Creating a virtual public service from the community

The challenge

Public bodies are faced with the broad challenge of rising demand for their services just as the funding available to meet that demand is, if anything, falling. Realistically, what this means is that attempting to meet demand by doing things in the same old ways is doomed to failure.

More broadly, our society and culture have shifted and served to fragment our communities and create a sense of individualism. Somewhere along the line the notion of independent, connected communities has been damaged or lost. Councils have, over the decades, inadvertently contributed by creating a sense of dependency.

As demand rises, we need to recognise that public services as we currently know them will not provide all the answers and that we need to unleash communities to do more for themselves. In the words of George Monbiot: “This means complementing state provision with something that belongs neither to government nor to the market but exists in a different sphere, a sphere we have neglected.”

This sphere is the community. And the key question which poses itself is this: how can community networks be rebuilt in a way that helps address unsustainable demand on public services?

The bigger picture

A study commissioned by the London Borough of Lambeth sought to identify how community networks are most likely to develop. The process typically begins with projects that are “lean and live”. They start with very little money and evolve rapidly through trial and error. They are developed not by community heroes working alone, but by collaborations between local people. These projects create opportunities for “micro-participation” where people can dip in and out of them without too much commitment.

When enough of such projects have been launched, they catalyse a deeper involvement, generating community businesses, co-operatives and hybrid ventures, which start employing people and generating income. A tipping point is reached when between 10% and 15% of local residents are engaging regularly. Community then begins to gel, triggering an explosion of social enterprise and new activities that starts to draw in the rest of the population. The mutual aid these communities develop functions as a second social safety net. The process, the study reckons, takes about three years. The results are tremendous: communities that are vibrant and attractive to live in, which generate employment, are environmentally sustainable and socially cohesive, and in which large numbers of people are involved in decision-making.

The study estimates that supporting a participatory culture is likely to pay for itself many times over, by reducing the need for mental health provision and social care and suppressing crime rates, recidivism and alcohol and drug dependency.

An approach

It helps to take a systematic approach.

Context – Create a community development route map to highlight which priorities need addressing and how building community capacity will contribute to delivering outcomes. This helps focus on where to intervene and how to build towards a critical mass of participation.

Frame the challenge – Select tangible priority problems, making sure you create a clear vision and purpose for any intervention. This clarifies the link between demand and money and gives a clear sense of what good would look like.

Illuminate – Make sure you understand the root causes of demand, what can be influenced and by whom. If you are going to build community, you will need to know you are doing it to help ‘fix the right problem’.

Create – selectively inject the wealth of insight that is available to stimulate innovation on the best way to intervene.

Stretch and Build – Build up the solution and establish a business case and, preferably, a pilot to prove the case.

Embed – Scale up successful interventions, support the community in making interventions sustainable and recycle benefits back into the overall programme. Refresh the community development route map to reflect changing priorities and to exploit what is working.

“There are hundreds of examples of how this might begin, such as community shops, development trusts, food assemblies (communities buying fresh food directly from local producers), community choirs and free universities (in which people exchange knowledge and skills in social spaces). Also time banking (where neighbours give their time to give practical help and support to others), transition towns (where residents try to create more sustainable economies), potluck lunch clubs (in which everyone brings a homemade dish to share), local currencies, Men’s Sheds (in which older men swap skills and escape from loneliness), turning streets into temporary playgrounds (like the Playing Out project), secular services (such as Sunday Assembly), lantern festivals, fun palaces and technology hubs.”

George Monbiot

Some tips

Councils have a unique opportunity to help unlock the power of the community. Here are some tips to bear in mind.

  • Treat it as part of a wider transformation effort, focused on finding ways to effectively manage demand. This will ensure efforts will get attention and resource.
  • Build robustness into the process – recognising that community initiatives are often seen as ‘nice to have’ and ‘lacking in impact’
  • Maintain focus on a clear line of sight between investment, primary impact, reduction in demand for services and reduction in the cost of meeting demand
  • Use all the theory and practice from the UK and around the world. There is a wealth of good practice and evidence of what works that can intelligently be brought to the table as insight.
  • Be pragmatic about implementation and maintain a genuine belief in the power of individuals to innovate and drive beneficial change
  • Recognise that there is an ecosystem at work and, while councils have a massive part to play, they don’t have all the levers. Councils are at the heart of driving collaboration across agencies.
  • Be clear about the role of the council and the role of the community. What does that look like, are there good examples already?
  • Use the assets a council has at its disposal. How well developed is the voluntary sector? How do physical assets get used? Are there pockets of community involvement beyond the voluntary sector? Are there established investment policies in place to support community investment?
  • Focus on scaleability and what the council can do to ensure successes generate a broader impact
  • Think hard about how this changes the roles/structures across the council to reflect a shift from “deliverer” to “enabler”

There is much to do, but holding an aspiration to create ‘virtual public service’ from the community is something that has the potential to help alleviate the mounting pressures on existing public services. We cannot stand idly by while our essential services fail.