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The Critical Role of Community Action in Public Service Reform

Blog posted by: Annabel Davidson Knight, 06 February 2017.

Time to get serious, says Annabel Davidson Knight.

Last week I was invited to contribute to a Co-operative Neighbourhoods workshop alongside a range of actors from the community, voluntary and local public sectors from across the North East of England. The purpose was to explore the relationship between community-led action and public policy objectives — national and local. Communities and voluntary sector bodies are an increasingly crucial part of the landscape of local services to the public (whether informally or through formal contract arrangements) yet remain on the margins when it comes to the design of broader service provision.

We heard from an impressive array of community leaders on projects supporting and catalysing local action with (and without) the support of local public sector bodies; from Reclaim the Lanes, a project to create vibrant community space in the back lanes in the West End of Newcastle to FeedFinder, a location based review service created by Digital Civics for breastfeeding mothers to rate and review breastfeeding-friendly locations. While the impact on communities and individuals in each of these examples was clear, the story of collaboration across sectors was a mixed one — success when individuals were able to step beyond institutional boundaries to support one another and achieve shared aims, and challenges in the form of red tape and a culture of ‘computer says no’ which sometimes threatened the very viability of initiatives.

We know that roles, responsibilities and relations across the sectors are changing. Arguably, nowhere is this more apparent than at the local level as austerity bites and councils have to make tough budgeting decisions while also finding creative ways to support communities through new models and forms of collaboration. This new era of ‘services to the public’ is requiring local public services to work with a much wider range of players to achieve social aims, from business to education to communities and citizens. This requires new forms of cross-sectoral working across systems and processes — in leadership, in workforces, in funding and commissioning.

But this is only part of the picture. Truly understanding and taking seriously the value of community action means public services investing differently, shifting thinking, culture and practice. Taking it seriously means a deeper level of commitment, putting community action at the heart of the public service reform agenda, where the two become mutually reinforcing with one informing and supporting the other. This is a model we are supporting Oldham to explore and we continue to test different mechanisms and actions for turning that ambition into reality.

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