracts being extended or the individuals responsible being promoted. The disastrous failures of a centralised crisis command – such as PPE shortagesdangerously exposed social care settings and expensive ghost hospitals – seem to have informed a case for an even tighter grip at the centre.

the nature of community power is almost diametrically opposed to the narrow scope for value our current system recognises.

So we need to shift the very logic of the system, and bring about a paradigm shift that would incentivise community power rather than blunt it from the outset. Our report sets out how a shift towards pooled place-based budgets. These would replace the current separate budgets that reflect Whitehall departmental silos, and would begin to incentivise collaboration and create space for investing in community-powered prevention.

We argue that adopting a wellbeing budgeting approach could begin to recalibrate the system-wide incentives emanating from the Treasury and capture meaningful value in spending decisions. And greater clarity through legislation that communities have rights and that powers should be devolved would create a more permissive framework for community power to take hold.

The sum of these measures would seek to close the evidence paradox that so frustrates community power practitioners and advocates. Rather than having to prove their worth according to measures that aren’t capable of recognising it, the underpinning system logic would expand to capture more of the real value in small, bespoke, people-powered intiatives. It would also mean those clinging to outdated models of public services would have to work harder to prove their legitimacy – instead of staying cushioned by a system that is rigged in their favour.