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Our influential City Growth report came out last October. Based on a year of research and conversations with the 15 largest metro regions, it introduced a series of key recommendations to reshape the political economy, devolving power to metro regions and empowering them to become key players in the policies that directly affect their citizens and economy.

A couple of weeks ago, my colleague Jonathan Schifferes and I had the pleasure of going to beautiful Exeter to discuss city growth and our work in public services with a range of Fellows and non-Fellows. My mission was to identify ideas and explore what city growth means for rural hubs, which don’t have the population density of Manchester, the train connections of York, or the influx of 30-something ex-Londoners like Birmingham.

When asked what the biggest challenge people felt that Local Government had, the responses broadly fell into three categories: Thinking outside the box and innovating; encouraging people to feel ownership of their public services; and the instability that comes from political leadership changing every few years. Public services operate in a global economic and social environment, facing rapidly-changing technological changes, and with a pressure to continue cutting spending. All of which makes for quite a complex system.

The most poignant point for me was on spending cuts, and replacing public services with like-for-like third sector organisations: that those organisations are being asked to fill the hole left by public services rather than asking the smart question of “Is this effective, and how can we make it work better?” Of course, this is a challenging question, requires rethinking the way services operate and working with people to co-design effective community interventions. Doing public engagement well costs time and money - but it’s hugely effective.

None of these issues are unique to Devon or the South West – they are country-wide. However, with a rural, disparate region, an older-than-average population, and higher-than-average levels of self-employment (particularly in agriculture and tourism), Devon’s solutions aren’t necessarily the same as those interventions happening in Manchester, London or other metro areas. Partnerships like Connecting Devon and Somerset are fantastic for starting to drive change, recognising the challenges that the region uniquely faces, but is only a start.

 (If you’re interested in public services in the Devon area, you should check out Carl Haggerty’s blog on working in public services and digital transformations.)

I’m keen to hear what other places and people are doing to tackle these issues – do let me know.

Huge thanks to Fellows Nick Parker, Philippa Rose and Ed Whitelaw for their contributions to the event, and to the excellent Fab Lab Devon at Exeter Library for letting us poke around their space. If you’re local and haven’t yet checked it out, you really should do.

Joanna is Project Engagement Manager, working to connect Fellows with the RSA’s research in Public Services and Communities. Email her or follow her on Twitter at @joannacmassie

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