Civil Society Strategy - RSA

What links Netflix, assistive technology and the civil society strategy?


  • Institutional reform
  • Localism
  • Public services

The government’s civil society strategy, published recently, includes a focus on collaborative commissioning and a recognition that “the system actively, albeit accidentally restricts diversity of the market by putting in significant barriers that exclude smaller providers”. We recently explored how to bring the diversity of smaller providers and the wider social sector to the task of solving society's more challenging problems, drawing on a range of case studies and emerging practice.

Traditionally, the provision of a home alarm service for frail elderly people living at home has been integral to the provision of aids and equipment that also makes their day-to-day life easier. A single contract would be let for the provision of both. Yet this approach fails to account for the speed with which technical innovations are developed and the breadth of their applicability.

The Head of Strategic Business at one local authority we spoke to recently, Tom Alexander, talked passionately about the need for commissioners to become experts in understanding the problem, and in thinking differently about how solutions may be reached. In this case, the traditional approach was abandoned and the contract disaggregated into smaller parts: the alarm response service, the provision of up-to-date equipment, and the analysis of data to inform machine learning and further improve the service.

As commissioners, Tom and his team at Sutton are fundamentally changing the way the market is set up by thinking differently about what is best for the citizen and thinking differently about how their needs may best be met. Tech providers are leveraging the best of artificial intelligence and internet of things in their provision of assistive technology that supports older people and makes their home a safer place to live in. These commissioners are acting as Public Entrepreneurs, to use the title of our recent report into commissioning for innovation.

At its heart we argued for commissioners to be creative problem-solvers, based on a deep understanding of the problem, clearly informed by the citizen’s - or user’s - perspective. Curating a flexible process that deploys the most appropriate methods at the right time, they stimulate local innovation and open up markets to a diversity of providers, ultimately creating social value.

This way of working challenges the status quo and prevailing norms, including the simplicity of just repeating what went before. We see the practitioner burden that this places on people as they come up against the ‘system immune response’ that such challenges provoke.

The government’s civil society strategy, published recently, includes a focus on collaborative commissioning and a recognition that “the system actively, albeit accidentally restricts diversity of the market by putting in significant barriers that exclude smaller providers. It fails to recognise the added value that small and local organisations can bring”. This may be the system immune response limiting options, but we argue that public - and social - entrepreneurs, those working within the public or civic sectors, not only recognise this but actively work to overcome such restrictions.

There is therefore much in the civil society strategy that isn’t new for the public entrepreneurs like these - they have long been commissioning collaboratively, engaging users, opening up markets to smaller providers, working with social enterprises… they do what it takes to secure the maximum social value for public money. Indeed, it is from the public and social entrepreneurs that we learn what it takes to work in these different ways, not through a national strategy that remains light on both the ‘how’ and ‘how much’ of its ambition.

At its best, perhaps, the strategy raises the importance of civic society across a diverse range of government policy areas - loneliness, economic development, devolution, responsible business, social capital, charity regulation, digital skills, grants, corporate governance… many of which areas the RSA has spoken about before.

At its worst, these appear like odd bed-fellows shoe-horned into a single document, which remains light on action and resourcing, normalises austerity and is silent on the major constraints restricting organisations working in the local public and social sectors.

Yet I remain optimistic.

Innovative, imaginative people do great, forward thinking work despite the system and without a national strategy in place.

We recently saw this in Belfast. The ambition of tourism bosses is that upon your arrival in Northern Ireland, you’re presented with a single visitor app to download, not 200. With recommended itineraries based on your length of stay and interests, the app becomes your virtual guide to the area, connecting you a range of attractions, often ones that you would never have known were there. Some historical sites are too far away to fit into your short break, but you visit them virtually one evening as you enjoy an evening cocktail, looking at the architecture and artwork on your smartphone. You leave Belfast with a sense of satisfaction that you have made the most of your stay.

To commission this ‘Netflix' model, curate content onto a single platform, and make the platform accessible, responsive and informed by data, is a major challenge to traditional ways of working. Yet this is the solution being pursued by Dave Vincent and his teams at Tourism Northern Ireland and Invest Northern Ireland. The collaborative process at its heart has driven creative clusters from a previously unlikely alliance of technology providers and AI start-ups, tourism and venue businesses, and council economic development and tourism teams.

They are creating public value because they are not bound by the norms of the past but are driven by the opportunities of the future. 

These are the Public Entrepreneurs at work.

Ian Burbidge is an Associate Director in the RSA's Public Services and Communities Team. Follow him on Twitter @ianburbidge

An earlier version of this blog was first published by CIPFA on their Public Finance website

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