A powerful light at the end of the tunnel

By Donna Hall | 25 March 2020
  • Donna Hall

The current COVID-19 pandemic has thrown so much of the way we live our lives and the way we run public services into sharp focus. Now we are clearer on what is important and what isn’t. And, unexpectedly, we have also discovered a bright and shining light at the end of this very dark tunnel.

This crisis has brought about a radically different approach to setting local priorities and equally brought into clear relief the importance of working as a whole public service system that engages with communities in their neighbourhoods.

At the New Local Government Network (NLGN) we hosted an incredible national conference along with partners including City of London, Power to Change and FutureGov – the title was ‘Stronger Things – Unleashing Community Power’ – a few days before the pandemic really hit London. Little did we know how much we would be shown the power of communities in the weeks after as a direct response to the pandemic. There was so much passion and energy in the room. Passion which is translating into real life action in neighbourhoods as you read this.

At NLGN we have been inspired by the ground-breaking work of the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, the thought-leading revolutionary economist Elinor Ostrom. It is heartening to see Elinor’s thinking starting to be embraced by both the NHS and the 70 progressive councils we work with as part of our national network.

Community power is clearly gaining more and more traction. Together we are creating a real and positive social movement that works by unleashing the natural power of communities. This is the light at the end of the tunnel we have been trying to describe over the past year since the publication of the Community Paradigm report.

NLGN’s next steps include reports on community mobilisation, community rights, and a big, practical resource to help councils and local people realise the potential of community power. All of this will be informed by Elinor Ostrom’s scholarship. At the heart of her renowned work are the ideals of localism and real democracy – and the need to work in meaningful populations, find common purpose, and allow a culture of stewardship to emerge if we are to manage our public services sustainably.

In our upcoming report, we will be adapting Ostrom’s work for a series of design principles for community power in the UK – a practical guide for all public servants working together with local people in the places where they live. Here are a few of those principles:

1. Integration is local. Policies and plans sometimes only make sense when they are applied to local places. This can be an integrated place-based team with doctors, schools, council workers, police, housing officers, mental health and acute services all functioning in concert. But working together around people, in a place, is key. If we want to pivot to a more joined-up and preventative way of doing things, it will need to happen at the scale of communities.

2. Efficiency is local. Key to Ostrom’s work was her observation that the sustainable and efficient allocation of resources is best achieved at the local place or neighbourhood level, and not by external agencies. In turn a local culture of stewardship emerges. Local, integrated, place-based teams at very granular levels should work intensively with local communities to build strong networks.

3. Legitimacy means open governance. For community power to survive past the end of whatever crisis required its emergence, we need a focus on culture as well as belonging. The story of place is often poorly articulated and both local government and health are key players in the creation of the common purpose. The Wigan Deal was a powerful story of place and the most important feature of it was constancy of purpose. It was a 10-year plan that we stuck with year after year. The story of a place is critical, as is persistence even through the cynicism and resistance of others, so community power is not just considered a flash in the pan, or another ephemeral management style that will disappear once the money runs out. All this means that the role of local government itself must be rethought, to help connect people, human to human, around the currency of neighbourhoods.

These are the most challenging times most of us have lived through. We can choose to close down and retreat into the darkness or we can swim upwards, along with so many others, towards the light of a new community power at the precious heart of our public services.

Professor Donna Hall CBE is chair of the New Local Government Network

@ProfDonnaHall

Staying afloat while rocking the boat

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