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This is the first in a blog series by Keith Harrison-Broninski FRSA, which will explore a new way for cities, towns and rural communities to tackle the effects of austerity. The series will explain the ideas behind the approach, how it was initially proven within the NHS, and how it has now become a larger scale initiative in the shape of Town Digital Hub (TDH), supported by the RSA.

UK local authorities have lost a third of their budget since 2012, and the impact on public services has not yet been fully felt. Somerset County Council, for example, needs to find another £30 million of savings, which it has not yet worked out how to do. On top of this, UK government departments have now been asked to come up with two savings plans, one for 25% and one for a colossal 40% of their budget.

So, public services in the UK are under serious threat, and at this point it is hard even to estimate the full impact on society. It is quite possible that the long-term social and health care impacts will outweigh any savings made in the short-term. For example, recent bus cuts in rural Somerset isolate old, young, low-income and disadvantaged people, leaving them unable to get to work or job centres, attend classes or medical appointments, or visit shops. The staff of businesses such as care homes cannot get to work. Local amenities such as schools are in danger as people are forced to move. Social and health effects such as increases in drug usage and life-changing accidents may well cost local authorities more to deal with than the preventative measures that would allow people to lead happier and more stable lives.

Against this backdrop, new thinking about government is percolating up between the seams. Anthony Painter, RSA Director of Policy and Strategy, recently published in his blog a summary of such ‘person-to-person power’ initiatives, claiming that "We are in an era of a profound shift in the nature of social and political power. The power structures of the twentieth century, reliant on hierarchical, technocratic methods, are weakening." 

Some local authorities are starting to take advantage of the 2011 Localism Act to be more proactive. In a few cases these local authorities are led by groups of independent candidates, not affiliated to any party, whose main motivating principle is to enable grass roots transformation.  For example, Frome Town Council is now entirely run by independent councillors, one of whom has published a step-by-step guide to ‘flatpack democracy’. 

Such new approaches represent a potential antidote to austerity. Grass roots collaboration in a local community between its public, private and third sector organisations can deliver public services that are not only lower cost overall but also more closely attuned to needs and thus more effective. The underlying challenge, as any veteran of committees and steering groups will know, is that collaboration is so hard as to be painful! Getting anything done that involves multiple stakeholders each with their own interests takes a supreme level of goodwill, patience and skill. When it works, often it is down to the efforts of one or two ‘superheroes’ who herd the cats to push things through despite all the odds. But is it possible to simplify such collaboration across multiple organisations - to remove the friction that generates heat instead of results, and wears out the mechanism before it really gets going? Can we make multi-organisation collaboration easy enough that any community, however large or small, can bring together all their stakeholders at grass roots to make things happen, without relying on superheroes? 

The answer has to be yes, since in a climate of increasing austerity the future of public services depends on it.  Town Digital Hub, with the support of the RSA Catalyst fund, is helping make available a scalable online solution based on a revolutionary approach for collaboration across organisations and sectors.  A simple but radical technique can deliver cheaper, better public services while at the same time providing rewarding employment to young people. In future posts for this series, I will explain the basis of the technique, show how the NHS used it to enable radical change, and use the current threats to public transport in Somerset to illustrate how any council can now use Town Digital Hub to enable person-to-person power in their own community. Stay tuned! 

I would welcome any feedback on the blogs and the project. It would be great to hear your own ideas and experiences in comments – we seek to engage with communities both across the UK and internationally, so if you would like a digital hub for your own community (town, city, neighbourhood, district, county, or non-geographical), then please do get in touch directly. 

The next blog in the series will be published on Tuesday 15 September.


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