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Joining up Community Involvement

Authors: Gabriel Chanan and Colin Miller

The incoming UK government in 2015 will be faced with depleted public services and demoralised local communities. Many people feel that there is a dwindling connection between the democratic process and decisions that affect their daily lives. In response, there is currently something of a revival of community-empowerment rhetoric in party political language warming up for the election. Labour, in particular, is beginning to talk again about strengthening communities in ways which go well beyond ‘big society’ tinkering: local communities to be given a say over policing priorities, high street developments, hospital changes, school standards.

What’s missing so far is how this would all join up. It’s the same community that the different policy silos need to engage with. The different agencies also need each other’s support, and the local community is the ground on which they meet: good housing makes for good health, good health makes for good education, good education makes for good jobs, good jobs make for good housing...

The effects work in all directions. But the vision will be difficult to fulfil if each of the services tries to engage the community separately, through different committees, rules and language. In People and Services Partnerships we argue for a system of neighbourhood partnerships in which staff from all services working on that patch sit down with a strong forum of residents and community groups and tackle problems together. Some problems could be solved in the neighbourhood. Others would need to be linked to other neighbourhoods or remitted up to local authority level. If a neighbourhood has around 5,000 people, a principle local authority could contain fifty neighbourhoods. So community power implies also a local authority-level system for linking neighbourhood activities, resolving cross-neighbourhood issues and taking other issues up to higher levels where necessary.

Parts of this picture already exist in some areas. The last Labour government made headway towards a more coordinated system of participation. There were many successful experiments in local partnership which can be learned from. It is important to universalise and fulfil this experience rather than spending precious years learning it again. A 2015 government could save years of trial and error, and much money, by creating a coordinated framework for community participation across the board from the word go.

But much community engagement momentum has been lost not just by cuts in services but by privatisation. As Ed Miliband said in his recent Hugo Young lecture, privatisation tends to discourage community and user involvement. But 50% of public services are already privatised. This can’t be allowed to mean that community involvement in the service should simply be allowed to dwindle away. A requirement for community involvement should be written into all commissioning of services.

It need not be a matter of complicated negotiations over budgets. It is often simpler to designate a margin of officer time. Front line workers, whoever employs them, are often keen to participate but are held back by managers who are naturally under pressure to deliver specialist targets. It needs to be shown how community involvement helps deliver those targets more cost-effectively.

This is not just a matter of devolving power to localities. There is a temptation to equate localism with spread of power, but it does not necessarily follow. Simply shifting power from central to local could erode equality, entitlement and redistribution. The kind of power that communities need more of is, firstly, the power to hold local agencies to account for better delivery of national entitlements. So you don’t get more local power by ‘giving away’ national power.

Then there is the power to create local solutions to complex local problems, which is largely a matter of flexible collaboration between residents, community groups and the spectrum of service agencies. Again, the agencies need to be required to let their front line workers collaborate, because they mostly won’t do it spontaneously. Agencies and their managers need to grasp the vision and make the space for it to happen. And this, again, needs directives from the top in each policy area, not just a loosening of reins. Contrary to some of the rhetoric, this is not about shifting power from central to local but sharing the power of government, services and users to create greater impact overall. It is a systematic approach to what is sometimes called ‘coproduction’.

Correspondingly, we need community capacity building on the ground that works across issues and all types of community group, to build up the local partnerships and ensure strong community voices in them. Building community strength means in practice building the strengths of community and voluntary organisations in every locality. Community development provides many of the necessary skills. But we need a reconfigured form of practice, welcoming all public service deliverers as key allies, and linked to a comprehensive local strategy and measured outcomes.

Coordination of community involvement should be the business of the whole Cabinet. What is needed is a powerful working arrangement between the Cabinet Office, Local Authorities, Policing, Health, Education and the other services, built on an understanding of the multifaceted role of local communities. Given the economic pressures, it will be essential to demonstrate the social value and cost benefits of systematic community engagement. In its final year the last government produced research laying a solid basis for measurement of how well local voluntary and community groups are thriving, and how well local public bodies are collaborating with them. 

It needs dusting off.


The publisher is The Centre for Welfare Reform.

Joining Up Community Involvement © Gabriel Chanan and Colin Miller 2014.

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.