Calculating Community Capacity

Author: Simon Duffy

I can understand why some people fear that giving people control of their own resources may seem to threaten collective action. However I think that some of the resistance to strategies for citizen empowerment - like personal budgets - is based on a romantic vision of public services as forms of collective action.

I do not think most people experience public services as a form of collective community action. I am very grateful that I don’t need to pay the doctor for their support. But I do not feel that I am participating in the some form of collective action while I wait in A&E. When I go to give blood I hope to make some contribution to the health and well being of my community, just as when I pay my taxes, but I am not even really involved in the blood donation service - even as the blood pumps from my arm. I am passive.

The value of collective action

There is nothing wrong with personal empowerment, it is an essential starting point, but the capacity for citizens to make their own lives better becomes even stronger when people work together. When people collaborate they create new relationships that allow their needs to be met even more effectively and at a local level.

There are many forms of collective action, but 3 seem very relevant to the challenge of reforming the welfare state:

  1. Peer support - People, especially people connected by common experiences and challenges, can provide high quality support, information and guidance to each other. Whereas public services often miss the opportunity to connect people to each other, creating dependence and isolation (Duffy, 2013). There are multiple routes to promote peer support, and it must play a central part in the emerging strategy (Duffy & Fulton, 2010).
  2. Neighbourhood action - Neighbourhoods, the places where we live, are also critical to effective local action. Some of the most interesting development work in the UK has shown that those areas which are often ‘written-off’ by public services as ‘difficult’ or ‘deprived’ are quite capable of leading their own renewal. Again the key seems to be a very different approach by public services - recognising and supporting leadership from within the community, rather than defining problems and solutions from outside. 
  3. Civil society leadership - Sometimes communities become organised into formal civil society groups: charities, mutuals, associations, trusts, federations or businesses. These groups must be treated as essential partners in the process of transforming Barnsley. Often, as good ideas or innovations must be turned into business opportunities or into organised systems of community action. And it is usually these civil society groups that will be most effective at organising and sustaining this kind of activity. Unfortunately procurement practices, privatisation and centralisation by Whitehall has rather weakened civil society in the UK, so it will take a new approach to strengthen civil society infrastructure (Howells & Yapp, 2013).

The need to focus on capacity not need

One of the problems for public services in approaching this problem is the tendency for systems to be orientated towards need not capacity. This is a natural consequence of the logic of public services - which were established to meet need - and which create systems of power by which to define and meet need. In the process communities and citizens are ranked and graded on the basis of need.

But this is problematic in several ways. Primarily, by only identifying need and by seeing public services as the means to meet that need, it becomes impossible to spot capacity and encourage local leadership. The pioneers of the C2 Model of community development challenge this approach by starting with an assumption that communities can identify and solve many of their own problems, and that they already have the necessary leadership within them (Gillespie, 2011). They then seek to build new partnerships between local communities and public services. The impact of this approach can be powerful. The Townstal estate in Devon saw, amongst many other improvements:

  • Significant fall in crime rate
  • Teenage pregnancy rate fell to zero
  • Childhood accident rate fell by 50%
  • 100% improvement in SATS results for boys
  • Unemployment dropped by 71%

This is community change led by the community itself - in an area that public services had written off.

Figure 1 The C2 Model of Community Development

It may also be useful to reframe commissioning around the idea of Community Sourcing. Instead of procuring services and promoting privatisation there is good reason to believe that commissioning can be refocused on the development of local community assets - building synergy between statutory services and civil society. In particular this approach looks to promote skills within communities and recycle resources so that local spending drives further economic development (Yapp & Howells, 2013).

At a deeper level this also raises interesting questions about how we think about need and capacity in our communities. See for instance the data set out in the tables below. Table 1 looks at some of the published data on the demography of Barnsley:

Demographic Data from Barnsley
BarnsleyPer Ward (av.)Per person in very bad health
Under 18s48,6902,31912
Average per dwelling24,99625
Activities limited a lot29,1471,3887
Activities limited a little26,1211,2446
No disability171,9538,37942
18-64 free from paid work38,9421,8549
18-64 75% free from paid work8,0863852
18-64 50% free from paid work22,3571,0655
18-64 25% free from paid work61,1022,91015
18-64 lost to paid work12,0345733
Over 65 and active20,5889805
Carer for < 20hrs15,4737374
Carer for 20-49 hrs4,0751941
Carer for 50+ hrs7,6193632
in Very Good Health96,1944,58123
in Good Health77,6493,69819
in Fair Health37,9561,8079
in Bad Health15,2787284
in Very Bad Health4,1441971

When we examine some of this data from the perspective of a place like Barnsley as a whole then it seems natural to focus on need. For example, 55,000 people have some kind of disability. This seems like a lot of people and by the very nature of the terminology we tend to focus on the costs we may believe are implicit in the category ‘disability’. However we can change our perspective if we apply these 4 strategies:

1. Avoid negative assumptions

There is a tendency for official data to define people by categories that can be useful, but are often misleading. For example if 55,000 have a disability in Barnsley that is 55,000 people with capacities, relationships, passions and a contribution to make. These people should not be ‘defined by’ their disability. In fact for many the disability itself is an opportunity to create identity and community. In the same way it is also important to remember that the 49,000 children or the 40,000 people over 65 are also people full of talent and with much to offer back to Barnsley.

