Local government is no stranger when it comes to working with communities. But there has, over recent years, been a shift with several councils turbo-charging their efforts to engage local people and empower their communities to be more active and self-sufficient.
So are local authorities pulling together the public to enrich their lives, create cohesion and rebuild democracy, or is this just a cynical attempt to get the public helping themselves in a bid to cut costs at times of austerity? The MJ invited some of the key players together in a virtual debate to find out what community empowerment means to them.
New Local Government Network (NLGN) chair Prof Donna Hall was at the forefront of some of this work as chief executive of Wigan MBC where she introduced the Wigan Deal, one of the most referenced examples of community empowerment in local government.
She suggests we are at ‘a real tipping point of policy taking a different turn’. In the early part of the coronavirus crisis, the community infrastructure available in places like Wigan, where the work has been ongoing, made them far better prepared than places which were not so up to speed.
Prof Hall says: ‘My issue has been that we don’t work together effectively in this space. We all do it separately and we have had – without naming names – the battle of the think-tanks on social media. I think that’s so counterproductive.’
And it is not just the think-tanks, the local authorities or the local players that need to join up. She adds: ‘It’s about how we make it work with a government that is absolutely determined to centralise everything.’
Surrey CC deputy chief executive Michael Coughlin is also a trustee of Participatory City, a community participation organisation. He agrees there have been ‘pockets’ of emerging examples but ‘there hasn’t necessarily been the sharing of the thought leadership as well as the practical implementation and delivery’.
There has been a seismic shift as a result of COVID-19. There are ‘hyper local community economies emerging’ which are changing cities, Mr Coughlin suggests. ‘The socio economic trends, the way people are living different lives, the way they are feeling more connected locally, finding more time during COVID to assist neighbours or help out locally – there is a real opportunity to capitalize and build on that,’ Mr Coughlin says. Central government doesn’t have the answers – which provides local government an opportunity to shape the agenda.
But it is not all positive. He adds: ‘With the White Paper due to be coming out in the autumn, I think it is in danger of putting structures before people.’
Collaborate chief executive Anna Randle says there was a culture change happening pre-COVID, but the pandemic has seen a ‘massive acceleration’ of that change. She says: ‘For me, that’s what this is about, organisations turning themselves on their heads, turning themselves inside out to completely rethink how they work, why they exist, and how change is created today. I buy the argument that we need to do things differently today.’
Nat Defriend is assistant chief executive at Particpatory City which runs a community programme in Barking and Dagenham LBC. It is at the forefront of practical participation, enabling people to get involved in a way they want to. He suggests that practical participation is often ‘a missing part of the jigsaw for communities’. Local councils can be the catalyst for making this happen.
He says: ‘I think that is an enormously exciting place for local government to go. This is not about local authorities moving out of the space…it’s about local authorities creating and holding and making sure those spaces are reserved for this type of thing.’
NLGN chief executive, and co-author of the report The Community Paradigm, Adam Lent says his perspective has shifted since the report was published a year and a half ago when it was written as a reaction to rising demand.
‘It’s not just about meeting the challenge of rising demand, it’s also about issues of legitimacy and dealing with the fundamental challenges that exist to the legitimacy of democratic and institutional decision making that we have seen going on now for two or three decades, being largely ignored by central government and large parts of the public sector,’ he says.
He claims the COVID crisis has highlighted a lack of resilience in the system, and communities can be a key part of building resilience. ‘What we have learned is that social capital, empowered communities, people working together – those things are fundamental to dealing with a massive crisis.
‘Community power has a fundament angle on the future of the economy. I think, with the sorts of challenges and crisis that are coming down the line, some of the globalised economic networks that have been formed will be put under very severe strain and I think the return to a more localised economy is not only going to be inevitable, but a strong way of building resilience.’
Former corporate director of strategy at Redbridge LBC Simon Parker says the intent may be real, but the reality is that it is not always that easy. ‘We went out into the community and naively I was expecting the community to be waiting for us with open arms to welcome us…to be desperate to help me with my Post-It notes. And they weren’t.’
‘We have to bear in mind, local government has relationships built over the last decade that have not been collaborative. To caricature it, it has been ‘we are going to do this thing community, what do you think’ and when they tell us they hate it we do it anyway with a few tweaks.’
Instead, it requires a cultural shift – one that will probably take a generation.
Sometimes it is necessary to take the ‘council’ out of the service. In Lambeth and in Barking and Dagenham LBC, community participation was not branded to the council.
‘It seems so simple as to be almost banal,’ Nat Defriend says. ‘How you get beyond this hump of scepticism over what local authorities do…There are loads of ways council can make it happen without being top of the ticket.’
But it requires political buy-in. Everyone on the virtual debate recognises the tricky conversations you have to have with councillors about whether they need to get credit for an initiative. Anna Randle says: ‘Councillors can be brave on this and that has been my experience.’
But she adds that ‘parceling off’ community participation, talking about it separately to organisational change, is not enough. The organisation needs a complete shift in mindset, behaviours, values and operating principles. ‘It is in your organisation’s DNA – it is what you are there to do.’
Is there a danger that representative democracy will be threatened by empowering communities?
Simon Parker scoffs at the thought. ‘What makes you think representative democracy isn’t already in crisis?’ He claims democracy was at its height when we had really strong communities. ‘We used to be absolutely fantastic at community level democracy and social action and one of the problems is we have lost that. In a way, I don’t know if representative democracy survives in its current form or not, but I think a community power approach is about regenerating the democratic approach.’
With social media rapidly changing our political and democratic system, Mr Parker suggests we are working in a system that assumes ‘there is an angry mob out there, waiting to come and get us’.
‘Actually that’s not true anymore, there is a great deal of collective intelligence and wisdom…the internet could be a gigantic tool for collective intelligence and wisdom if used well.’
Michael Coughlin agrees that democracy needn’t be challenged by community empowerment ‘but it does require members to redefine and reframe what their role is within a representative democracy’.
They need to demonstrate to the public that facilitating outcomes is the role of the council as much as getting a pothole fixed. ‘It does require a deep-seated shift in mindset,’ he says. But it starts with seeing people as people rather than as a unit of need.
Adam Lent says: ‘There is a huge amount of interest in this way of working at a local level and it is beginning to filter through public sector at the frontline level. Where the debate is lacking is at the national level.’
Without making a political point, he suggests there are some signs that Labour are starting to notice, with shadow communities secretary Steve Reed being a former leader of Lambeth LBC and a pioneer of community empowerment. The national Conservatives, on the other hand, are ‘behind the curve’, while the White Paper looks set to focus more on restructuring.
‘The constant flaw in central government thinking is that everything can be solved with a restructure. It simply can’t. Culture is the key to organisational impact,’ says Mr Lent. ‘There is a long way for the Government and the Conservative party to go.’
Nor can community participation be used as just a way of driving down costs while improving services, says Simon Parker. ‘It is much, much more than that’.
‘The community isn’t there to do social care for us. But it is their job to do the things they care about and it is our job to give them the opportunity to do that and link with each other to find more ways to lead the lives they want to lead.
‘We are entering into a period where the community paradigm will be very important and if we don’t do it, society will do it and challenge us very strongly around that.’
Round table participants
Donna Hall - Chair of NLGN, chair of Bolton NHS Trust and former chief executive of Wigan Council
Michael Coughlin - Deputy chief executive of Surrey CC and trustee of Participatory City
Nat Defriend - Assistant chief executive of Participatory City
Anna Randle - Chief executive of Collaborate
Adam Lent - Chief executive of NLGN
Simon Parker - Former corporate director of strategy at Redbridge LBC
Heather Jameson - Editor, The MJ