Six reasons our public services need a paradigm shift towards the community
Jessica Studdert, Deputy Director, NLGN, 25 February, 2019

A new approach to public services is gradually emerging on the front-line. Many innovations coming from local government, the health sector, education and social enterprises are flourishing independently of each other, but have at their core one shared feature: handing power over to communities. With that power flows responsibility and ownership for developing solutions, based on a recognition that prevention is not something that can be done to people, it has to work with them.

These innovations are currently operating outside the logic of a traditional public service architecture and a policy framework which has run its course. That’s why NLGN’s new report, The Community Paradigm: Why public services need radical change and how it can be achieved, sets out the case for a deeper paradigm shift that has community empowerment at its heart. Here are six reasons why this is becoming increasingly urgent.

1. Public services are not viable in the short-term. A decade of austerity policy has created massive stress in the system. As a consequence of cutbacks, support for vulnerable groups such as social care or mental health services have been disproportionately hit. Meanwhile, pressure mounts on universal acute provision such as hospitals and the police, who are left as the ‘crisis’ provision of last resort. There is increasing recognition that this situation is spiralling out of control and cannot hold.

2. But public services are not sustainable in the long-term either. This isn’t a matter of short-term government policy alone – longer-term factors like demographic changes are fuelling rising demand. We are living longer. Many more of us with long term conditions or lifestyle related diseases such as obesity, which require self-management. Services like the NHS that were established to treat ill health are increasingly required to support wellbeing, which their clinical set-up was not designed to do. The role of social and community support networks is widely accepted as a determinant of health outcomes, and so their role needs to be strengthened rather than bypassed.

3. People expect more influence over their lives. This goes much deeper than the “take back control” mantra of the EU Referendum or emerging cynicism of ‘experts’. In many parts of our lives, from the decline of social deference since the 1960s, to the rise of digital apps in the 2010s, people expect to exercise direct influence and have personal efficacy. They will become increasingly less tolerant of public services which are increasingly less responsive – presenting a real threat to the universal, free at the point of use principles of much of our provision. But there is also an opportunity to work actively with the grain of that expectation and involve people more directly in shaping services.

4. Technology creates new possibilities for communities to exercise collective voice. Digital technology is making it possible for people to connect and forge networks in ways previously unthinkable. Phenomena such as #MeToo shows the power of this to disrupt established institutions when it erupts. Yet traditional public service use of tech is nowhere near realising the full potential of this – they still see technology as enabling a more efficient market-like “customer interface”. This permits individuals to exercise a degree of choice as a user, from a range of options predetermined by the provider. Since digital platforms, social media and crowdsourcing capabilities enable people to organise and exercise their collective voice, the capability now exists for them to influence the very basis on which services are designed and implemented.

5. Loads of innovations in public services and beyond understand all this and are already pioneering new ways of working. The common thread between them is the involvement of the community. Councils leading the way include the Wigan Deal which involves a Community Investment Fund and Cambridgeshire’s Think Communities approach which includes a Buurtzorg-inspired Neighbourhood Cares pilot. In health, the Bromley-by-Bow model takes an asset-based approach to community, and in education Big Picture Schools use the wider networks of the individual learner. Meanwhile, beyond public services, the Big Lottery-funded Big Local scheme has given over £1 million each to 150 deprived communities, empowering them directly with resource, and the social enterprise Community Catalysts is identifying, encouraging and supporting community capacity.

6. But traditional public service models are not capable of mobilising communities to respond to these challenges or take advantage of these opportunities. The structure, mindset and approach of our public services remain trapped in previous paradigms, which presume power should be hoarded rather than shared. Hierarchical state-led institutional structures established in the post war era still dominate, requiring strict accountability and rigid territorial boundaries that keep services focussed inwards not outwards. Marketisation, injected into the system from the 1980s onwards, rather than disrupting this mindset fully only succeeded in introducing a strong element of transactionalism. As a consequence, people all too often receive services which presume they are a passive recipient of care or a customer who demands efficiency. We need a new, more egalitarian model which is capable of collaborating actively with people as partners.

Based on an analysis of these imperatives, NLGN’s new report sets out an agenda for a new Community Paradigm to now fully emerge to dominate our public services so that they are fit for the challenges and opportunities they are confronted with today. We identify new principles for this paradigm based on practice, and a radical new policy agenda which comprises unconditional devolution, participatory and deliberative democracy and communities taking on direct service commissioning.

Tinkering around the edges will no longer suffice. We now need to think in terms of a paradigm shift for our public services – away from institutions and towards the community.