Can local government lead Britain into the citizen story?

By Jon Alexander | 05 April 2022

On 14 March 2020 – nearly two weeks before the first lockdown was imposed in Britain – a postcard dropped through my door. It read ‘Hello! If you are self-isolating, I can help.’

It gave the name, address and mobile number of someone who lived around the corner. A second identical card dropped through later that day, and another the next. In the bottom corner was the hashtag #ViralKindness.

I went online and found the story of the designer who had made the cards to deliver, then posted the design online for others to use. In the online article, I found out that a network of mutual aid groups had started springing up all over the country, and indeed the world. I found my local group among them, and signed myself up.

Within days, this group had proliferated in numbers, and self-organised into hyper-local subgroups. At the same time, a neighbour from our street sent a WhatsApp message, forming a street support group. I watched as food, chores, and jigsaw puzzles were exchanged. Local shops reinvented themselves as food collection and delivery stations, and connected up with the local food bank to support their distribution, too.

In, and often behind all this, I later discovered, the role of my local council was crucial.

Local officers supported the shops as they shifted role. They set up a quick turnaround address confirmation system that allowed them to issue volunteer badges to participants in the mutual aid group. A payment mechanism allowed funds to be easily and securely transferred. When local people started to make face masks, they helped distribute them to care homes. And they knew where those who were most at risk from the disease were, and where necessary, made sure they were directly supported.

Was this unique to my local community? No. It was happening everywhere, across every demographic. Food banks, errand-running, face mask-making – and local government providing the enabling of it all.

By May 2020, best practice was spreading. Councils were rearranging themselves into local hubs. This support structure was taking hold, and officers were talking to each other across council boundaries as they figured out what worked. As a result, the nation was getting through it. And not just that, but drawing together.

Between February and May that year, the proportion of the population who agreed that ‘Britain is a place where people look out for each other’ tripled, to more than 60%.

Then, on 10 May, everything changed. That was the day the Government message changed, from ‘Stay Home. Protect the NHS. Save Lives.’ to ‘Stay Alert. Control the Virus. Save Lives.’

Given the energy that was building, this was a crucial and utterly destructive moment. To understand why, and how local government can rediscover the vital role it had begun to play, we have to see this moment through the lens of three stories, and in a much wider timeframe and context.

For the last 80 years, the dominant story in Britain – and indeed most of the world – has been the consumer story. It goes like this: each of us is out for ourselves, and that is the way it should be. We are individuals, narrowly defined and independent of one another. Human nature is lazy and selfish, but this can be overcome if we set our minds to it and work hard. Our task is to earn money, spend it, and compete to climb society’s ladder. Along the way, our choices represent our power, our creativity, our identity; they make us who we are.

Every organisation and institution, from businesses to Government at every level, exists to offer these choices. We compete to access their bounty; they compete to serve us, sell to us, and reinforce our all-important status. The twin competitions increase the range and raise the standard of the choices available.

When each of us doggedly pursues our self-interest, that adds up to the best outcomes for society as a whole. Everybody wins, or at least, everybody who deserves to.

Before the consumer story, there was another in place: the subject, as in ‘subjects of the king.’ In this story, the great man knows best. The rest of us are innocents, ignorant of important matters. We must rely on him to chart the way forward and declare our duties. Our part is to obey and accept what we are given. In return, he will protect us and maintain order, a deal that is more attractive the greater the danger. Governments and organisations that arise out of the subject story are paternalistic and hierarchical, with the inherently superior few at the top of the pyramid.

The third story is the citizen story. As citizens, we claim our agency not just to choose between options, but to shape what the options are. We are proudly individual, but we know that it is only when we come together that we truly fulfil our potential.

The guiding logic of the citizen story is that all of us are smarter than any of us: we recognise that talent and intellect and contribution are universal, even if opportunities are not. It is a state of engagement, more verb than noun. We look around, identify the domains where we have some influence, and we roll up our sleeves and make things happen. Critically, organisations in the citizen story seek to enable us, not do things for us, or to us.

