Blog: Collaborative Communities at Work - RSA

Blog: Collaborative Communities at Work

Blog 18 Comments

  • Communities
  • Community engagement
  • Public services

In 1976, Daniel Bell wrote that one of the great contradictions of capitalism is that it demands us to be ‘a puritan by day and a playboy by night’. Our jobs generally urge us to obey rules and be inconspicuous, frugal and thrifty; while consumer culture urges us to defy convention, indulge in hedonistic experiences and express ourselves through material things.

In this collaborative blog, we argue that public services face this contradiction too. The UK wants better public services but through the ballot box we have voted to reduce their funding. With this in mind it is clear that any successful models for a new public service economy will have to incorporate collaborative working arrangements.

Below, we profile communities around the world which have overcome resource constraints. Often, these collaborative approaches are born out of scarcity or a lack of service provision. This turns challenges into opportunities and might make approaches more resilient and future proof. We want to hear your examples of innovation: how can public services learn from collaborative communities at work?



While most of us can appreciate that we are both producers (workers) and consumers in the economy, new technologies are - as ever - driving transformations. The ‘sharing economy’ and ‘collaborative consumption’ rely on online networks and platforms which draw people into this dual identity: buying and selling on eBay, being a host and a guest through Airbnb. The challenge is that we inherit assumptions and legal structures which define what work is and what it can be - for example fair pay and conditions.

While a critique of who is profiting (and the questionable morality of the ‘JerkTech’ sector) is welcome, what remains exciting is that the internet can connect people like never before, and platforms allow for ‘community marketplaces’ which transcend limitations on scale from self-organised localised collaborative efforts.

What is often missing from policy analysis is an understanding that we need collaborative consumption of public services as much as we need it in our private lives. Beyond the product and service economy, the ‘core economy’ refers to the institutions and working arrangements societies create to take care of citizens - the public services and support networks that keep us healthy, safe and educated. In the permafrost of austerity, public services are switching (or worrying about how to switch) from efficiency savings and retrenchment to restructuring, transformation and decommissioning. The value of support networks is evident in everything from employment to mental well-being and social inclusion to recovering from natural disasters.



In the Public Services and Communities team, we appreciate that as public services evolve they will face fundamental changes in what ‘workforce’ means. Leaders will want colleagues to be more flexible and innovative (and less puritanical), and services will look more like collaborative networks than hierarchical bureaucracies.

But consider for a moment what is involved in this. A think tank like the RSA might champion a model for social care which reinvents the role of care worker as a by-product: the place of work, its certification and qualification processes, pay scale, management structure, social life and status - even the uniform people might dress in.

The neglected question is not what type of service we aspire to but how we transition the existing workforce to get there: what working arrangements that are secured for them under a new paradigm? The crunch on public sector resources is steep, and will grow more so in the coming months and years. That means that the networked facilitators of social outcomes are in fact the same public servants we have today.

Think about how far there is to go. Ministers and Mayors are finding it difficult to influence doctors and tube drivers on being at work in the hours they think the public want. Public service professionals are acutely aware that their fragile and stretched services can, at worst, endanger lives if we get the transition wrong.

More fundamentally, a public service successful in managing demand and adopting a preventative approach effectively writes it’s own redundancy notice unless it also redefines its purpose. Simultaneously, new commissioning regimes are opening up service provision to for-profit companies who aren’t necessarily motivated to deal with root causes and to shrink the scale of future budgets.

As an example, through public education, and extensive fire prevention schemes such as installing smoke alarms, and newer less flammable household items, fires have reduced by 40 per cent over the last ten years. Fire stations have closed as a result of this reduced demand leading to industrial action. But a wider view on firefighters shows they have a lot more to offer than just putting out fires.

Crudely, the fire service is an impeccable brand. It can pivot in several directions to improve the wellbeing of its local community and reduce the demand on other blue light services. Fire services have worked with social services to support vulnerable adults and using the skills they already have to respond to lower-level health issues (NLGN, 2015).  Fire Stations are generally open 24 hours, have kitchens, gyms and adult role models: these resources can engage young and marginalised people meaningfully in their community at little marginal cost. This innovative way of repurposing public sector workers, who otherwise would spend much of their time unproductively, increases efficiency and capitalises on the firefighters’ local knowledge and the trust the wider communities place in them. A contractual attitude to fire service provision - whether involving the public or private sector - risks choking off the creativity to think laterally about inherited public sector resources.



Some of the most inspiring examples of collaboration at work come from outside the UK. People who share a stake in a local resource often self-organise to protect and enhance the value and the living they derive from a resource or skilled trade. Importantly, governments can support such efforts, as well as subvert them.

Elinor Ostrom was awarded the Nobel Prize for economic in 2009. An appreciation of her work can help change the subtext that underpins public service reform: that only regulation and markets can ensure fairness and efficiency. Ostrom proved otherwise. Her research was revolutionary for economists because she observed an ‘actual reality’ rather than hypothesised mathematical models.

