BLOG

Our Response: Community Power Act is Unavoidable if We Really Want to Shift the System
Adam Lent, Director, NLGN, 26 November, 2019

Community Power Act

In response to the debate about a Community Power Act, Adam Lent argues that culture change is vital but alone it is not enough to transform a highly centralised, resistant system.

Two weeks ago I wrote a blog calling for a Community Power Act (CPA). This would be a parliamentary act to drive the type of community empowerment we know has the power to change lives and transform society. It generated a fair bit of debate with responses from some of those at the heart of the growing community power movement. Many challenged what they saw as the paradox of using top-down legislation to generate grassroots change. The key argument made is that transferring power from institutions to communities requires the sort of culture and mindset shift that can’t simply be mandated from central government. This view is completely correct. Indeed, in our paper, The Community Paradigm, Jessica Studdert and I argued that culture change was the key way in which community-centred services would come about.

However, if we are serious about shifting the whole public sector system then we cannot rely on culture change alone. I believe significant legislation is essential as a complementary route to transformation alongside culture change. Here’s why.

We Are Forced to Look Upwards

In her thoughtful response to my call for a Community Power Act, Hilary Cottam says that the key for public servants should sideways to the assets and skills of their communities rather than upwards to the state when generating change. She fears that a CPA inherently requires us to look upwards rather than sideways. Hilary’s understanding of public service transformation is unparalleled and “look sideways not upwards” is a rallying cry of rare insight.

But it is the extreme centralisation of power, not a CPA, that demands we look upwards. We will not be able to hand real power and resource over to communities while so much of it is held in London by officials and ministers. There will always be a severe limit to our ambitions as reformers of the system and as communities as agents of change while central government gets to determine the shape of services.

I mentioned labour market policy in my original post as an example of this but take another: education. As learning plays such a fundamental role in the values and behaviours of the next generation, schools should be at the absolute heart of a community’s ambition for itself. A community should be in constant dialogue with their schools defining goals, shaping curricula, working closely with teachers and students in every way possible. Currently, however, such engagement is limited to the informal and extra-curricular. The core of school activity is defined by nationally set targets, a nationally determined curriculum, a nationally controlled funding mechanism, nationally sanctioned examinations and a nationally run inspection regime that enforces all of these elements. There are many other similar examples running throughout the public sector.

As a result, public servants and communities will always have to look upwards rather than sideways. How could it be otherwise? When regulatory, funding and political power is held in London, we are automatically infantilised. Of necessity we will always look to Westminster and Whitehall for parental permission to do things in line with our own needs and capacities as communities – until that is a paradigm shift is achieved. Hilary’s injunction to look sideways not upwards will remain a never fully-realised aspiration without the necessary legal reform to devolve power.

We Don’t Have the Luxury of Time

A further issue is time. Culture change is slow. That matters because the damage done to the public sector and the wider state by rising demand and crumbling legitimacy is already well-advanced. If we are to wait many more years for a new system that is built on prevention rather than acute response and on trust and collaboration rather than resentment and hierarchy, the chances of recovery will get ever more remote.

Equally, there is a pressing moral imperative here. Our institutionalised and hierarchical way of dealing with fellow citizens often in difficult circumstances not only generates poor outcomes for them but regularly makes things worse. Slow, incremental change may sound comfortable and risk-free to those delivering services but it is the very opposite to the homeless person chucked out of A&E and back onto the street because they don’t have a health emergency; or the child taken into care because no-one recognised the community assets that could be mobilised to heal a family in crisis.

Culture change is slow because it takes a good while for people to understand and adopt new mindsets and behaviours even if they are willing to do so. Admittedly, this most definitely cannot be speeded up by a legislative intervention from above. It takes a great deal of peer-support, learning and incremental change.

However, culture change is also slow because resistance to such change is very strong. In all of the extensive and intensive peer-learning work we do with our members at NLGN, you can guarantee that no matter what the topic, the issue of resistance to culture change will emerge as a major block.

This is where a CPA could play a constructive role. It would signal the need for a shift to community power and then require public sector organisations to adopt it. This would give aspiring changemakers huge power to challenge the inertia that so often frustrates them.

We Need A Whirlwind of Reform

These arguments would all be rendered null and void if it could be proved that legislative change from above might actually destroy or slow down the pace of the necessary culture change. There certainly seem to have been intimations of this in the blogs and wider online response with a fear that a CPA could create a tick-box response which masked the lack of genuine change. A number of people pointed to the Localism Act 2011 as an example of well-meaning legislation that included some elements of community power but which has so far failed to promote significant change.

This, however, misunderstands the fundamentally different nature of a CPA. A Community Power Act, worthy of that name, would not simply exhort, give permission for, or mandate change.

A CPA is a fundamental reform of the nature of the state and public sector. It would devolve very significant power and resource down to local level so that that power and resource can be placed in the hands of communities rather than institutions. Vitally, it would also allow the central state to retain the right for a decade to reclaim that power and resource, should specific public sector institutions fail to genuinely empower communities. The decision on whether that right should be used would be decided by a community-led process of assessment not top-down inspection. To my mind that adds up to a whirlwind of reform combined with positive and negative incentives powerful enough to push a calcifying system into a new paradigm.

In all this we should learn from previous paradigm shifts. The move to a state paradigm in the 1940s and to a market paradigm in the 1980s both required significant changes in organisational culture and mindsets. The former from charitable amateurism to technical professionalism; the latter from an employee-centric to a user-centric outlook. But in both cases, this culture change was enabled and encouraged by major legislative change. Indeed, those culture shifts are now unthinkable without the parliamentary acts which sat behind them such as the 1946 NHS Act or the various acts which introduced and extended compulsory competitive tendering in the 1980s and 90s.

It would be a shame indeed if the third great post-war paradigm shift was left to fizzle out in the face of resistance and constraints, when previous paradigms have found momentum through legislative reform.

Thanks to all those who responded to the original call for a Community Power Act. There was much discussion on social media. There were also a series of blog post responses which should be read by anyone excited by the debate. They are listed below. Many apologies if I missed any – do tell me if I have and I will add them here.

Vidhya Alakeson: Do we need a Community Power Act?

The Alternative: Pass a “Community Power Act”, Adam Lent urges our contending political parties. But would that crush what needs to grow?

Hilary Cottam: A Community Power Act?

Locality’s Policy Team: Do we need a Community Power Act?

Simon Parker: Do we need a Community Power Act?

NLGN will be developing thinking around the Community Power Act in the next few months, and will be holding a workshop around the Act at the Stronger Things conference on 12 March. Register for the conference here to be involved in these discussions.

@adamjlent