What was happening across Britain through March and April 2020 was that the citizen story was taking shape, and taking hold, despite central attempts to impose the subject story.

Government messaging cast COVID as an intentional attacker, complete with war metaphors and even comparison to ‘an unexpected and invisible mugger.’ We, the public, were the weak and hapless victims who needed to be told what to do and central Government the strong, all-knowing heroes, who would save us. But of course, we were not, and it was not.

And so, with ‘Stay Alert’, back came the consumer story. Each of us now needed to take personal responsibility for dealing with COVID, and getting back to normal as best we could.

Shops should go back to selling. People should go back to working and paying taxes. Councils should go back to providing services. The energy that was going into creating these new structures and modes should be withdrawn.

I don’t know or much care if this was deliberate or accidental. What I do know is that it suppressed an energy that could have been supported.

Imagine if local government had received funding to understand and build on the best of what was being achieved, and if mutual aid groups had been offered the training and resources to sustain them.

So much for what might have been. What matters now is the deep truth we have all experienced – that the citizen story is in us as individuals and as local government. It came naturally in our moment of crisis, and while it has been suppressed, the portal has not closed. The task now is to build it from where we are.

In this work, the single most important thing anyone in local government can do is to hold on to this truth, taught to us by COVID, that the citizen story is in us: to remember its rise, acknowledge it, and believe in it. But belief must also translate into action.

Drawing on work I have been directly involved with at Kirklees MBC and with the Government of Jersey, case studies I have found from around the world, and work I have admired from organisations like New Local, the Centre for Public Impact, Collaborate, TPX Impact, and more, here are a few starting points for what councils might do to build this new reality.

First, celebrate citizen activity when it happens. In New York City, the People’s Bus project recently saw a refurbished prison bus tour the districts where mutual aid had been most active, celebrating and therefore validating and encouraging that kind of activity.

In Kirklees, the Our Stories Our Places project offers a simple online space where people can share their stories of when they have been part of something where they live, with a similar effect. There are many ways to do it, but this kind of validation creates a powerful foundation for more.

Second, open up for input. Don’t just consult on outputs. Shifting to the citizen story means involving people upstream in shaping what the options are, not just commenting on them or choosing between them.

Better Reykjavik, a simple, open-source platform used in the Icelandic capital for nearly a decade, offers any citizen the opportunity to put forward ideas for how the city could be better. Ideas are voted up and down (but not commented upon, which removes the potential for trolling), with the top ideas debated in a regular special session of council, followed by a public response.

This not only gives people an opportunity to lead the conversation, it also filters out the ‘turn-up-ocracy’ that results from the participation of only the usual suspects.

One of the simplest elements of the Taiwanese Government’s world-leading COVID response was a telephone hotline which worked in a similar way, inviting ideas to improve that response.

Third, think hard about what you measure. This has become the central focus in Kirklees.

Building from the stories we have heard, and inviting the direct participation – even to the point of the wording of the goal and the statements by which it will be measured – of people across the borough, Kirklees MBC has created a new outcome measure called Shaped By People.

This will measure and report on the extent to which people across the borough feel able to shape the conditions that shape their lives.

Measures are profoundly important as carriers of story: when councils measure only service delivery, they are telling themselves they are service providers and people are service users. That is the consumer story. As long as that is what we measure, it will be what we do, and what we are.

What we saw in the crisis of the first months of the pandemic was that people can and want to work together to make the places where they live better, and that councils can play a vital role.

As we know, there are plenty more crises to come. Stepping into the citizen story will build our resilience for the challenges ahead, and offers the promise that we really could come through them stronger, as individuals, as communities, and as a nation – and that councils really and truly could lead us to do it.

It all starts with a simple commitment that is difficult to sustain in the times we live in, but is fundamental: a commitment to believing in ourselves, and each other.

Jon Alexander is author of Citizens: Why the Key to Fixing Everything is All of Us, an activist and strategist, and a fellow of The Young Foundation and the RSA


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