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In 1976, Daniel Bell wrote that one of the great contradictions of capitalism is that it demands us to be ‘a puritan by day and a playboy by night’. Our jobs generally urge us to obey rules and be inconspicuous, frugal and thrifty; while consumer culture urges us to defy convention, indulge in hedonistic experiences and express ourselves through material things.

In this collaborative blog, we argue that public services face this contradiction too. The UK wants better public services but through the ballot box we have voted to reduce their funding. With this in mind it is clear that any successful models for a new public service economy will have to incorporate collaborative working arrangements.

Below, we profile communities around the world which have overcome resource constraints. Often, these collaborative approaches are born out of scarcity or a lack of service provision. This turns challenges into opportunities and might make approaches more resilient and future proof. We want to hear your examples of innovation: how can public services learn from collaborative communities at work?

 

MAKING THE SHARING ECONOMY PUBLIC

While most of us can appreciate that we are both producers (workers) and consumers in the economy, new technologies are - as ever - driving transformations. The ‘sharing economy’ and ‘collaborative consumption’ rely on online networks and platforms which draw people into this dual identity: buying and selling on eBay, being a host and a guest through Airbnb. The challenge is that we inherit assumptions and legal structures which define what work is and what it can be - for example fair pay and conditions.

While a critique of who is profiting (and the questionable morality of the ‘JerkTech’ sector) is welcome, what remains exciting is that the internet can connect people like never before, and platforms allow for ‘community marketplaces’ which transcend limitations on scale from self-organised localised collaborative efforts.

What is often missing from policy analysis is an understanding that we need collaborative consumption of public services as much as we need it in our private lives. Beyond the product and service economy, the ‘core economy’ refers to the institutions and working arrangements societies create to take care of citizens - the public services and support networks that keep us healthy, safe and educated. In the permafrost of austerity, public services are switching (or worrying about how to switch) from efficiency savings and retrenchment to restructuring, transformation and decommissioning. The value of support networks is evident in everything from employment to mental well-being and social inclusion to recovering from natural disasters.

 

TAKING WORKERS WITH US

In the Public Services and Communities team, we appreciate that as public services evolve they will face fundamental changes in what ‘workforce’ means. Leaders will want colleagues to be more flexible and innovative (and less puritanical), and services will look more like collaborative networks than hierarchical bureaucracies.

But consider for a moment what is involved in this. A think tank like the RSA might champion a model for social care which reinvents the role of care worker as a by-product: the place of work, its certification and qualification processes, pay scale, management structure, social life and status - even the uniform people might dress in.

The neglected question is not what type of service we aspire to but how we transition the existing workforce to get there: what working arrangements that are secured for them under a new paradigm? The crunch on public sector resources is steep, and will grow more so in the coming months and years. That means that the networked facilitators of social outcomes are in fact the same public servants we have today.

Think about how far there is to go. Ministers and Mayors are finding it difficult to influence doctors and tube drivers on being at work in the hours they think the public want. Public service professionals are acutely aware that their fragile and stretched services can, at worst, endanger lives if we get the transition wrong.

More fundamentally, a public service successful in managing demand and adopting a preventative approach effectively writes it’s own redundancy notice unless it also redefines its purpose. Simultaneously, new commissioning regimes are opening up service provision to for-profit companies who aren’t necessarily motivated to deal with root causes and to shrink the scale of future budgets.

As an example, through public education, and extensive fire prevention schemes such as installing smoke alarms, and newer less flammable household items, fires have reduced by 40 per cent over the last ten years. Fire stations have closed as a result of this reduced demand leading to industrial action. But a wider view on firefighters shows they have a lot more to offer than just putting out fires.

Crudely, the fire service is an impeccable brand. It can pivot in several directions to improve the wellbeing of its local community and reduce the demand on other blue light services. Fire services have worked with social services to support vulnerable adults and using the skills they already have to respond to lower-level health issues (NLGN, 2015).  Fire Stations are generally open 24 hours, have kitchens, gyms and adult role models: these resources can engage young and marginalised people meaningfully in their community at little marginal cost. This innovative way of repurposing public sector workers, who otherwise would spend much of their time unproductively, increases efficiency and capitalises on the firefighters’ local knowledge and the trust the wider communities place in them. A contractual attitude to fire service provision - whether involving the public or private sector - risks choking off the creativity to think laterally about inherited public sector resources.

