Four Ways for Councils to Give Power away

July 10, 2019   By Adam Lent, Director, NLGN

Since publishing The Community Paradigm in February, a question I get asked more than any other is what community-led services look like in practice. Clearly, there is a hunger out there to understand the mechanics of shifting to a preventative system by giving communities the power and resource to look after their own health and happiness.

In our follow-up report to The Community Paradigm published today, we have tried to start the process of answering that question. The report – called Community Commissioning: Shaping public services through people power – begins to get into the nitty gritty with a study of public service commissioning by asking what that might look like if it was led by the community rather than by a highly professionalised cohort of professionals.

We specifically chose this as our first area of exploration because the power to design both the big picture and the minutiae of service delivery is such a significant power held by the public sector institution. It is also one that is fundamental to shifting towards a more preventative model.

The report highlights four questions any public sector body must ask itself when transferring at least some degree of commissioning power.

  • What is the type of service that will be commissioned?
  • What is the nature of the community network doing the commissioning?
  • What is the method of power transfer?
  • What will be the depth of participation by the community?

Each of these is explored in the report and each yields up its own set of very practical strategic considerations. But it is perhaps the third question that can provide the most immediate insight into the mechanics of a community-led service. Based on our research we have identified four methods of power transfer.

  1. Operational Engagement: a public sector body allows a community to shape a service through open conversations with a community’s members tending to focus on day-to-day provision and wider social challenges. The key here is that the conversations are led by the community’s agenda not that imposed by the public sector body. A good example is Cambridgeshire County Council’s Neighbourhood Cares initiative but many others exist.

  2. Non-binding Deliberation: a public sector body establishes more-or-less formal fora within which communities are able to deliberate on the strategic questions facing a service usually based on addressing major challenges the community themselves have identified. The London Borough of Sutton, for example, has made wide use of ‘citizen commissioners’ who play a significant role in designing services. The challenge with this method (often overlooked in much of the current interest in deliberative techniques), is that the focus of the deliberation needs to be on collaboration to solve challenges. It cannot be about simply asking residents to help with big decisions which the public sector body then goes away and implements. Without that collaborative focus, deliberation cannot truly be part of a shift to prevention.

  3. Binding Deliberation: a method that is essentially the same as the previous except that real constitutional or political power is vested in a deliberative forum meaning that once a community has decided on a course of action, the relevant public sector body is required to help implement it. This is not a model widely used in the UK – with the exception of some forms of participatory budgeting – but is used, for example, in the City of Gdansk where Citizens’ Assemblies have great power to shape major policy and public service decisions. The challenge here is that the pressure on the organising body to create a genuinely deliberative, inclusive, consensus-building space is exceptionally high.

  4. Formal Governance: this is where a community is given full, or close to full, legal and governance control over a specific service area usually in the form of a newly constituted body separate from the public sector institution. This is an approach increasingly widely used in the form of community asset transfer as promoted by Power to Change and is present in the work of Big Local. The big challenge is ensuring that any new community-led body does not simply end up reproducing all of the institutional failings prevalent in the public sector.

The eagle-eyed will note that each of these methods successively transfers a greater degree of power into the community’s hands. It would be easy to think that means the latter methods are better at generating prevention than the former. However, as the report argues, it is through a gradual process of transfer that incrementally combines all four of these methods that both institutions and communities can find a form of collaboration that works best for them.

This is, of course, only a beginning. As the community paradigm catches on as a solution to the demand crisis, much more will be discovered about what works and new methods will be developed. NLGN, and we hope others, will be there learning and sharing the lessons as widely as possible.

This article first appeared in the Local Government Chronicle on 9th July 2019.

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