Time to get serious, says Annabel Davidson Knight.

Last week I was invited to contribute to a Co-operative Neighbourhoods workshop alongside a range of actors from the community, voluntary and local public sectors from across the North East of England. The purpose was to explore the relationship between community-led action and public policy objectives — national and local. Communities and voluntary sector bodies are an increasingly crucial part of the landscape of local services to the public (whether informally or through formal contract arrangements) yet remain on the margins when it comes to the design of broader service provision.

Reclaim the Lanes in Newcastle. Image courtesy of NCL.ac.uk

We heard from an impressive array of community leaders on projects supporting and catalysing local action with (and without) the support of local public sector bodies; from Reclaim the Lanes, a project to create vibrant community space in the back lanes in the West End of Newcastle to FeedFinder, a location based review service created by Digital Civics for breastfeeding mothers to rate and review breastfeeding-friendly locations. While the impact on communities and individuals in each of these examples was clear, the story of collaboration across sectors was a mixed one — success when individuals were able to step beyond institutional boundaries to support one another and achieve shared aims, and challenges in the form of red tape and a culture of ‘computer says no’ which sometimes threatened the very viability of initiatives.

The success of Feedfinder has enabled the same team to create App Movement, a platform for the community commissioning of mobile applications

We know that roles, responsibilities and relations across the sectors are changing. Arguably, nowhere is this more apparent than at the local level as austerity bites and councils have to make tough budgeting decisions while also finding creative ways to support communities through new models and forms of collaboration. This new era of ‘services to the public’ is requiring local public services to work with a much wider range of players to achieve social aims, from business to education to communities and citizens. This requires new forms of cross-sectoral working across systems and processes — in leadership, in workforces, in funding and commissioning.

But this is only part of the picture. Truly understanding and taking seriously the value of community action means public services investing differently, shifting thinking, culture and practice. Taking it seriously means a deeper level of commitment, putting community action at the heart of the public service reform agenda, where the two become mutually reinforcing with one informing and supporting the other. This is a model we are supporting Oldham to explore and we continue to test different mechanisms and actions for turning that ambition into reality.

Returning to the session, a number of key reflections emerged which help point the way for a new relationship between public services and the community sector:

  1. We need to get better at recognising the value of community action — the case for investment can be made more strongly to those who hold the purse strings by better understanding their incentives, politics, drivers… How can we independently and collectively push back on the view that investing in community action is a ‘nice-to-have’?
  2. Resilient, thriving communities are only possible when you invest in community action — this cannot be done with a view to filling funding gaps emerging in core public services. Rather, a key value of the work of the community and voluntary sector is protective, preventative — without which outcomes for people worsen, become acute (and result in higher spend for the public purse).
  3. The old system with its rigid structures and Public Management frameworks had significant cultural drawbacks in the form of territorial behaviour and box-ticking among others. The newly emerging system, which has greater flexibility and involves a wider range of players and sectors, must not create its own cultural drawbacks. Looser structures and cross-sectoral working requires forming and sustaining new forms of partnerships. How do we avoid these becoming cliques, a new form of establishment which similarly locks out citizens?
  4. Building trusted relationships in communities and real partnership working takes time. For anyone who has tried to do it, this is blindingly obvious. Yet there’s rarely any money for this delicate, early coalition-building work. There is instead a prevalent culture of ‘project-itis’ where community organisations have to keep coming up with new, shiny projects, and find it impossible to find money for sustaining their work. Those with money and power need to recognise this in the way they commission, give grants and support communities — no more grants issued in February to be spent by financial year end!

In our work in places across the country, we continue to support areas to test and refine new models which invest in communities as a means to achieving policy goals and — most importantly — better outcomes for people. This is easy to say and much harder to do. We welcome insights from all those up for the challenge!