 

STRENGTHENING LOCALISM BY LEARNING FROM BEYOND OUR SHORES

Some of the most inspiring examples of collaboration at work come from outside the UK. People who share a stake in a local resource often self-organise to protect and enhance the value and the living they derive from a resource or skilled trade. Importantly, governments can support such efforts, as well as subvert them.

Elinor Ostrom was awarded the Nobel Prize for economic in 2009. An appreciation of her work can help change the subtext that underpins public service reform: that only regulation and markets can ensure fairness and efficiency. Ostrom proved otherwise. Her research was revolutionary for economists because she observed an ‘actual reality’ rather than hypothesised mathematical models.

A clear example Ostrom shared is a self-organised fishing cooperative in Alanya, Turkey. In many regions of the world fish stocks are collapsing despite government efforts to enforce quotas and regulate activity. In Alanya, fishers allocate fishing sites by draw, and then over time fishers move from one site to the next thus assuring that each fisher has access to the more profitable sites at one point throughout the season. This approach, evolved over decades, reduced disputes about fishing sites, but also reduced the need to employ fishing equipment that was used to catch as many fish as possible before others had the opportunity. Where governments have disrupted such arrangements, fishing industry has often declined.

In the UK, an under-appreciated risk of the localism agenda is that the most vocal, visible, articulate and influential communities are able to capture dwindling public sector resources at the expense of those in greater need. Especially in rural areas, we need to learn collaborative and cooperative approaches to fairly access services such as mobile libraries, postal services, GPs, and community transport. Beyond market-based and regulatory reforms, a new consensus is emerging around co-designing and co-producing public services to address this. But the elephant in the waiting room realises that empowering citizens and service users must - on some level - be disempowering for those working in and managing public services; especially public services reliant on strong institutions and bureaucracies.

There are examples of collaboration at work from countries with similar public service constraints to the UK. Last year the RSA awarded its Albert Medal to Jos de Blok, founder and CEO of Buurtzorg. Jos and a team of nurses aimed to improve the healthcare systems in the Netherlands by creating a patient-centred care model focusing on the independence of its patients. Empowerment of patients and nurses is at the heart of this approach and simplified organisational structures without hierarchy enable all participants to exchange ideas and to allow for a community based approached to health. Buurtzorg is now employing 8500 nurses and its approach has also been implemented in Sweden, Japan and the US and led to a decrease in cost whilst simultaneously increasing the quality of care and job satisfaction of nurses.

Finally, in Lagos, Nigeria, where state infrastructure struggles to keep up with demands created by a fast growing population, social innovation is thriving. Wecyclers offers a community based approach to deal with 735,000 tons of plastic waste annually. Only 40 per cent of the city’s waste is collected and plastic worth an estimated £200 million is not recycled. Wecyclers collects plastic and aluminium from households in low-income areas, using cargo bicycles. Households receive instant cash credits via mobile phone banking, redeemable against purchases of phone credit, food, or household goods. Collections are organised with text message reminders, and the scheme raises awareness of sustainability issues. We need to look beyond our neighbours and realise that citizens in the ‘developing world’ are often developing smarter solutions than we are.

 

COLLABORATIVE COMMUNITIES AT WORK

Current roles for local government in running libraries, buses and schools were unimaginable in 1976. The most fundamental challenges of the next generation will require even more radical rethinking of what a public service looks like. The best solutions will combine issues: boosting volunteering among the retired to support community-based public services; retrofitting housing to tackle climate change and address unemployment; tackling social isolation, health and well-being together through personal interaction (like Oomph); and using spare ‘idling’ capacity wherever it exists.

If we are to successfully walk the tightrope of having socially productive public services which cater to growing demands, reduce demand, and cost less, we need to appreciate successful models of collaboration at work, and in particular those adopted among communities rather than through top-down change.

Add your examples and thoughts - we are especially interested in how those leading our public services can learn from other sectors around the world.

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