Whether facilitating, researching or tweeting, the question of how to establish the changemaking councils and communities of tomorrow is never far from my thoughts. The more time I spend on NLGN’s changemaking vision, the more I am reminded of my time living in rural Spain, where communities founded upon creativity, collaboration and self-determination were not few and far between.
To take a step back, it was not until the late 1970s and 1980s that Spain’s core democratic institutions emerged. The Spanish Constitution (1978) established sixteen Autonomous Communities, each with significant capabilities – including healthcare, housing and education. Each Autonomous Community has the power to decide on the organisation of its municipalities and provinces, although ultimate control over their functions and finances lies in Madrid. Provinces and municipalities hold different functions, with provinces primarily responsible for delivering public services. Municipal councils are run by elected mayors and, dependent on size, hold responsibility for a range of public services – from local public utilities to transport.
Devolution in Spain has been a rapid process. Local government institutions have evolved at pace, with Spain now recognised as one of the most decentralised countries of the OECD – often referred to as a quasi-federation. In more colloquial terms, Spain’s institutional model is referred to as café para todos (coffee for everyone), referring to its attempt to ensure all regions and nationalities have similar degrees of self-government.
Inevitably, the outcomes of Spain’s complex institutional framework have been heavily criticised. Corruption has been widely reported alongside chronic liquidity problems, stemming from inefficiency, over-manning and a tendency to not collect taxes. Questions of accountability and transparency are still raised; academic, journalists and politicians alike have suggested café para todos has led to deep-rooted tensions and an over-exertion of both institutions and individuals’ power.
While these problems cannot be left unresolved, there are merits to Spain’s devolved system. When I lived in a rural community with five thousand residents, an extremely positive side to local government in Spain came to light.
Regarding leadership, the Mayor was at the heart of the community; a leader very connected to his residents, not afraid of asking their opinion and searching for innovative solutions to improve public services. In tandem, community leaders – including GPs and teachers – worked closely together, sharing their concerns to improve residents’ health and wellbeing. Imperatively, residents themselves started new initiatives and campaigns, including a community-run café to combat social isolation amongst the older generation.
Upon reflection, this municipality in Spain is a model changemaking community. While it has a small population, it can be a useful case study for those of a greater size. From my time at NLGN, it is clear council officers are considering how to recalibrate their relationship with their communities. Examples of best practice can be extremely useful in this complex task.
New models of community engagement must aim to both listen to and empower residents. On one hand, local authorities must effectively collect and record residents’ opinion, using real life experiences as a basis to improve public services. On the other, councils must support and reward residents who undertake initiatives to improve their community’s health and wellbeing. While local authorities will need to develop full engagement strategies, these principles must lie at their core; only then will councils build trust, open communication channels and design better public services.
Ultimately, while institutional reform to encourage greater accountability and transparency might be required, the unique sense of creativity, collaboration and self-determination of Spain’s municipalities must not fall to the wayside.