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Much of our time in the RSA is spent working with a variety of public services at local, regional and national level. A relentless experience has been the degree to which services feel a sense of helplessness amidst a series of changes. It is easy to simply put this at the door of austerity, and we should not duck the fact that austerity is making adaptation to external demands harder, but the challenges are broader and deeper than that.

The more we observe and engage- as with have with the Metropolitan Police and through our work in Wiltshire on ‘people-shaped localism’ and through deployment of ‘collective impact’ methods in Suffolk - the more it is becoming clear that the fundamental nature of the British state is changing. This has barely been acknowledged.

There are at least five drivers behind this change: economic, technological, cultural, institutional and ideological. Of course, these impacts are not independent of one another and in combination they are a powerful force. If you are leading a local authority, a health service of some description, an educational institution or a police service you are looking at the future with a sense of trepidation. And the same goes for those who rely on these services – i.e. us. It’s not clear whether the necessary institutional adaptation can be sufficiently rapid. There needs to be a collective acknowledgement of this challenge – it applies prisons as much as the police, education and health.

Britain has been characterised for at least two generations by a statist culture mixed with individualism. We have enjoyed the free market and the asset benefits it brings us (or at least those of us born before 1980) but we also tended to like a strong state in the fields of health, education, crime and justice, and defence. This was the big change brought about by Thatcherism following the collapse of a more collectivist individualism in the 1970s. But given that, once the NHS is taken into account, the UK state is now comparable with that of the US, there is a risk of retaining the statism with the state in absentia.  

Let’s compare this situation with somewhere such as the US. We are talking differences in degree here - for example, the US has an even greater statism in its law enforcement than the UK. But you see a much greater degree of civic individualism in the best US cities (but it is far from uniform). Take somewhere like Pittsburgh and you will see a civic energy, backed by philanthropy and activism around education, neighbourhood planning, and economic regeneration. Pittsburgh has made a transition from an industrial to a post-industrial city as consequence.

The UK has generally relied on the big state to address these issues rather than civic activism, resourcing and energy. In education, regeneration, economic planning and so on, the state that has tended step in to initiate change. However, this Government is radically changing this. It feels like a point of departure: it could go very badly wrong or very right. The reality may well be both.

Austerity is the economic driver of change. Technology interfaces with change by raising the possibility of new forms of finance (crowd-funding, social impact bonds, collective ownership) and new means of collaborating and organising around change. An exclusively state run model is under siege in every significant area of public service delivery. It’s easy to see this as simply privatisation or the state stepping back but it’s potentially more sophisticated than that. The more interesting models of change we are beginning to see seek to bring people more directly into planning or provision. This involves seeing patients as participants in healthcare, learners as self-directed agents in education, or residents as drivers of local change whether in community safety or regeneration. Technology creates a demanding culture as we expect instant response. That will begin to create new demands on representative institutions and services alike. Technology and culture entwine. The mantra ‘people just want good services not loads more choice’ will disintegrate before our eyes.

In parallel, the devolution agenda (including increasing local responsibility for raising finance) creates an institutional change that constitutes further disaggregation of the British state. There are two possible pathways: mini-states (municipal Whitehalls) or new forms of lateral governance. In the first model, Whitehall’s culture is replicated in Town Halls across the land. In the second model, services reconfigure around outcomes and the lines between different institutions, people and sectors begins to blur. The first pathway is the more likely initial response but, faced with limits to resourcing and the need to meet new expectations and demands for more flexible forms of provision, the need to actively engage with demand as opposed to just managing it will come to the fore. Ideology will drive this as much as pragmatism.

None of these changes will be uniform but a direction is becoming visible. The old balance of individualism and statism risks becoming simply a corrosive individualism unless we can innovate new collective responses. Essentially, the challenge for us is to marry a greater sense of civic activism with an individualistic culture. The latter is a given, the former is not.

Can we make the transition from statist individualism to civic individualism balanced by support from the state? It won’t be the American model that we see, which, at its very best, balances civic energy with city or local level co-ordination backed by local wealth creation. Instead, it might be something more British: state support, civic innovation, individual initiative. This is the peer-to-peer social justice approach I outlined in a long read last year. If we fail, we will be left with a weak state, a struggling society, and an angry individualism. There is no way back to the strong state of old: it’s too underfunded, undermined and unable to cope with increasingly complex demands. The cost of failure will be extremely high.  


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