It is now stating the patently obvious to say that the public policy and public services landscape – especially at a local level – is undergoing a transformative change. Austerity, fiscal pressures, political shifts in Whitehall and a raft of social, political and demographic changes and pressures are forcing decisionmakers and public managers to rethink the way services are designed and delivered. “Public service innovation” has become a buzz-term, and councils are at the forefront of attempts to re-design services in the context of massive fiscal squeezes, ageing populations and rising demand for services. This is why 38% of all local authorities in England and Wales applied to be a part of the LG Group and NESTA’s Creative Councils programme last year – with the hope of implementing radical innovations to meet these challenges.
Public policy is also changing: the localism bill and associated policies and drives for greater decentralisation (or, according to critics, attempts to shift responsibility – and blame – from Whitehall to local government) – along with overarching narratives such as ‘the Big Society’ – are heralding in a future where ‘more with less’ is set to become the central organising principle. The Big Society vision has been used to provide a great deal of the moral case for change: the government says it wants to see greater power in the hands of local communities and citizens, and wants to see an active and engaged citizenry as a core part of a new era of politics and public services.
The difficulties and contradictions are abundantly clear. Some argue councils simply can’t deliver ‘big society’ initiatives at the same time as they are forced to absorb massive cuts in funding – this is why Liverpool City Council withdrew from the government big society pilots last year. Nevertheless, several other councils are making strong attempts despite recognising the pressures of austerity and disagreeing with current Government policy. For examples, thirteen Labour councils – including Sunderland – have joined the Labour Co-operative Councils network, which seeks to develop co-operative models for running local services – putting citizens at the centre.
Much of the scepticism about the ‘big society’ comes from many regarding it as a rhetorical device, and arguing that it relies too much on volunteerism without a solid political structure behind it. It is clear that for truly ‘big society’ politics to take shape, the concept needs to be less associated with volunteerism (although this is important) and more grounded in a new political economy – a point Philip Blond has repeatedly made.
In this respect, Sunderland City Council’s Community Leadership Programme (CLP), which is a key strand of the council’s ‘Sunderland Way of Working’, provides a good example of a local model that is moving towards a political ‘big society’ approach- even though the Labour-run council would eschew the ‘big society’ as a political term. As the 2020 Public Services Hub’s latest report – an evaluation of Sunderland’s CLP – shows, the CLP encompasses multiple strategic layers. This includes engaging elected members more effectively as community leaders and creating the processes and structures necessary to empower them at the community front-line. The second layer is about reconfiguring public services so that they are locally responsive and foster new forms of delivery and accountability in partnership with citizens. The third layer harnesses the power of people, place and council to achieve sustainable growth at a time of political and economic flux. While Sunderland’s CLP certainly faces challenges and has space for improvement, the 2020PSH report shows that it provides valuable lessons for localities across the UK.
At the roundtable marking the launch of the report (on Wednesday 8th February), there was also a general broad agreement by participants on different sides of the political fence about the importance of locally responsible and citizen-centric services supported by various forms of community leadership. Participants at the roundtable also raised some of the challenges that face local politics in practice. For example, Christina Dykes (of the Conservative Next Generation Project) spoke of the need for a culture change at the local level, which Government needs to be proactive in helping. Conservative councillor for Hammersmith and Fulham (and former Leader) Stephen Greenhalgh also said there needs to be greater effort in achieving mass engagement and communication to make local politics relevant to local people. Representing civil society, Neil Jameson (CEX of Citizens UK) and Lucy de Groot (CSV) also argued that civil society is the missing ingredient in many approaches to reinvigorating local democratic politics – civil society has the greatest engagement and contact with citizens, and yet it is often the weakest political actor in the local mix, and so it needs to have greater support. All participants generally agreed there needs to be a politics behind local democracy, and the state at various levels has a key role to play in making narratives such as ‘big society’ viable in practice.
To read the 2020PSH report, click here.