A clear example Ostrom shared is a self-organised fishing cooperative in Alanya, Turkey. In many regions of the world fish stocks are collapsing despite government efforts to enforce quotas and regulate activity. In Alanya, fishers allocate fishing sites by draw, and then over time fishers move from one site to the next thus assuring that each fisher has access to the more profitable sites at one point throughout the season. This approach, evolved over decades, reduced disputes about fishing sites, but also reduced the need to employ fishing equipment that was used to catch as many fish as possible before others had the opportunity. Where governments have disrupted such arrangements, fishing industry has often declined.

In the UK, an under-appreciated risk of the localism agenda is that the most vocal, visible, articulate and influential communities are able to capture dwindling public sector resources at the expense of those in greater need. Especially in rural areas, we need to learn collaborative and cooperative approaches to fairly access services such as mobile libraries, postal services, GPs, and community transport. Beyond market-based and regulatory reforms, a new consensus is emerging around co-designing and co-producing public services to address this. But the elephant in the waiting room realises that empowering citizens and service users must - on some level - be disempowering for those working in and managing public services; especially public services reliant on strong institutions and bureaucracies.

There are examples of collaboration at work from countries with similar public service constraints to the UK. Last year the RSA awarded its Albert Medal to Jos de Blok, founder and CEO of Buurtzorg. Jos and a team of nurses aimed to improve the healthcare systems in the Netherlands by creating a patient-centred care model focusing on the independence of its patients. Empowerment of patients and nurses is at the heart of this approach and simplified organisational structures without hierarchy enable all participants to exchange ideas and to allow for a community based approached to health. Buurtzorg is now employing 8500 nurses and its approach has also been implemented in Sweden, Japan and the US and led to a decrease in cost whilst simultaneously increasing the quality of care and job satisfaction of nurses.

Finally, in Lagos, Nigeria, where state infrastructure struggles to keep up with demands created by a fast growing population, social innovation is thriving. Wecyclers offers a community based approach to deal with 735,000 tons of plastic waste annually. Only 40 per cent of the city’s waste is collected and plastic worth an estimated £200 million is not recycled. Wecyclers collects plastic and aluminium from households in low-income areas, using cargo bicycles. Households receive instant cash credits via mobile phone banking, redeemable against purchases of phone credit, food, or household goods. Collections are organised with text message reminders, and the scheme raises awareness of sustainability issues. We need to look beyond our neighbours and realise that citizens in the ‘developing world’ are often developing smarter solutions than we are.



Current roles for local government in running libraries, buses and schools were unimaginable in 1976. The most fundamental challenges of the next generation will require even more radical rethinking of what a public service looks like. The best solutions will combine issues: boosting volunteering among the retired to support community-based public services; retrofitting housing to tackle climate change and address unemployment; tackling social isolation, health and well-being together through personal interaction (like Oomph); and using spare ‘idling’ capacity wherever it exists.

If we are to successfully walk the tightrope of having socially productive public services which cater to growing demands, reduce demand, and cost less, we need to appreciate successful models of collaboration at work, and in particular those adopted among communities rather than through top-down change.

Add your examples and thoughts - we are especially interested in how those leading our public services can learn from other sectors around the world.

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  • There is lot of talk about Community collaboration with various bodies but I don't see much real sign of collaboration. Funding comes with so many strings the community group is left with quandary as to whether they abandon some of their ideas to get the funding so at least some aims are achieved or to try crowd funding instead. There is still a very patriarchal feel to any so called partnership a community group is in whether it be a University, local government, national government or Lottery & other types of grants. The other dilemma that a voluntary group has is that they face replacing people who were previously paid for it and there is the stark choice of being partly responsible for replacing someone's job but knowing if you didn't nothing would be there at all. The many Libraries now run by volunteers a case in point. 


  • Excellent article, which really chimes with what we're thinking and doing here in Lambeth. 

    It can feel threatening to people in councils that everything they've tried to do helping improve their services might be swept away by an approach from the community. Likewise, it can be challenging for informal groups to suddenly get involved in the commissioning process...and for commissioners to support more outcome-based activities like the examples you mentioned than services.

    For me, it's how we can create ways for people working on a particular issue or neighbourhood to connect with each other, whether they work for a council, a coop or with their neighbours. In other words, for public services to be part of collaborative communities, not as separate from them. 

    In Lambeth, we're doing this through Made in Lambeth, where people come together to tackle local challenges - from how we can better look after our our sexual health, Open Works to develop projects that tap into basic skills, like making a meal and through the U Lab - Future of Lambeth, to better make sense of the world around them. In each example, we as public service staff play a different role, developing the infrastructure for the first, supporting it for the second and learning from others for the third. 

    Likewise, hosting a co-working space in the town hall was an example of how we weren't just freeing up an asset for local people to use, but bringing them closer to our staff. Through people learning together, they not only can see how they could work together but feel part of a creative collaborative community. 

    From our learning so far, these are the three things I would suggest can help public services learn...and work with creative communities.

    1. Mapping and connecting the communities of practice

    2. Developing and supporting the infrastructure for the communities to develop

    3. Surfacing and sharing the learning across the communities

    Of course, you need policies in process which create the legitimacy and authority to support this way of working, we have it through our cooperative commissioning and behaviours, others like Bologna have it through their commons strategy.

