The Community Paradigm – Introducing a New Preface

March 4, 2021  

Published in February 2019, The Community Paradigm captured an exciting new movement – the handing over of power and resources to people in communities.

Since then, faith in the power of communities has grown, while the Covid pandemic has helped strengthen the case for greater autonomy at local level.

To mark two years since the report’s first publication – and to reflect the dramatic change in our national circumstances and outlook – Adam Lent and Jessica Studdert have written a new preface to The Community Paradigm. This new version includes guidance for public servants hoping to harness its potential in their own work.

Listen to our Community Power podcast

Adam Lent and Jessica Studdert reflect on The Community Paradigm – the problems that it seeks to solve, and the way we see it in action. We hear from Mark Pepper, a community leader in Bristol at the forefront of regenerating his neighbourhood.

Watch our Community Power animation

The new Community Paradigm preface, updated March 2021.

The Community Paradigm was first published two years ago. If we’d been told then that a global pandemic would soon grip the world, we probably would have regarded that as a major challenge to the vision we outlined.

Pandemics render people helpless victims not active citizens. Their solutions lie in highly technical scientific work, not in the efforts of ‘ordinary people’. The focus of public services would shift even more to acute medical response rather than holistic prevention rooted in everyday lives.

We would, of course, have been completely wrong. The response to the pandemic revealed the latent power of communities, capable of springing rapidly into action. As a global crisis elicited rapid local responses, experience proved that things go best when state and community work together as equal partners.

New Local’s own research has revealed that those parts of the country where the public sector enabled and supported the sudden upsurge of mutual aid and volunteering were also those parts that responded most effectively.

The national story was equally instructive. Repeatedly, the impact of top-down or marketised responses led from the centre has been underwhelming:

The NHS callout for volunteers generated enthusiastic responses but lacked the community insight to connect this goodwill with actual demand.

The national outsourced test and trace system underperformed in comparison to local public health teams embedded in their communities.

And the vaccine programme has been reliant on highly sophisticated community engagement to ensure uptake.

The experience has shown us that national ambitions cannot be fulfilled without enabling a rich diversity of localised, intelligent responses that go with the grain of existing energy in communities.

As a result, the pandemic leaves a paradoxical legacy.

The long-term challenges are formidable: rising health inequalities; even higher demand on the NHS, councils and other services; unemployment and economic disruption; new pressures on public finances.

And yet, it feels that the message we shared in The Community Paradigm is now closer to mainstream thinking than it ever was.

Many more people working in the public sector have seen with their own eyes the impact of empowered communities. More importantly, they are coming to realise that handing more power and resource to communities is not some optional ideal, but an absolute necessity given the scale of the challenge ahead.

For the team at New Local and across our network of innovative councils, the last year has also been a period of rapid learning. We have conducted a lot of research on community power and we have engaged with our members more intensively than ever before.

We all know far more than we did when The Community Paradigm was first published about what problems community power can solve and, more significantly, how to do it.

We are now exploring the role of community power in areas as diverse as climate change, employment support, skills, housing, healthcare, children’s services and economic policy.

We’ve deepened our understanding of the strong intellectual origins of community power in the work of the remarkable Elinor Ostrom. And our recently published Community Power: The Evidence revealed impact in a wide variety of areas such as health and well-being, democratic legitimacy and reducing costs of public services.

Routes to Community Power

So how can community power be embedded in practice? Through our work over the last two years, we have identified five routes to community power transformation. These five routes are serving as an intellectual framework that is proving useful for the range of public bodies with which we now collaborate.

  1. Organisational culture change
    The first and most important route to community power is organisational culture change. This involves a deliberate shift from a paternalistic and transactional mindsets and behaviours, towards an open and collaborative culture. It is a change that truly embeds within a workforce the belief that the solutions to an area’s biggest challenges can be found out in the community – not inside the walls of the public institution. This is the foundation on which a community-powered approach is built. Without it, progress will be halting and even impossible. With it, an organisation can discover the multiple, unpredictable opportunities for community power that best suits the diversity of communities within its local area.
  2. Macro-decision making
    The second route is the way strategic decisions are taken within a public body – what we call macro-decision making. Within councils and other public service institutions, we see a growing interest in working with communities on big choices rather than marginalising them. The increasing use of citizens’ assemblies by councils is maybe the highest profile example of this, but other methods abound. These include hyper-local deliberative forums, resident-led participatory panels, community-led research and the creation of community-led plans. It can even start with something as simple as the initiation of open conversations with individuals and small groups on the street and in meeting places.
  3. Transforming micro-decision making
    The third route focuses on transforming micro-decision making – the millions of small, sometimes unconscious decisions taken by public servants that impact directly on how a service user or community is treated by a public institution. This is maybe one of the best- developed aspects of community power, with a wealth of innovation in service delivery such as strengths-based methods, co-production, local area co-ordination, relational approaches, asset-based community development amongst many others. What connects these diverse approaches is a fundamental recognition that daily challenges are best met through respectful collaboration with, and empowerment of, service users, their networks and communities – rather than by top-down, institutional ‘solutions’.
  4. Transfer of money or assets
    The fourth route is the transfer of money or assets usually controlled by the public sector, into the hands of a community. This is a rapidly growing and diversifying area of activity incorporating participatory budgeting, community asset transfer, community investment funds and, at the most cutting edge, giving communities significant control of the large budgets which fund core services. An important lesson from these approaches is that transferring resource doesn’t remove the role of the public body. Rather, it requires a recalibration of the relationship between public institutions and communities so that they collaborate closely and as equals. This doesn’t require the state to vacate the community space, but it does involve a very different set of skills, mindsets and expectations on behalf of professionals and practitioners.
  5. Community governance
    Finally, there is what can be called community governance – where a community is given a formal, and sometimes legal, role on decision-making bodies usually reserved for public sector professionals or elected representatives. Often this is a natural outcome of route four, but it is also being taken up in other forms: community members sitting on panels running specific projects; service design and delivery groups and more generalised governance boards taking core decisions about a public body’s future.

Our hope is that we will be able to explore all these approaches in far more detail over the coming year and share them with those determined to drive forward a community-powered approach in their organisation.

In the meantime, do enjoy this reissue of The Community Paradigm. We hope it will continue to inspire change for years to come and contribute to the increasing momentum behind a radically different approach to the deep and persistent challenges in our society.

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