Community Power: The Evidence
Community power is happening. It’s creating change across the country, in the places we live and the services we use.
Community Power: The Evidence is the first research to take a comprehensive view of what community power looks like – featuring examples from across the UK and internationally. It is also the first to collect and analyse existing evidence of the impact of community power.
This report draws out six benefits from community power – and presents four shifts and four recommendations we need for it to flourish. It also explores the ‘evidence paradox’ that is holding back community power – looking at how to overhaul the way we measure success.
Community power is an idea whose time has come. At its heart, community power is based on the principle that communities have a wealth of knowledge and assets within themselves, which if understood and nurtured by practitioners and policymakers, has the potential to strengthen resilience and enable prevention-focused public services.
Community Power: The Evidence draws on extensive existing evidence to set out the impact of a wide range of community power initiatives. Taken together, they chart a new direction for the wider system of public services – one that is community-led rather than institution-led.
Yet at present public services are trapped in a hybrid of statism and market fundamentalism – what we term the state-market hybrid paradigm. This means that the real value of community-led approaches is not fully recognised by the current system. In this way, for community power to reach its full potential, we need a deeper shift towards a new way of looking at things: a new community paradigm.
What is the Community Paradigm?
In The Community Paradigm, New Local sets out the case for a fundamental shift in how public services work. The report made an urgent case for a wholesale response to the twin trends of rising demand on public services and people’s unmet appetite for more influence over their lives. It argues that more power and resources should be given to communities rather than be held by central government or public services.
Currently public services are held back by two paradigms which became dominant when the challenges and opportunities for these services were very different to those that exist today:
The state paradigm, which came about in the 1940s, instils hierarchy, creates professionally dominated siloes and treats people as largely passive service users.
The market paradigm, which came into being from the 1980s onwards, injects a focus on efficiency and cost, reducing interactions to transactions and viewing the individual as a customer.
What does community power look like?
The term community power captures a wide range of different practices, approaches and initiatives. Common to all of these is the principle that communities have knowledge, skills and assets which mean they themselves are well placed to identify and respond to any challenges that they face, and to thrive.
This principle is not just a theory. It already exists in neighbourhoods, in local networks, and in voluntary and community organisations where people come together to overcome challenges and support each other. This comes to the fore in times of crisis, such as with the sudden flourishing of mutual aid during the Covid-19 pandemic, but has endured for decades in many forms. It is also rapidly influencing practice in the public sector and local government.
Public services are seeing the benefits of moving towards practices which involve actively collaborating with communities. New methods of enabling community insights to shape action are increasingly being developed: from councils trialling participatory and deliberative democracy; to frontline professionals using asset-based practice and co-production.
This report sets out the wealth of community power that exists today, and provides an evidence base capturing the diversity of these approaches in the UK and globally. These include practices which are gradually being adopted more widely by some public services, through to small-scale innovative approaches operating on the margins of the system.
We identify three clusters of approaches which hand more power and resources to communities:
- Community decision-making: Using deliberative and participatory tools to involve citizens more meaningfully in local decision-making.
- Collaboration with communities: Public services shifting from hierarchical and siloed ways of working, to more collaborative approaches which deeply involve communities as equal partners with essential insights.
- Building community capacity and assets: Equipping communities with the resources and skills they need to mobilise and genuinely participate in local action.
Six core benefits
This unique evidence base shows the bigger picture of community power. The numerous small-scale, innovative local practices shine brightly alone. But taken together, they collectively chart a different way for people, communities and public services to collaborate. The evidence demonstrates six ways in which community power has real, tangible impact for people, communities and public services:
1. Community power can improve individual health and wellbeing. From well-established peer-support groups, to innovative community-led approaches, practitioners are recognising that people need to be active participants in all efforts to improve their health and wellbeing. They are also seeing the benefits this participation can bring for people.
2. Community power can strengthen community wellbeing and resilience. Involving people in decision-making, alongside supporting them with resources and wider social infrastructure, can enable community action to improve wellbeing and resilience locally.
3. Community power can enhance democratic participation and boost trust. Deliberative and participatory methods can be used to navigate complex socio-economic challenges and to strengthen legitimacy of decision-making. It is at the local level that this dialogue and engagement can be most meaningfully realised.
4. Community power can build community cohesion. The common understanding and social ties that are necessary for cohesion cannot be imposed in the abstract from the national level. Community-anchored approaches demonstrate that cohesion is most sustainably built from the ground up.
