Citizens on Patrol I Municipal Journal

Birmingham City Council and the Innovation Unit believe that the renewed focus on devolution represents a potentially transformative opportunity for local authorities up and down the UK.

The current debate implies that this opportunity lies in the devolution of power from central government to city regions and local authorities. While important, we believe this only represents one part of the story.

The real potential of devolution lies not just in the creation of new, more localised governance structures, but in the empowerment of citizens and service users. Only by using public investment to leverage far greater investment of time, energy, passion and skill on the part of its citizens, can the state hope to meet the triple threat of rising demand, increased expectations and falling resources.

This does not mean recruiting more volunteers. It means working in equal partnerships with people and communities in the design and delivery of services; it means building on people’s existing capabilities and recognising their strengths; it means breaking down the boundaries between professionals and service users. It means embracing the principles of co-production.

It is 100 years since the passing of Joseph Chamberlain and the civic gospel he unleashed in Birmingham. It is also 70 years since the birth of Beveridge’s model of the welfare state. In the 21st century, these cannot work without turning this top down approach on its head and harnessing the potential within the civil realm. Citizens and communities must be placed centre stage in the production of solutions to contemporary challenges.

While devolution of governance is an important first step, the relational, behavioural and cultural changes required to devolve power to citizens and service users will be harder to achieve. It is through taking this next step that we might realise the potentially enormous savings in state spending, alongside improved outcomes that we know to be so central to the long-term sustainability of the public sector.

Birmingham is a case example of an authority that has taken the first step in this journey. In 2004, the council devolved executive powers from its centre to a local executive structure organised around the boundaries of its parliamentary committees, roughly equivalent in size to that of a typical rural district council with a population of 100,000. And, it has revamped this agenda with more powers and more delegations to these district committees since the return of a Labour administration in 2012.

Making the next leap to a civil settlement will require a longer-term investment in changing the ways in which the council works with local people and communities.

In April 2014, the Innovation Unit began a programme of work in two parts of the city, Longbridge and Sparkbrook, which represents the beginning of this investment.

The Innovation Unit has a long experience of working with whole systems to foster innovation (from mental health provision in the London borough of Lambeth, to the education system in New York City). Our approach seeks to rebalance local communities, so that local people, organisations and frontline professionals are at the forefront of driving local change, resulting in better, different and lower cost public services.

The Innovation Unit’s goal in Longbridge and Sparkbrook was to support mixed groups of local stakeholders (including local people, local organisations and local public services) to work together in the design of radical new services and solutions.

A core group of 30-40 people in each area were taken through a process which drew on the Innovation Unit’s expertise in systems transformation and user-centred design. This process included:

  • The building of relationships and creation of a common purpose; 
  • The joint analysis of ethnographic stories (or in depth research) to generate new insights into the real issues faced by local people; 
  • Brainstorming around these insights to come up with new ideas for services; 
  • Testing and developing these ideas by prototyping them alongside those people who might use or deliver them. 

The ideas themselves are still nascent, but the process has had a dramatic impact on the ways in which people in each community work together. It has revealed that only by building strong interpersonal relationships between individuals at all levels of the system (from people, to professionals and politicians) can you enable the kind of locally led innovation the council wants to see.

In Longbridge for example, parish councillors and volunteers have started working with a local children’s centre to develop a new way for parents to communicate with services and each other called FACEboard.

Cara Francis, deputy locality manager at Longbridge and Northfields Children’s Centres, describes the impact of the FACEboard, and the process through which it has been developed, on the culture of the children’s centre: ‘The process has helped families to realise the stake they have in the centre’s services, taking control of what is delivered to best meet their needs.’

In Sparkbrook, a local children’s centre, school and charity have been working with a group of parents to develop a peer support service that asks parents who have already been through the early years journey to support those that have just started.

Alison Moore, head of children’s services at St Paul’s Community Development Trust, prototyped the mentoring service with those parents that would go on to use and deliver it: ‘The prototyping helped make sure all the parents were engaged with the design of the mentoring programme, especially as we used role play, and having staff and volunteers that spoke Arabic.

It became an inclusive process that has made parents look forward to being involved in the service itself.’

These examples demonstrate that it is possible to make the relational, behavioural and cultural changes required to devolve power to communities and service users.

They also demonstrate Birmingham’s commitment to exploiting the full potential of devolution. If local government across the UK is to do the same, it must look beyond the rhetoric, and see devolution for what it really is: a policy priority with transformative potential.

On the 28th of October, in Chamberlain’s home at Highbury Hall, Birmingham hosted a convention exploring the future governance of the city, in particular what Sir Albert Bore has termed his triple devolution model – to the region, the city and the neighbourhood. Out of its deliberations, and through the work of the Innovation Unit and others, a fourth domain has emerged: devolution to people and communities.

Published 10th February 2015 - Jonny Mallinson is senior service designer at the Innovation Unit; Ifor Jones is service director, place directorate, at Birmingham City Council, and Tony Smith is policy executive, corporate strategy team, at Birmingham City Council.
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