Imagine that you have witnessed a sharp decline in the up-keep and quality of your community amenities. It may be the local park has become frequented by groups of anti-social youths and drug users, with vandalism having rendered the benches un-usable; the grass has become overgrown and the hedges ragged. More seriously, used syringes now litter the children’s play area, making it a no-go zone for parents and their kids.
Petitioning the local council to step in would be one way to address the matter. It may be that they would dispatch staff to clear the park and restore it. They may be unable to help though – having needed to slash discretionary spend to keep plugging the costs of rising demand for social care, under the pressure of providing statutory services with substantially reduced funding.
Alternatively, the community concerned could reach out to a local voluntary organisation that may be able to help. Or, the community could even take the step to form as a voluntary group themselves, going through the rigmarole of applying for charitable status, establishing a group of trustees willing to bear financial liability, and then undergoing the exhaustive process of applying for funds.
But what if the community had the power and the means to act directly to restore the park? What if they had direct access to a budget to spend in their area on what they decide are priorities? This form of service provision would move beyond co-production and co-commissioning, to actually hand over full budget autonomy over its use to communities themselves.
We call this approach “community-led commissioning” and are embarking on a research project to set out how this might work as a new model of practice. The benefits to such an approach multiple. Firstly, residents themselves can have better insight into their own priorities than can experts from outside the community. The traditional model of commissioning involves professionals taking the lead in deciding what services and developments areas require. Day-in, day-out, residents witness first-hand the dynamics of their communities – if they were in the driving seat over decisions how could this drive greater impact?
Secondly, a genuine transfer of powers to local communities could reset the relationship between the state and the citizen. Traditional, transactional forms of service delivery are no longer fit for purpose. Against a backdrop of reducing resource, increased demand pressures and shifting public expectations are driving imperatives for service provision to change. Traditional forms of delivery which “do to” people lack the ability to stop problems from emerging in the first place. Only by working directly with communities can prevention occur – they are best placed to take responsibility – identifying needs and issues before crisis point.
Thirdly, handing over greater autonomy over budget decisions could also help to generate a greater sense of control and ownership amongst communities. At the root of the Brexit vote was a sentiment of exclusion, of communities feeling ‘left behind’ and voting to “take back control”, often reinforced by perceptions of local decline. Community-led commissioning could restore dignity and autonomy for communities to engender a more positive self-perception – and go some way to restore faith in the system.
There are already green shoots of this approach emerging – exemplifying the type of community empowerment required for community-led commissioning to take hold. The Big Local model, managed by Local Trust, is an interesting example. In the largest ever Big Lottery-endowment, 150 local areas, drawn from deprived parts of the country have been handed a grant of £1.1 million to spend on the needs they have identified for their area. They have full control over this pot of money and in many areas it is changing the dynamics and giving people a real sense of influence over their community.
There is a distinct appetite for more community control. People quite naturally respond well to autonomy and the opportunity to have a greater say over the key issues that affect their lives. Handing the reins over to communities to take decisions on the services to be delivered also holds the potential to generate greater community cohesion. It is a good thing in-of-itself. In order to meet people’s rising expectations for influence, and to make a shift towards prevention, we believe the community must be at the heart of reformed public services.
NLGN is now embarking on a new research project, supported by Local Trust, to set out how a new model of community-led commissioning would work in practice. More details can be found here. If you would like to find out more about how to get involved in our research, please contact Trinley Walker on email@example.com.