Local government stands at a crossroads. In one direction lies the spectre of reduced influence, minimal service provision and public disengagement; in the other the promise of reinvigorated civic economies, public services genuinely built around the needs of citizens and engaged, resilient communities.
Connected Localism, a new collection of essays published by LGiU today argues for radical public service transformation through networks of local innovation.
We are responding to a growing gap between rising demand and shrinking resources and by long term challenges such as caring for an ageing population; driving local economic renewal; ensuring that young people are equipped with the social, vocational and educational skills to flourish in a fluid economy; mitigating and adapting to the impact of climate change; and responding to developments in communications and technology.
Tackling these long term changes to our society and economy and the challenges they create will demand innovation and inspiration; new ways of thinking about what public services are and what government does. Put crudely, if the last 20 years has been about local government moving from delivering services to commissioning them, the next 20 years will be about moving from commissioning services to ‘curating‘ places and working with communities so that fewer services are required.
There are three reasons why this must inevitably involve a relocalisation of politics .
1. Localism has a democratic premium. All things being equal we should seek to give people the most influence possible over the places they live in, the public services they use and the lives they lead.
2. Complex problems are rarely solved by centralised one-size-fits-all solutions. Innovation must be local, responsive to specific contexts and drawing on the creativity and civic capacity of local people.
3. The really difficult challenges we face cannot be solved by institutions (of state or market), or communities or by citizens working alone but require a collective, collaborative engagement of all parts of the public realm.
But while there are compelling arguments for a local approach, there’s also a risk that local approaches to public service innovation will lead to insularity, fragmentation and endless reinvention of the wheel.
What we need then is a way of thinking about localism that preserves the value of the local while simultaneously tapping into broader networks. That enables different communities to share ideas, exchange resources, aggregate influence and increase their collective intelligence.
We call this connected localism: connected across services, across places and across the public realm.
But what does this look like in reality?
The essays in Connected Localism start to sketch out some answers to this question. Patrick Diamond explores a framework of structural reform that would permanently root power in local communities. Sophia Parker gets to grips with the tough realities of getting innovation to happen and making it stick. Anthony Zacharzewski envisions how a truly participatory local politics would work, while Richard Reeves examines what really empowering communities might entail.
The essays call for local tax raising powers; for diverse provider markets driven by public entrepreneurialism; for new models of participatory governance; different approaches to risk and the integration of informal networks into service provision. They grapple with the challenges of embedding innovation and the tensions between individual and community aspirations.
Connected localism is not proposed as either a political ideology or a public management method, but as a way of thinking and doing that builds on the creativity and civic energy of local people and connects it into a dynamic network of innovation and strategic governance.
Public service transformation involves big politics and technical policy making, but it is also the stuff of everyday lives. If we want to achieve a future fit for sharing we need a far reaching and permanent shift in the way in which we organise public services and their governance, a shift that is rooted in the communities where people live and work.
The full report is available here.