5. Community power can embed prevention and early intervention in public services. Where some parts of the public sector are pioneering new approaches that draw on the capabilities and capacities of communities, they demonstrate a route to more sustainable and prevention-focused public services.
6. Community power can generate financial savings. There is growing evidence that investing in community power approaches can generate greater impact for existing spend and save money in the longer-term.
Escaping the evidence paradox
Mounting evidence shows the benefits of community power to people, communities and public services. Yet community power approaches often remain on the margins of a wider system dominated by large-scale service operations either run by the state or outsourced to the private sector, both ultimately accountable to Whitehall rather than people locally.
Why should this continue to be the case? Community Power: The Evidence argues that the state-market hybrid paradigm holds back the potential of community power through setting the terms for what constitutes ‘success’. This notion of ‘success’ is characterised by approaches that can demonstrate short-term impact in a specific service area and are shown to be uniform and in turn scalable.
We argue that when it comes to proving value in evidence-based policy-making, community power is stuck in an evidence paradox. Community power practice, approaches and initiatives are required to demonstrate their own worth according to measures that are not set up to recognise their value. The value of community power is best captured qualitatively, yet the metrics are quantitative.
Community power approaches, by their very nature, are pluralistic, often small-scale and rooted in local context, but policymakers seek uniform and scalable approaches. Community power focuses on long-term impact, but short-term financial and political priorities drive the system. Ultimately, community power practice and approaches are characterised in ways which not only are undervalued by the state-market hybrid paradigm, but in many ways are actually the direct opposite of traditional public service practice. The table below summarises this challenge.
At present, this evidence paradox holds back community power from influencing wider system change. As things currently stand, although the evidence of their impact is palpable, it is not in the form required to prove a case for change according to the logic of the current system. This change will only happen when not only values and practices shift within the public sector and government, but when the methods and metrics used to judge those values and practices change as well.
Until there is a wider shift towards a community paradigm, the impact of community power will always be limited and ad hoc, rather than mainstreamed, where its full potential can be realised.
TABLE 1: Community power embodies factors which are not recognised in the state-market hybrid paradigm
Four shifts and four recommendations
We set out four broad shifts that are needed to support a transition to a community paradigm that would embed community power throughout the system. To achieve each shift, we identify four practical recommendations:
Shift one: Uniform > Pluralist Practice
Community power approaches are by their nature rooted in people, place and circumstance, meaning a model cannot just be taken from one area and rolled out in another.
Recommendation One: Practitioners should collaborate to share learning and build a stronger evidence-led case for the impact of community power approaches.
The purpose of this collaboration should be to strengthen evaluation approaches; share learning and identify common principles; and develop shared measures of value. This should help build closer dialogue between policy and practice and strengthen the wider case for change.
Shift Two: Metrics > Ethos
The potential of community power will not be realised by creating a new set of public management style targets, but rather through a system in which communities, professionals and practices coalesce around shared purpose or ethos.
Recommendation Two: There needs to be an ambitious approach to devolved, place-based budgets across local public services, as a core prerequisite for transferring more power to communities.
Taking such a placebased approach to financing public services would introduce a new logic into the system, supporting the emergence of a new communityfocused ethos across public institutions.
Shift Three: Outputs > Outcomes
For national government, a greater focus on outcomes, particularly those that are meaningful to people’s lived experience, would create a permissive environment for community power practice.
Recommendation Three: The Treasury should adopt a wellbeing approach to budgeting.
This would catalyse action and redistribute power throughout the system. In turn, supporting the breakdown of unhelpful silos, a significant shift in focus towards prevention, and genuine collaboration with communities.
Shift Four: State-market > Community
To act on the wealth of evidence revealing the benefits of community power, a major shift in policy is required at national level. At the heart of this shift would be a landmark piece of legislation, a Community Power Act.
Recommendation Four: Parliament should pass a Community Power Act.
The Act would have four goals: to enshrine community rights; to enable community-focused devolution; to establish a Community Wealth Fund; to provide a permissive legislative and regulatory framework for community power.
Shifting to a community paradigm
We sit now at a critical crossroads. Community power is already supporting people, communities and public services to collaborate and improve outcomes. There is a real opportunity to build on this, and move towards a more sustainable, enabling and prevention-focused model of public services. The case has been building for a long time, but our collective yearning to recover from a brutal pandemic better and stronger than we were before creates a new imperative to be bold. The four shifts and accompanying recommendations set out here provide a route map to help further unlock the potential of community power and ultimately herald the system-wide emergence of a community paradigm.