News and Comment

Unlocking Local Capacity – four years on

Monday 15 August 2016

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Let’s start with the scene-setting – the introduction you hear at every local government conference you’ve been to for the last five years. Money is getting tighter and tighter. Demand is growing – particularly in areas like adult social care. Five years from now – short of some miraculous windfall – councils won’t be able to deliver many of the services they do at present, at least in the way they’re used to, and maybe not at all.

Next, you hear something about citizens and communities. Wherever we look for solutions – localism, behaviour change, channel shift, technology, better partnerships and so on – sooner or later relationships with communities crops up as crucial to making at least some of this work. That could mean getting better at co-designing services with citizens, as opposed to calling them out to dull consultation events every few years. At the other end of the spectrum, it could mean local organisations – or even just groups of residents – taking on a service or an aspect of a service that otherwise would no longer be sustained. Both of these activities are happening already, of course, in different places and according to different challenges.

This much we know – and have known it, talked about it and predicted work around it for over the last five years. But what we know less well is how far everyone’s got on in actually doing something about it. And that is what I want to find out.

So, if you work in a local authority, what is your organisation doing to build, nurture or unlock the capacity in your communities? How have you been trying to genuinely, deeply involve local people in redesigning services, or in helping them to change their lives/neighbourhoods for the better in ways that might not involve traditional council services at all? We asked these questions to 30 local authorities in 2011-12 when we researched our publication ‘Unlocking Local Capacity: why active citizens need active councils’. We made the case that empowering citizens didn’t just mean councils ‘getting out of the way’, but that on the contrary, it demanded that councils play a very direct, active role – just working in a different way than many had been used to.

Four years on, we want to revisit those same questions and take stock of what councils are doing or planning now. For some, the constant pressure on budgets and ever-increasing demand will have put innovation around community involvement firmly on the back-burner. For others, those same challenges have been a spur to action, driven by the ambition of certain members, senior managers, officers at the coalface or other local partners to try new things. Are we seeing real, tangible results, or is it all still a work in progress?

Over the next few months I’ll be holding a series of telephone interviews with strategy and policy leads in local authorities to hear about their successes, frustrations, ambitions and plans to build local capacity and move into new, dynamic and impactful collaborations with community partners. I would love to hear from people delivering different things across a range of local authorities across England to build up a picture of what’s happening and what works. So if you’d to add to the debate, please do get in touch.