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Turning Communities into Catalysts for Change
Trinley Walker, Senior Policy Researcher, 9 July, 2019

A new vision for public services in which communities are placed at the heart of delivery was set out in NLGN’s report The Community Paradigm, published in February this year. Our new report published today is called Community Commissioning: Shaping public services through people power and provides answers on how this power transfer could be achieved.

There is a strong case for communities to play a more active role in their public services than current forms of commissioning currently permit. Demand pressures are unrelenting. With an ageing population, reduced public expenditure and increasing levels of multi-morbidity, the need to shift to a preventative approach has never been greater. A number of social developments have also created a growing expectation within society for people to have the opportunity to exert greater influence. Further, approaches to commissioning that have emerged under what NLGN has termed the State and Market Paradigms are unable to address complexity and allow for preventative interventions to flourish.

While currently, many of the more innovative forms of commissioning allow a greater role for service users, the power ultimately remains in the hands of the institutions and professionals. Community commissioning would place power and resource directly in the hands of communities themselves. Rather than defining ‘needs’ in a single specification, it would draw on the existing assets held by communities to directly empower these groups to develop a preventative approach.

In moving to a model of community commissioning, there are four key questions that public sector institutions will need to ask themselves.

  • What is the nature of the service?
  • What is the nature of the commissioning network?
  • What is the method of power transfer?
  • What will be the depth of participation by the community?

There are a range of benefits associated with the different answers to these questions and the report outlines these in detail. Yet were community commissioning to become truly embedded then over time, we could expect to see some of the binary distinctions that shape public service commissioning to fade in significance.

For example, communities rarely if ever identify with the distinction between discretionary and statutory services that are so central to council decision-making particularly in a time of cuts. People recognise intuitively that environmental concerns, economic development, youth work etc. are intimately bound up with the well-being of the elderly, disabled and children. With communities truly in the driving seat, there is an opportunity that the institutional and legal distinctions with which councils work will pail in significance as people’s needs are addressed on a more holistic basis.

This highlights an important insight from the research we have done for the Community Commissioning report. Councils often think of themselves as catalysts improving the lives of those they care for and the places they serve. But with commissioning power in the hands of the community, it is clear that the community can become a catalyst changing not just its own circumstances but, fascinatingly, the practices and mind-set of the council itself. The traditional position is reversed and the council is forced to operate in a more asset-based fashion and with that elusive goal of integration brought within reach.

In this sense, community commissioning is not just good for the health and well-being of the community but also the efficacy and humanity of the public institution.

This article first appeared in The MJ on 8th July.