We need to think about how communities thrive rather than merely survive, says Anna Randle chief executive of Collaborate

This article was originally published in The LGC, on the 9th October 2019.

Brexit, austerity, rising demands on services: the to-do list of any local authority politician or officer can seem overwhelming today, and survival an achievement in itself.

But few people enter local government to achieve basic survival of institutions or services: most are deeply motivated to do better for their communities and their places. So what should this look like today, and what could this look like tomorrow?

We are lucky to work with many forward-thinking councils: places that are taking the art of the possible as their starting point and radically rethinking how to create better outcomes in their communities.

Such places are stretching the boundaries of their authority and playing creatively in the vacuum generated by a government that remains myopically focused on a single issue. They are taking their intrinsic motivation to do better by local people as their starting point, unpicking old assumptions, behaviours and ways of working and creating the future state right here, right now.

We think we can see the green shoots of an emerging alternative future in this work, so we are lifting our heads from the day-to-day of our projects to ask more fundamental questions about what we, and our partners, are ultimately working towards.

If we pay closer attention to the shifts in thinking, practice and culture we are helping to bring about, what will we learn?

We have framed our inquiry around the idea of the collaborative society: an organising principle for the shifts we think we are seeing that are not just about social change and the future of public services, but also the future of the economy, society, and also the ways we organise and relate to one another.

So what are we learning from the places with which we are working? We think there are some common themes embedded in these projects that are worth highlighting.

  • Forming new relationships: between institutions and people based on new social contracts and reciprocal responsibility
  • Rebalancing of power: between state and citizens, between different layers of government, between different sectors and even within organisations (especially hierarchies)
  • Tackling complex problems through collaboration rather than through heroic leadership or simple solutions that ignore the real nature of the challenge
  • Understanding problems through the lens of systems, not silos, and drawing the boundaries of our investigations wider, exploring deep root causes
  • Growing more collaborative behaviours, relationships, organisations and leadership, to effect and enable change through networks, movements and relationships as well as through organisations and hierarchies
  • ‘Thinking big’: looking beyond the service lens towards a holistic vision for the future of place, including the future local economy and the community of the future — how people participate in the life of the place.

All of these themes have significant implications for local government, how councils work, think, behave and act. But the last one seems particularly important.

We are often struck by the fact that most places have some public service reform work under way — small or large scale, within a whole service area (such as children’s services) or within a smaller-scale pilot. But these initiatives are often separate from the core direction of the wider organisation. This means places lack a clear sense of what this reform could be helping them work towards at scale. And they are often still focused principally on public services. If we look beyond public services, how do we create places where people can thrive?

Some places are operating with this level of ambition, seeking to change the whole system.

Oldham MBC’s long-standing cooperative council agenda is a good example of this, and its northern roots project is symbolic of its holistic approach to change, bringing together local employment, community participation and environmental sustainability.

Barking & Dagenham LBC’s three-pronged approach to creating a participatory culture, inclusive growth and public service reform is another.

The ground-breaking Wigan Deal is the best-known example.

And Nesta’s new Upstream Collaborative project will identify others, working with around 20 places that want to fundamentally shift the operating mode, thinking hard about the future of place and community, and working purposefully towards that future.

Many will say local authorities alone cannot change the future of local places, that too much is beyond the control of local actors.

We agree with that: central government, the business sector, other local public services, all of us as individuals have our part to play. And yet these places do show just how much can be done, with a hefty dose of bravery and vision.

So much of this is about reframing purpose, changing culture and behaviours, sharing power, mobilising local people and partners, stepping out of the comfort zone and focusing relentlessly on what local people want and need as the guiding force for everything.

We want to help nurture this future, by identifying its qualities and drawing attention to them, and by supporting the local places in their work. We also want to look beyond the public service world, connecting in others who hold pieces of the jigsaw.

Our recent event with economist Kate Raworth and social activist Immy Kaur from Impact Hub Birmingham, as well as Oldham council, highlighted how much can be learned from looking beyond the usual frame of reference.

We need to look both within and beyond the sector for help.

Of one thing we are sure: the future is about more than just survival, and all of us working in and with local government must raise our heads to look further ahead.

We think the future is about a collaborative society: thriving places and thriving communities, based on a common understanding of our responsibilities to one another as humans and to the planet.

But to get there, we need to work together.

Anna Randle, chief executive, Collaborate