Why we should be optimistic about local public services

This article was originally published in The MJ, on the 5th June 2018.

It sometimes feels like everything I’ve written over the past few years has begun with the same argument: there is no money, demand is rising and becoming more complex — times are tough so let’s work out what needs to change.

However, in my first piece as chief executive of Collaborate I want to flip this narrative on its head and talk about why we should be optimistic about local public services, and the communities we serve. Collaborate works with councils and other local partners across the country that are taking the art of the possible as their starting point and building from there. While the need to respond in new ways to the tough operating environment is often one reason why places want to work with us, it is very rarely the only driver for change.

The places and people we are working with inspire us because of their determination to improve lives for local people, their commitment to working new ways and above all their optimism. They understand the need to create new stories about the future of their places if the old ones don’t fit any more — stories local people can believe in, and that help form new identities and a sense of purpose.

As with Tower Hamlets and Sutton in recent months, we work with local partners to help them understand how places are changing, the opportunities and needs in the area and how local people feel about their community. We then use these insights to help piece together new stories that articulate the places we want to be and how we are going to become them: about how communities can incorporate new, multiple identities and still find the things that bind them; how local economies can grow in ways that benefit local people; and how we can collaborate in new ways, across sectors and with communities, to get there.

A necessary part of this work is a new appraisal of the role of public institutions. Public services remain critical and must be reformed. Post-Beveridge, post-New Public Management — now it is about local public services working together, guided by common principles and behaviours — intervening early, being integrated and responsive to the real and sometimes complex underlying needs of people, and building on the strengths of people and communities. We are working with places that are building future public services now — they understand this isn’t about the future of local government services alone, but collective, cross-sector local public service reform.

These places are also looking beyond the traditional public service lens, guided instead by a sense of public good and public value. Many of the things that will make a difference to people’s lives are not traditionally provided by the public sector, but in the interests of people and place, local leaders must work with a range of sectors to ensure access to the things that matter. Tower Hamlets’ investment in universal access to free wifi and Oldham’s work on access to low-cost loans, white goods and renewable energy are good examples.

The private sector also has a critical role to play in this reframing; in some of the places we are working, huge corporate wealth and employment sits cheek by jowl with child poverty levels that are among the highest in the country. Local leaders must build partnerships with the private sector that bring its huge potential to bear in ways that will enable places to realise the potential of inclusive growth and create a sense of shared accountability for the big issues such as poverty and inequality.

Community activities and relationships must also be re-valued when reimagining the traditional notion of public services in the context of public goods. They are part of the system that enables people to live well, and the state can create the environment in which this value can be realised by working closely with the third sector and others to create new opportunities for local people to come together. Barking and Dagenham’s ground-breaking Participatory City initiative is one such example.

And we should go further: places must also articulate and build a new social contract with communities, setting out and supporting our role as citizens — looking out for each other, using services appropriately, getting involved in our communities, looking after our health.

None of this is easy; none of it is a quick-fix to the challenges of today. Nor can these changes alone solve the problems that are outside of local control, like the crippling effects of welfare reform or a runaway London housing market. But they can help places identify the range of things that are within reach: the ways we think about the role of public institutions; how we design and deliver public services; how we lead our organisations and places; the ways we support and work with our communities.

Yes, more money would ease the pain and create space to think. Yes, a new Total Place-style approach to local budgets could be helpful. Yes, the fault-lines between health and social care funding remain a huge challenge. And yes, we must make the case for these things. But as the places we are working with demonstrate, there is much we can do now.

I am often surprised by how simple some of this is to begin locally. Building a shared understanding of local data about the challenges and opportunities in a place across local partners, and a shared picture of what the community values and needs. A shared story about the future of a place and a handful of shared priorities. A collective picture of local public sector spending. Aligned and integrated local budgets. Investment in system leadership and governance. Re-designed collaborative services at the frontline. New approaches to commissioning that move beyond competitive contracting. A cross-sector approach to organisational development and staff training. New collaborations with place-based foundations to align ambition and investment; new relationships with the voluntary sector, to name a few.

Collaborate is working on these things and more with our partners, often in it for the long-term alongside organisations and places as they push for the changes that will make a difference to people’s lives. We want to work with ambitious places that take the art of the possible as their starting point to build this future now. We take our lead from you. There is much to be cheerful about.