    • Thanks Noel. I hear what you are saying when it comes to the 'culture shock' of collaboration. 

      It's impressive to put it all into three areas on which public services could use as a basis to design roles. 

      I wonder if there are examples where it's a group/org *other* than the local authority or public agency which might be best placed to do act in this way? ...a group/org that already has legitimacy/authority to play this role? or a situation where the inherited authority of the council is a hindrance?

      I would also be interested to learn what Lambeth might do to 'seed' citizen efforts where these are not forthcoming. For example, do we accept that not every park/open space can have an effective 'and ambitious 'Friends of...' group? Or do we assume that there is an effective and ambitious 'Friends of...' group in every local community - it just may not have been surfaced or activated?

      • Agree that councils shouldn't just dive in and assume the role of initiating collaboration, we should be more open to starting the conversation and working out with other people how we can each contribute best. In the work I'm doing on how we can embed learning across our organisation on...cooperative behaviours, I've been helping shape the programme design of U Lab Lambeth, an experiential learning programme designed by the MIT that we're "hacking" to give it a more local flavour and focusing it on the challenges people in the local area want to tackle. But we're not coordinating it, Hub Brixton is, we're helping make connections to invite people from different community to join it and spread the learning back into the organisation. Likewise when Transition Town Brixton runs the Lambeth Entrepreneur Forum, which in other areas might be run by the council, it makes more sense for them to do it as a "system leader" around entrepreneurship in the area, as they have the networks, but most importantly the trust and that currency is priceless. Would be keen to find out more your thinking and work on this, as identifying and supporting the systems leaders in a particular area or theme, I think will become increasingly important.

        A more challenging role is around seeding citizen efforts where these are not forthcoming. Our Open Works programme is a way to seed and nurture civic activity through working with local people to develop activities that everyone can get involved in, be it making food, sewing or planting vegetables. We're also just about to start work in neighbourhoods where significant demographic change is taking place to understand how people look after their street and work with communities on what interventions we can develop with them. 

  • I believe the biggest, untapped potential in terms of creating "collaborative communities" is within the business sector, particularly SMEs (including micros.)

    Our public services continue to shrink; third sector organisations compete for limited funding; demands on services continue to increase; and the call goes out for more volunteers. Invariably that call is levied upon the retired and unemployed. But local business could provide infinite value in a number of ways. More established companies may be able to support paid volunteering days, but that's only a small part of the potential. Fund raising events such as quiz nights, runs and charity balls can be geared to businesses;  pro bono work increased; and even many small businesses can mentor, offer work experience or employ an apprentice.

    Businesses, particularly small businesses, and the communities in which they are based are interdependent. And yet so little is being done to harness that untapped potential for collaboration. That said, it is important to understand the challenges small companies face and therefore essential to be able to articulate the business case for community support. Both parties must benefit from any collaboration. The gains can be immense for businesses including but not limited to increased reputation; increased staff engagement and motivation; and increasingly a greater chance of winning public and / or private sector contracts.

    But none of this will happen without a little bit of encouragement and support, which is why we have developed Business and Community Charter Awards - robust rolling awards for businesses that are supporting their local community -  as the basis for driving up levels of community support and engagement. We are currently piloting the project in one area and are due to launch in another two local authority areas later this year. The aim is to launch the project across the UK as a franchise, always working in a local authority area and with the support of that local authority.

    I would be happy to speak to other fellows, or indeed the Public Services and Community Team, if you would like to know more about the project. 

    • I agree Jill. There is a report coming out soon regarding volunteering in public services, and I think the potential mutual benefit for 'corporate volunteering' is hugely underrated and efforts often go for the 'big wins' (large companies) rather than the 'broad wins' (lots of smaller companies). 

      I've seen some good evaluation reports by Business in the Community recently which reinforce the mutual value that is create when businesses collaborate deeply with their local community and it's social infrastructure: check out

  • Really interesting and important stuff. Part of the challenge is that Governments feels safer with institutional solutions, even when they don't match the need/identified problem - shortening school holidays to reduce learning attrition over the summer is a good example.
    There is a US project, Family Independence Initiative, which uses and builds on existing community networks to identify support for both individuals and groups (to find work, start businesses, study). I have some knowledge of the Boston program and am happy to share more on this if helpful.

    • Thank you for your comment Jane. We would like to hear more about the project in Boston. Could you provide us with a link or send me an email ([email protected])? Thank you

  • The biggest UK example where communities collaborate is in running schools. Since the early 1990's with the delegation of school budgets each community runs its own school. Most governors are stakeholders. Nationally there are 300,000+ governors. An average primary school has a budget in excess of £1M and a secondary typically £5M.

    I can't think of bigger taxpayer budget with broader community involvement.

    • Thanks Martin, I completely agree with you on community run schools as a great example. Our Innovative Education project will, I'm sure, deal with some of these issues but your comment has prompted me to catch up with colleagues working in that area as we develop this work and see what we can learn from collaboration in schools.

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