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After years of argument, counter-argument and downright inertia, devolution’s moment has arrived. The Government is putting pre-election words into post-election action, and we at the RSA could hardly be happier.

As the RSA’s City Growth Commission has argued, economic growth is increasingly driven by metros, which require governance in line with their scale in order to deliver on their potential. A power shift from Westminster to our city (regions) is central to achieve this. Emboldened non-metro authorities are now making similar arguments about the benefits of devolved decision making powers and accountability, with the assumption that this is likely to involve working at a sub-regional scale. The devolution process is underway and the Government is leaving doubters to eat their hats, and opposition parties to play catch-up.

The devolution breakthrough has been made possible by concentrating on its promise to unlock economies of scale.  Big is beautiful - a somewhat surprising development given where we were five years ago.  This government is keen to position itself as the champion of devolution, whereas its predecessor characterized itself as the champion of localism.  In that change of language lies a shift that should give us pause; not because devolution economics are anything less than compelling and necessary, but because they should form only one part of an economic and social review of how we approach governance.  Localism, for all its fuzziness and occasional gimmicks, set out to address some of these social issues, asking how a local frame could support and encourage civil participation, inclusion and creativity.  It prompted conversations about values as well as savings.  Those are conversations that become more, not less, important as the structures start to move. 

While devolution is a technical change, localism is best understood as a philosophy – a theory or attitude that can guide decision making.  Its main components include an assumption that a sense of local identity, belonging and connectedness are crucial to our subjective wellbeing, to our material life chances and our collective resilience.  It assumes that decision making about the allocation of public resources is likely to be more efficient and satisfactory if kept as close as possible to those who are materially affected. It also assumes – though there are distinctly different accounts of how this might work, and the risks involved – that the local state and its services should have a relatively modest role in our everyday lives. Instead, localism emphasizes the importance of civil society in its various forms and civility in its widest sense as providing the bone and sinew of a thriving place.  One reason that small can be beautiful is that a knowable space may be a good environment for reciprocal altruism.

Some of these assumptions are more reliable than others. A whiff of nostalgic idealism hangs around a few of them.  Others, though, are crucial insights that raise key challenges for local governance, community and polity.  Over the coming months the RSA will be teasing out different localist assumptions, testing their weight and applications in an attempt to ensure that the benefits of devolution are fully realized.  The first of the assumptions we’ll be examining is that voluntary action – people helping people – is a building block of successful localism; that if we want to know whether a place is good for the people who live there, it is as important to look at how people support each other through everyday give and take as to look at the level of services provided by the council and other public agencies.  More pointedly, under a creative account of localism, what is the role of public authorities and services in enabling this type of behavior?

Their role, it seems to us, should not be simply to leave the stage, and to suggest that public action gets in the way of public spiritedness. Yes, there are occasions when officiousness or bad investments at local level damage public trust and disrupt beneficial networks.  But there is no good evidence to support the claim that public action crowds out civil society.  ‘Getting out of the way’ might be a tactically wise manoeuvre in some situations, but it would be a dismal strategy for local public services.  One of the reasons why the Big Society failed to take hold was its suspicion of existing local institutions – particularly public ones.  It talked the localism talk, but in a Whitehall accent, pitched as national crusade. My colleague, Charlotte Alldritt has wryly suggested that ‘Small Society’ would be a better starting point.

While Big Society has withered on the vine, innovation by local public services, civil society organisations and social entrepreneurs has been steadily growing, disrupting many of the hard and fast distinctions between public and private and service user and service professional within which traditional conceptions of volunteering have tended to operate.  For example, health services are increasingly alive to the fact that good outcomes cannot simply be delivered to patients.  The roles of family members, neighbours, employers, colleagues, other patients, and the active role of the patient him or herself, are crucial parts of the whole.  So this could be a creative and powerful time for volunteering, drawing the services we rely on into a closer relationship with how we live.  Volunteering could help us see ourselves and each other more clearly in our public services.

But as Volunteer Week 2015 approaches, it’s also clear that volunteering is in a difficult place, facing serious risks.  Staff costs are the biggest single element of public bodies’ spending; so with budgets under unprecedented pressure, ratcheting up the use of volunteers in order to balance the books or provide some sort of cover when services pull back may appear to be a tempting strategy.  Across the country, local authorities are already asking communities to do more for themselves.  Perennial dilemmas for volunteering about independence and additionality, versus co-option and job substitution, are being thrown into ever sharper relief.  Resolving them will require a willingness on all sides to find new forms of collaboration.  Localism is the space in which these new balances and relationships will need to be agreed. 

The RSA is holding an expert roundtable on public service volunteering on 10th June and will publish a position paper shortly afterwards.

You can follow Paul @buddypb

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