2. Pay attention to capacity

In the same way we can reexamine unemployment data. Official data tends to focus on unemployment as merely a negative state, as if the only valuable activity is carrying out paid work and paying taxes. Valuable as these activities are (in the right balance) they are not the only valuable activities.

A person free from paid work is a potential citizen, whereas a person working more than 40 hours per week is lost to citizenship. The overvaluation of paid work creates a damaging view of human potential. We can reframe unemployment as citizenship in waiting.

People who care, volunteer or have needs also play a valuable social role. In fact a good life requires a balance between these different activities. This stands out if we simply invert the figures for unemployment and identify how much time people have available for citizenship after we subtract the time lost to paid work or caring.

Estimating Carer & Citizen Capacity
NumberAv. HoursRateValue (£
Caring <20 hrs15,4731015120.6
Caring 20-494,0753515111.2
Caring 50+7,6196015356.6
Free from work38,94235151,063.1
75% free8,0862515157.7
50% free22,3571815313.9
25% free61,102515238.3
Lost to work12,0340150
Over 65 and active20,5883515562.0

On this simple (and admittedly playful) analysis we can see that Barnsley has the equivalent of £1.7 billion worth of human capacity available to it. Admittedly much of this (not all of it) is not currently being used to improve the community of Barnsley. But the potential is there.

3. Include the private

Remembering that private expenditure on health, housing or care is also part of the community's assets is important. It is also be interesting to consider the private expenditure which is not available to the community. Money which is spent locally has a multiplier effect and is recycled back into the local community to the benefit of all.

This can also take unexpected forms, for example expenditure, like car insurance, which leaves the local economy is mostly to cover risks which are in some respects already covered by local health and emergency services. Some countries, such as Australia, have seen agreements between insurers and the state which reduce costs and transfer funding and responsibility to the state from the insurer.

4. Think smaller

Official data tends to use big numbers, but capacity only becomes clearer with small numbers. For instance, there are over 4,000 people in very bad health in Barnsley. yet for each one person who is seriously ill there are 55 who are not and there are also the equivalent of 16 people available with the free time to act as citizens. In fact the vast majority of people have some citizen capacity, with only 3 in 55 completely lost to citizenship by working very long hours.

Looking at human societies from the perspective of smaller communities shows up an enormous level of positive capacity, far outweighing what is commonly deemed as need. Even those needs can also be seen more positively, often as the glue that connects communities together.

Innovation in local governance

Given this analysis it is particularly encouraging to see a place like Barnsley exploring a radical shift in its local governance - creating local forums where councillors begin to work as leaders in partnership with their local communities - helping to identify and unlock capacity. Taking the estimates for capacity in the 21 wards suggests that there is a wealth of capacity available to any community that can become alive to its own power.

In addition the growing focus on the 38 GP practices as hubs for community change will also be very useful. In practice GPs are often the most well used place in the community (Duffy & Hyde, 2011) and they are in a good position to have good insight into local need.

However there will be major challenges ahead:

  • DWP rules often reduce people’s ability volunteer or tie people into Whitehall-based work programmes or workfare schemes. This will need to be challenged if the full capacity of the community is to be galvanised.
  • All of these new governance structures, at every level, are very new and even wards are relatively large (average size = 11,000 people). It will take time for new conversations to develop and new leadership to emerge. There will be external pressures for change, different patterns emerging and possibly further structural change imposed. Managing to maintain progress in such a fast changing environment can be tricky.
  • Bureaucracies tend to have process for managing conflict and making decisions. Leadership from community tends to arise organically and unexpectedly. Those with formal leadership roles (Councillors, GPs, officers) may not be used to supporting leadership from within informal systems and their own roles may also conflict.

Exploring the new forms of governance and leadership across Barnsley will be one of the biggest challenges ahead. This will require strategic leadership and a willingness to hold back from rushing to simplistic structural solutions.

Fortunately it seems that Barnsley’s commitment to self-directed support has been helpful here. By shifting power and control over most funding in adult social care towards citizens the Council no longer has the primary function of ‘purchasing services for people’ instead it must explore with people what are the problems they face and how best can people be supported to solve those problems themselves. This is a healthy starting point.

Yet the central question must be:

How do we learn together about what approaches are really working?

When exploring new ground, where there is no obvious pattern that can simply be replicated, it is important that there is an open approach to learning, sharing information and evaluating results. Without some reasonable comparative measures and the discipline of regular reflection there is always a danger that bad habits will develop and go unchecked. Attending to community capacity does not mean abandoning research and good governance - but it does require a new approach.


Duffy S (2013) Imagining the Future: Citizenship. Glasgow, IRISS.

Duffy S & Fulton K (2010) Architecture for Personalisation. Sheffield, Centre for Welfare Reform.

Duffy S & Hyde C (2011) Women at the Centre. Sheffield, Centre for Welfare Reform.

Gillespie J (2011) Positively Local. Sheffield, Centre for Welfare Reform.

Howells C & Yapp C (2013) Commissioning and Community Sourcing. Sheffield, Centre for Welfare Reform.

Yapp C & Howells C (2013) Community Sourcing and Social Care. Sheffield, Centre for Welfare Reform.

The publisher is the Centre for Welfare Reform.

Calculating Community Capacity © Simon Duffy 2016.

All Rights Reserved. No part of this paper may be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher except for the quotation of brief passages in reviews.