Best practice for radical devolution I Municipal Journal

The announcement that the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) is to be handed new powers over housing, transport and planning has seriously raised the bar in the devolution debate.

Devolution to City Regions such as Greater Manchester will be important to ensuring the long term financial sustainability of local government. Greater local control over decision making should allow local leaders to better respond to local needs.

But the focus on devolution to new, more localised governance structures risks obscuring the real issue facing local government - a funding crisis brought about by rising demand, increased expectations and falling resource. If spending projections are accurate, statutory services and social care costs will swallow up most local council spending leaving very little for anything else.

While an important first step, greater local control over decision making is not going to be enough in helping address this crisis. The numbers are just too big. Only by using public money to leverage far greater investment of time, energy, passion and skill on the part of its citizens can local authorities really hope to adapt to new financial realities.

This requires a more radical approach to devolution, one that doesn’t simply focus on a shift to new structures, but on the engagement with and empowerment of people and communities.

What does this mean in practice?

In Whiston, a large village in Merseyside, a parent-led charity called family voices works in partnership with local children’s centres to deliver universal services. The charity’s staff, most of whom are local volunteers, all of whom are local parents, have become skilled early years practitioners, respected by local professionals. Through their work, local children’s centres have increased their reach by 90%.

In Stockport, the Prevention and Personalisation service supports users of mental health services to co-create their own care pathways, supported by a Wellbeing Pathway Planner that they own and manage. Users are encouraged to make use of a wide range of community and peer-led services including peer groups, timebanks, debt and housing advice and clinical support.

The new pathways are expected to reduce referrals and repeat presentation to secondary care by at least 60%, and increase discharge rates into primary care by 25%.

The success behind these stories comes from significant cultural, relational and behavioural change; not just changes in organisational structures or processes. For example:

  • both places identified and built upon the skills and capabilities of their service users, in a way that built confidence and unlocked latent resource 
  • both places recognised the value of social networks 
  • both places built equal partnerships between professionals and service users in which they work closely together to design and deliver new services. 
  • both places broke down the barriers between professionals and service users by removing traditional hierarchies. 

Radical devolution asks that local authorities change the way in which they work with whole communities so that ‘doing with rather than to’ becomes the norm, not the exception. Local authorities across the UK are increasingly interested in what cooproduction means for them.

Local authorities become enablers and facilitators not top-down deliverers of services.

In Birmingham, for example, Innovation Unit has been working with the city council to support mixed groups of local people and professionals in the design of new services and solutions for its young people. Whilst the ideas themselves are still nascent, the process has had a dramatic impact on the ways in which people in each community work together and the way the council works with its communities.

And we can and should learn from great examples of radical devolution in other countries. For example in New York, where the Harlem Children’s Zone provides an interconnected programme of schools and social services which works with over 10,000 children and 7,400 adults.

This model has inspired the Children’s Society here to develop an area-based approach called the Children and Family Zone, which seeks to work with whole communities in the development of new services and solutions to tackle child poverty and adolescent neglect.

These examples demonstrate that there are people and organisations that recognise the full potential of devolution. They understand that city regions and greater powers for local authorities are only part of the solution.

Only by devolving power to people and communities can we hope to achieve the radical transformation required to meet the demands faced by local government. We need to shift the terms of the debate, and quickly.

Published 10 November 2014 - Paul Roberts is Chair of the Innovation Unit.
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