We all know that local government faces a huge challenge over the coming years.
The most obvious element of this is the immediate fiscal outlook. We know that local authorities are less than half way through the total spending cuts they need to make.
But climbing this fiscal mountain needs to be seen in the context of the profound questions raised by longer term challenges such as an ageing population, a fluid global economy, population movement, climate change, urbanisation and technological development.
We know that all this means doing public services differently: thinking both about service transformation and demand reduction.
So we all talk about innovation (often with the word radical appended). And we talk about things we know we need to do: such as shared services; smarter commissioning; re-organisation; sub-regional growth agendas; greater financial freedoms; City Deals and pooled budgets.
All of these things are important and they’re all things LGIU is working on with councils across the country. All of them are part of the answer to the question of where local services go next.
But do any of them actually meet the real challenges we have? How will our older people be cared for when there’s a hundred times more of them? Will our children have the right skills for jobs that don’t yet exist? How do we rebuild local economies in a changing global context? How do we manage local resources? How do we do all of this whilst spending less money?
There are many great ideas being developed in and around local government but the question we must always ask ourselves is: do these ideas meet the scale of the real challenge we face? Do they even lay a foundation to meeting this scale of challenge?
I would suggest that they do not and can not as long as we see them as ways of refining and improving our current public services or as something that government (local or national) can deliver. Instead, we need a process of radical (there’s that word again) transformation through networks of local innovation. We have described this as connected localism: connected across places, across services and across the public realm.
This demands a different approach to public services: a synaptic approach. Synaptic as in a network of connection, stimulation and catalyst. Synaptic as in the way the brain is formed of structures across which signals can be sent and actions triggered.
Synaptic public services are about councils shifting from doing things to making things happen. That sounds like a small difference but it’s actually a fundamentally different approach.
It means thinking about the total asset base of a community and the value in social networks and civic energy.
It means thinking about early intervention in terms of capacity and resilience. It means really considering how we structure incentives for action: for the market and most importantly for citizens. It means understanding the networks of social action already present in every community and aligning public services with them.
We see some examples of this already: FutureGov’s Casserole Club in which people cook a bit of extra food to deliver to an older person in their community; community libraries in which groups of volunteers come together to run threatened local services (sometimes in the face of opposition from the council), community owned assets like the Ivy House pub in South East London.
But inspiring as these and many other examples are, they remain the exception rather than the rule, marginal rather than central. They remain locked in innovation ghettoes of local community action or fashionable web start ups.
For local authorities they are an addition to current services rather than a replacement for them.
We need to go much further than this.
Public agencies need to become the synaptic network across which “neurons” of social action can travel.
That’s huge rethink of how we see the public realm and we’re only at the beginning of understanding what it means in practice. We see some foreshadowing of it at the best edges of social innovation and in the best practice of local authorities acting as facilitators and hubs of local engagement.
The truth, however, is that we still don’t know how to take this sort of community approach to any sort of scale, how to really incentivise people to enter into different sorts of relationships with the (local) state and with their communities, or how to really mobilise the power of social networks (or indeed social media). We still don’t know what forms of investment or financial management will be appropriate for the future or how to set acceptable parameters of risk.
But these are the real tasks we face and wishing it otherwise serves us nothing. To think of services as synaptic is a metaphor, of course, not a programme of action, but it helps, perhaps, to show us just how far we have to go.
Jonathan Carr-West is the Chief Executive of LGIU. This article was first published in The Municipal Journal.