Changing communities – reflections on catalysing community evolution

Alice Casey’s recent article on Nesta’s Systemic Innovation discussion series raises some interesting questions about the future of communities and public service reform.

I like Alice’s suggestion of three promising ways that innovation is happening in practice:

Structures that value collaboration, relationships that enable power sharing and internet platforms that reveal patterns, help scale and lead to behaviour change.

It’s right to point to the importance of structures that value collaboration, but it’s not right to suggest that these are anything new. Whilst examples of projects like Spice and of community groups evolving to become providers of holistic community services are good to hear about, they are not new. Community trading/exchange schemes that are not based on financial interaction are have been around a long time. Timebanks are now well established, but Local Exchange Trading Schemes (LETS) have been around since the 1980s. I suspect that some bright spark advising a Minister (or Shadow Minister) decided they needed repackaging as something ‘new’ and so there’s a sudden rush to rebrand an old idea in a new wrapper. And, just to be clear I’m not suggesting Timebanks are bad simply because they aren’t LETS and both have their place. But all too often we dismiss decades of learning in the rush to reinvent the wheel for political reasons. The tendency for politicians to reinvent and rebrand the same ideas, without any regard for their heritage and learning from the past is a particular bugbear of mine.

Suggesting community groups providing holistic services is merely an emerging phenomenon is wide of the mark. For over a century the Settlement movement has sought to provide holistic services that meet the needs of local communities, more recently Development Trusts have operated in a similar way (and now the two movements are incorporated into a single association, with the creation of Locality[1]). And more generally, community groups are constantly joining up the dots and filling in the gaps of state provision.

Nonetheless, not every community group or development trust values collaboration and we should not confuse the governance model (eg not for profit) with the way they work – some community groups, charities, local authorities, for-profit-companies value collaboration and some don’t. I do however, agree wholeheartedly that to support and scale up approaches that place greater emphasis and value on collaboration, we need to see significant change in local authority behaviours – along, I would add, with central government and the rest of the public sector, and pretty much everyone else.

The Social Value Act is a useful hook, but if we expect it to be our salvation then we need to think again. I have been trying to do some serious thinking (as part of my work at Lambeth) about how we respond to some of these challenges – such as embedding a robust but manageable assessment of social value in our commissioning cycle. But there is a long way to go before we will have real confidence in any holistic measurement of impact.

Alice refers to ‘relationships that enable power sharing’ based on a shift from a deficit model, to a strengths based approach, which is a very positive development. But again, from my experience of trying to implement this sort of shift, the tricky bit is not in articulating the change, but in working out how it fits together with other bits of the system. For example, what happens when the priorities and ambitions of a neighbourhood differ markedly from the political priorities of an elected council (or indeed national government)? Do we take localism to its natural conclusion and devolve control fully to every neighbourhood? It’s a brave politician that would advocate that….Turkeys…Christmas? And just in case anyone’s wondering…I don’t believe for one second that Eric Pickles brand of smoke and mirrors centralising localism is doing anything of the sort.

But even putting that to one side, there’s still the question of how we connect the unearthed community assets with the state’s resource allocations, prioritisation and service delivery. At the most basic and practical level, these two approaches simply do not fit easily together.

Co-production is also an important part of the jigsaw, and citing Holy Cross (a project I know well) as a good example of co-production is fine, but it is one good, but small, project. How can coproduction work across an entire local authority boundary? In fact administrative boundaries aren’t always helpful, so we need a system that works across ward or council boundaries, as well as across departmental and service silos. And, if we’re properly taking account of social value – then it becomes even more complicated – as we start to ask, what the impact of Holy Cross (or every other individual project) is on the local economy, environment, cultural life, community safety, wellbeing….the list goes on.

Technology too offers potential benefits that can be utilised to support online and offline networking and collaboration. Though of course there are still considerable challenges we face in bridging the unequal availability and capability to use these new platforms. Nonetheless, progress is being made, where technology is applied in ways that fit with people’s everyday lives. And yet too few institutions have made the shift from broadcast to interaction in the way they use technology. There’s a reason social media has the name….it’s social, interactive, communal, shared; a point lost on a great many institutions.

So for me, the simple bit is agreeing that a strength based approach, co-production and using emerging technology are essential ingredients. What I’m not yet clear on – and have spent much time thinking about recently – is what the recipe is and the method we need to use to cook up some change.



[1] Locality was created from the merger of bassac – the membership group for settlements and action centres – with the Development Trusts Association.


4 thoughts on “Changing communities – reflections on catalysing community evolution

  1. Thanks for the useful critique Toby – some great points there – basically yes – many of these great ideas have been around for a while and do get various levels of repackaging over time – I guess what I’m wondering is- right now are we now at a point where these many projects and ideas might finally spread and root more widely beyond pocket-sized examples? Do we have enough of a mass of tried and tested smaller examples to start joining things up or is there something else still stopping diffusion? If so, how to change this?

    Three further points of yours that really stood out in your blog above that would be worth further investigation:

    1)Who is furthest ahead with “embedding a robust but manageable assessment of social value in our commissioning cycle.”and can the Social Value Act help this process and create impetus to work together on this…?

    2) “how can we connect the unearthed community assets with the state’s resource allocations, prioritisation and service delivery.” and can digital platforms play a more significant role in making this easier and increasing uptake? Again, who is really pushing ahead with this?

    3)What are the ‘systemic barriers’ in a very specific and practical sense that stop the ‘three ingredients’ covered from making impact within a given local area – and what current opportunities do we have to change the status quo? (Be great to get thoughts on the nuts and bolts of making this work from experiences of Lambeth and other LA’s)

  2. hi Alice,

    oooh, lots more brain food in your comment…worthy of a post (or several) in its own right, but v quick thoughts on your questions:
    for the first two, i would say that work we’re doing Lambeth is as good a place as any to start. i’ve been talking to/working with a couple of other LAs….but (on Social Value particularly) not sure there are many beyond the thinking stage… (beyond implementation at a fairly cursory level).
    But these are very complex issues which require thought, experimentation, review and further testing to develop appropriate answers to.
    plus (q3) it’s really only through this iterative process that we will have clear ideas of systemic barriers.

    bit of a get out i know…but really how i see it. but there’s more i think we’re learning that i think we can usefully share….

  3. 3) Working out who’s responsible for making it happen. Working out who pays for what (and how). Working out who decides if it’s working or not (and how).

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