News and Comment

How to move from giving the public a voice, to enabling them to have a role

Friday 23 November 2012


This is an edited version of a speech given by OPM Fellow Rob Francis at yesterday’s annual iNetwork conference in Manchester, on the future of public services.  

“The idea of ‘unlocking local capacity’ has emerged as a common theme that runs through much of the work we do with local councils around the country.  In our Unlocking Local Capacity report, we explored the different things that councils are doing to make the most of the assets, ideas and energy around them. In it, we talk of an important distinction between ‘unlocking’ and not ‘unleashing’: arguing that a more active, engaged, responsible society won’t come about from councils just ‘getting out of the way’.

In practice, unlocking local capacity requires many different things of public organisations. These typically include: using resources to build, strengthen or augment the assets of others; forging new sorts of relationships with voluntary groups and their work; and undertaking different sorts of engagement and consultation approaches that prioritise citizens and their energy.

Over the last decade, public services have become much better at consultation and engagement, involving the public in decisions about how services look and feel. But reflecting on the push towards localism and the many examples of citizen activism up and down the country, it feels as though that isn’t enough. If we’re really going to unlock capacity, we have to move from giving citizens a voice in decision-making to enabling citizens to have a role in actually making things happen.

The notion of unlocking capacity also encourages us to challenge our traditional conception of what we in public services mean by  ‘resources’ . It begs the question: ‘what resources are out there in the community, and how do we bring those to bear?’ This isn’t about giving councils an excuse to step back and tell local people ‘over to you’, but it does potentially change their role. That’s where the message about The Big Society became problematic – for too many people it felt like a euphemism for ‘we’re going to do less, so you’re going to do more’. But it shouldn’t be that black and white, and it shouldn’t start with the cuts, it should start more positively with the people and what changes they want to make in their lives or in their community.

Take Castlehaven Timebank in Camden for example. Hosted by Castlehaven Community Association and jointly financed by the council, the volunteering scheme generated over 2,500 time credits exchanged in its first year, and with over 150 members it has successfully engaged people who might not otherwise get involved in community work.

Or what about Shropshire, where the council has been exploring how best to support elected members to play more of an enabling/facilitating that makes the most not only of their time, but of the ideas and energy in their communities?

Based on the work we’ve been finding out about and supporting in local areas over the last year, here are a handful of practical tips we would suggest councils bear in mind when working to both unlock and foster capacity in their communities.

  • Learn to recognise capacity everywhere. Move at the pace of the fastest but don’t leave others behind: that means taking different approaches in different places. If one parish council is able and willing to take on the running of a local facility, for instance, support them to do so even if others aren’t yet ready.
  • As we’ve said unlocking capacity isn’t the same as just unleashing it. It’s not just about removing barriers, there’s usually a process of helping people acquire the skills they need to make things happen, which requires positive action from the council.
  • Understand what motivates and interests people, and appeal to them on that basis. Councils should be open to ‘keeping hold of the boring stuff’ – such as administrative burdens – if that means volunteers with energy and capacity can get on with doing the things they want to do.
  • Assets are a better place to start than deficits. Encouraging people to start with what they have, rather than identifying what they don’t, can help get results. Building on what’s already there helps people to be more positive about the status quo, rather than just focusing on what’s missing. And if people are more positive, they’re likely to be more energised and willing to get involved.
  • Be prepared to lose some control but not to lose momentum. Once you’ve started that ‘unlocking’ process by surfacing the ideas and energy in a community, don’t be tempted to start sifting and refining all that input into something perfect before going back to the people who contributed. Keeping those conversations going with local people whilst their ideas are half-formed might initially feel unsafe, but it’s better to lose that control and keep things simmering than it is to spend months ‘perfecting’ those inputs while energy and enthusiasm out there in the community drains away.