We all agree but we may all be wrong. From David Cameron’s Big Society to social democratic ideals of social solidarity and an empowering state, and including many public service experts and voluntary sector thought leaders, there is a consensus around a big idea: in essence, blurring the boundary between state and civil society so that social outcomes are achieved through the combined efforts of publicly funded programmes, individuals and communities. Yet the evidence of this approach succeeding at scale is limited and many who are at the front line of public service delivery seem sceptical.
As I have commented before there are examples of public service reform which engage citizens as co-producers of outcomes. One is refuse collection in which rising recycling rates are a joint effort of councils and households; another is individual budgets which – at their best – turn the desire of social care clients for greater autonomy and dignity into a resource which reduces the cost of bureaucracy and of providing unwanted services.
But the idea of co-production is still at the margins....In many ways some - as yet unpublished,- findings of a recent LGIU/RSA survey of local authority leaders make reassuring reading. Despite the scale of cuts, councils report they have been able to achieve the bulk of savings through efficiency measures, such as sharing back office services with other councils and public agencies. Furthermore, and this is very good news for the Coalition, the councils are just as likely to say that services to the most vulnerable have improved as that they have deteriorated over the first two years of cuts. Of course, it is early years and the vast majority of cuts are still to come but councils also report that they are being forced to do things differently with the implication being that this is a good thing.
However, one area where the findings are less positive relates to the Big Society approach. Councils continue, generally, to be sceptical that citizens and communities will step forward to fill gaps left by a receding state.
One interpretation of these findings is that the whole fluffy, empowering, civic idealism thing is for the birds: ‘end of’. Austerity will force councils to cut bureaucracy and less essential services (which is a good thing), what will remain is a residual safety net focussing on those in most dire need (which is an inevitable consequence of sorting out the public finances).
Another interpretation, to which I am clinging for the time being, is that the RSA’s idea of social productivity – judging services by their capacity to help people meet their own needs individually and collectively - is still vital and necessary but we are running out of time to move it into the mainstream. Which returns me to a question which has recurred in several conversations I have had recently: ‘What are the necessary ingredients to generate social innovation so that we can protect and even improve social outcomes at a time of falling budgets?’
Every once in a while I am like a dog with a bone with a project idea. So it is with this question. I would love to do a piece of work exploring the conditions for generating successful large scale local social innovation; what I have previously referred to as a social innovation cluster.
I have spoken to people who know about social finance, to social entrepreneurs and innovators with great ideas (some of which are up and running on a small scale), and to experts on organisational change in the public sector. They all agree the question is how to bring the various pieces of the change process together and to create circumstances in which not just one but many substantial innovations are explored, commissioned and rolled out. Which city or county wants to be the first to create a social innovation cluster which has parallels with industrial clusters or innovation hotbeds like Silicon Valley?
I realise I may be shouting into a void (which could almost be a synonym for ‘writing a blog’) but is there anyone out there with a budget and some change levers who wants to talk to me?
PS I may not even be alive to take the idea forward if I perish on the mountain marathon I am running to raise funds for the RSA Great Room appeal. So even if you can’t meet my ambitions for an innovation cluster you could always sponsor me….