Collaborate has a resolution for 2019: to be bold about the future we want to create. Specifically, what a Collaborative Society could look like, how you build it, and where the green shoots are already paving the way.
We have invited a number of leading thinkers and do-ers to contribute their ideas about this concept and its implications through a blog series, as well as events and a podcast series in the autumn. In the first blog of this series, Ed Wallis, Head of Policy and Public Affairs from Locality shares his views, focusing how community organisations can be supported to form the bedrock of the #collaborativesociety.
For those committed to positive social change, our current circumstances can feel incredibly daunting.
Long-term trends alone — like rising inequality, an ageing society and climate change — would have placed huge strain on the public sector and required imaginative new policy approaches. But combined with deep austerity and our ongoing political instability, bold solutions of the required scale can seem nigh on impossible to grasp.
Indeed, one of the greatest tragedies of the austerity decade we have been living under is that its impacts have been weighted towards the local level. For this is where the innovation to tackle the economic, social and environmental challenges we face is most likely to be found. As such, we have been failing to catalyse our best hope for the future: the power of community.
It is well established that what characterises our biggest policy problems is their complexity. They are therefore unable to be solved by top-down plans or simple market incentives. Instead they require deep and lasting relationships to be forged, with power widely dispersed and services joined-up around the distinct needs of every person.
At Locality, we believe that community organisations are particularly well-suited to this task. They are locally rooted and trusted, and there for the long term. They have strong existing relationships with local people, especially with those whom public services traditionally find “hard to reach”. They are multi-purpose organisations that can respond flexibly and provide services which are tailored to the individual.
What’s more, they also help commissioned services add up to so much more than the sum of their parts. They do this by linking service users with other community development activities, encouraging social action and volunteering, getting people connected locally and building self-confidence and pride.
Performing this role effectively is, of course, hugely dependent on the health of the wider system. Many Locality members were originally set up in the face of egregious system failure. This quote from a Locality member formed on a council estate in Hull in the early nineties captures the origin story for many community organisations:
“What the residents on this estate did was: band together and say this isn’t good enough. No one else is going to help us. No one else is bothered. We’ve got to do it ourselves. Let’s not talk about it: let’s do it.” Stuart Spandler, Goodwin Development Trust
At the heart of this is the idea of community ownership. If poor communities take ownership of physical assets, this gives them real power. They are less dependent on the vagaries of political decision-making or the lottery of grant funding. They can earn their own income, generate and retain wealth for their neighbourhood, and invest in the services and activities they know their community wants — rather than waiting (experience suggests in vain) for someone else to choose to do something on their behalf.
In times like these — defined, as they are politically, by a particularly catastrophic mix of chaos and inertia — these stories of communities coming together to take action for themselves are incredibly inspiring. But this clearly isn’t how things should be. Imagine how transformative community organisations could be if they were enabled to play a collaborative role in a changing system, rather than having to kick against a failing one?
At their best, community organisations are a critical cog that make our places tick. They work interdependently with the local public and private sectors, delivering public sector contracts, coordinating services at a neighbourhood-level, and supporting local businesses. And they build and strengthen the roots of the system, working in partnership with local community groups, residents, neighbours and friends.
So how do we support community organisations to maximise their role in creating and sustaining a “Collaborative Society”? Some of the work Locality has been doing over the last few years offers some clues.
First, we need to support community ownership. There is a growing consensus that community ownership is not only the critical bedrock for strong and successful community organisations, it can also bring wide-ranging benefits to neighbourhoods. When our swimming pools, community centres, nurseries and cafes are owned by local people, they can drive regeneration, spur social action and give people a real sense of control.
Second, we need to transform commissioning to make it “local by default”. Recent years have seen councils trying to find savings by outsourcing services at scale: bundling up services into big contracts that go to large providers at the lowest price possible. Not only has this been creating the wrong kind of services, it’s been shutting out smaller, local organisations and preventing them playing their vital role in the local service landscape. Our Keep it Local campaign is showing where local authority commissioning is taking a different path: building strong local partnerships, sharing power, and maximising local strengths.
Third, we need to completely reframe how we think about power. Instead of looking towards Westminster, we need to focus on unlocking the vast reservoir of ideas, energy and commitment that lives in our neighbourhoods. Our Commission on the Future of Localism set out a framework for how we might do this by building a new “power partnership” between councils and communities, which we’re now exploring in practice in four places.
These are some key steps we could take to help create a more supportive environment for community organisations. And we know from our work there are lots of places across the country where this is starting to happen.
But the real task now is to join up and develop a much wider vision for our places and how we change them for the better — and the idea of a Collaborative Society can help us do that. So we’re excited to be part of the conversation: to see what we can contribute, what we can learn, and how we can build a Collaborative Society together.
Locality is hosting a Keep it Local conference on 12 June that brings together leaders and practitioners from local government and community organisations to help you explore what this means for your place and community.