The future of public services can be summed up in one phrase: power to the people!

February 27, 2019   By Adam Lent, Director, NLGN


Two things make Big Picture schools fundamentally different from conventional schools. One is the extent to which students are able to shape their own curriculum and learning journey. The other is the central role of community.

Students are part of an ‘advisory group’ made up of fellow students that support each other. Students also learn within the wider community spending a good part of their time working with local employers. Evaluations have shown the approach has a striking impact on engagement and attainment. This year the UK will get its first Big Picture school in Doncaster following the example of dozens of others across the world.

Big Picture schools are, however, far from alone. This principle of giving people the power and resources to shape their own services within the context of active and supportive communities is fundamentally transforming public services in the UK as described in a new report from the New Local Government Network.

Councils like Wigan, Gateshead, Cambridgeshire and Barking and Dagenham are experimenting with ways to hand service design, commissioning and even delivery over to communities. At its most innovative this extends beyond the more discretionary areas such as youth services, libraries and parks to include statutory responsibilities of social care, children’s services and public health. Different councils are taking different approaches but the unifying theme is the goal of putting communities rather than the public sector institution in the driving seat.

Even the notoriously hierarchical NHS is experimenting with the same idea. The NHS Vanguard pilots established five years ago had community power as one guiding theme. Morecambe Bay Vanguard, for example, now has NHS communications, diabetes support and a range of other crucial activities designed and delivered by a local community network set up to work with the NHS and which has representation on governance bodies in the area.

Maybe the most radical innovation, however, has come from within the voluntary sector in the form of Big Local. This Big Lottery funded project has handed 150 deprived neighbourhoods £1.1 million each with no strings attached. The money is being used for a wide range of purposes all led by local communities rather than public institutions including campaigns against loan-sharking, childcare provision, reopening community centres and regenerating parks. It is a project that is revealing in a very practical way how even the most challenged communities can pro-actively resolve local problems when they are given the power and resources to do so.

The NLGN’s report argues that these and many other innovations add up to an entirely new way of delivering public services. More than just interesting experiments, they are a direct response to the biggest challenge facing the public sector: rapidly rising demand. We call it the ‘Community Paradigm’ and its wider adoption by public servants and, importantly, policy-makers is vital if the rising pressure is not to permanently undermine the universal and free principles that have underpinned services for decades.

Those implementing the Community Paradigm have recognised that you cannot simply exhort citizens and communities to take on more responsibility for their own health and well-being. People must be given the power and resources to exercise that responsibility. The challenge all of these innovators face is that the public sector has spent the last seventy years developing a very strong tendency to hoard power and resource rather than give it away. A hierarchical mindset still dominates focused on the belief that it is the public servant’s role to deliver care to people rather than with people. The marketisation reforms of the last forty years have only exacerbated this problem with many public servants and service users understanding their relationship in a purely transactional rather than a collaborative way.

Taking on those hierarchical and transactional ways of working requires a systemic shift. This is difficult enough under normal conditions but it becomes near impossible while politicians plod on working with old models centred on the dominant role of the state or the market. There is a need for a major rethink of national and local policy frameworks which will enable power and resources to be placed in the hands of communities. To achieve this the NLGN report calls for four major policy shifts at national and local level.

  • a resumption of devolution but this time without unpopular governance conditions and convoluted deal-making;
  • the introduction of participatory and deliberative democracy to bolster our fragile representative traditions while giving people more influence over the decisions that affect their lives;
  • the roll-out of ‘community commissioning’ to give people the primary say in how their services are designed, delivered and procured;
  • and national and local adoption of ‘strengths-based’ approaches to service delivery that emphasise collaboration between front-line public servants, service users and their networks and the ditching of punitive sanction regimes which destroy any hope of collaborative working.

Currently the Community Paradigm is being implemented in isolated pools of innovation. Many of those leading the change on the frontline are often unaware of others undertaking very similar projects of transformation. Many are also unaware of the historical nature of what they are doing and its capacity to fundamentally rethink the whole system. The sooner the dots are joined and the connections made, the sooner we can create a public sector that empowers people and enables the urgently needed shift towards prevention.

This article first appeared in Local Government Chronicle on 25th February 2019.

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