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Singh Asheem Singh, the Deputy Director of ResPublica and author of ‘The Civil Effect,’ ‘Digital Giving,’ and ‘The Venture Society’, on how councils should commission service delivery from voluntary groups

GP commissioners, personal budgets, co-design: how do we make sense of this new service delivery environment? It is a thorny conundrum, yes, but also an opportunity: to use the power of the market to positively deliver the fruits of private endeavour to community action, so as to, in turn, improve the delivery of public services. Now, more than ever, local authorities are in a position to make their mark on this emergent space. Now, more than ever, we need them to.

This was the argument of my latest report for the ResPublica think tank, 'The Civil Effect.' The message was thus. Once service delivery was procedurally relatively simple: government specified, organised and delivered. Then reform, and the UK's world leading public services industry emerged. Many providers were offered access through open competition. As so often happens at the nexus of public and private, moral hazard emerged. Development has vacillated between positive and pernicious.

A one way monopoly on commissioning meant that commissioner interest sorted out civil society groups and smaller organisations who could make a difference at the behest of top-down management practices and audit-based targets. This much has been noted by many publications before this one. In the post crash world, this has precipitated severe economic consequences. A recent survey found that the number of public sector suppliers going bust in the first six months of 2010 rose by 50 per cent. A total of 168 businesses in the health and social services, education and defence sectors went insolvent during the period, compared to 114 for the first half of 2009.

Let us be clear: the best means to remedy the inequity that has persistently beset SMEs and civil society groups who attempt to deliver public services is through market-based reform. Government action – review after review that has sought to tinker with the rules, to build capacity to meet such rules, and so to pay for the costs of enduring social breakdown owing to inadequate or overly-siloed services – has reached its upper bound.

The question is not whether local authorities should engage with the new environment. The question is what steps they should take to facilitate this market place working best to pour capital, human resource and endeavour into the many civic groups that can genuinely transform our service space, and so multiply the impact and ambit of action for those civil groups. Put another way, to understand the policy response that can help put the 'big' in 'big society.'

This is where ' The Civil Effect' report – and indeed my previous report, ‘The Venture Society,’ – come in. The report outlines three strategies that enable local government to discharge its duty to civic groups that seek to deliver public services. These strategies seek to place local government in the role of multiplier: a more proactive idea than that of enabler.

By multiplier I mean that there first and primary duty is to locate the points of interaction between civic group and public sector that admit of private sector entry; and so channel private sector knowhow and investment to the smallest and most innovative civil society service deliverers.

The first strategy is to encourage local authorities to work with organisations in the local support space to create co-commissioning hubs: places where commissioners from GPs to government officials to personal budgetters and co-designers can actively engage with authorities who require services, with social investors looking to provide capital and with people and professionals who can aid a particular civic group.

The second strategy: a local skills exchange that seeks to use open source technology to enable labour and informal labour markets to be mapped in a given area so that local government can better target its interventions and allow people to offer solutions.

The third: a targeted funding approach to these interventions that seek to supply targeted support and capital – either from the private sector or from traditional support intermediaries – to people who are genuinely delivering services that communities need, or creating the ability to do so where communities cannot. To coin a rather clunky soundbite, we must stop building capacity and start focusing on community capability.

Think of it as a step in an ever evolving dialogue between Westminster policy makers and local government.  These are but three skeleton policy responses. The report has more, and no doubt variations on these themes are being piloted across the country: Camden and Walsall in particular have piloted approaches that certainly resonate. Add in the Sustainable Communities Act, taken through parliament by Nick Hurd MP, and innovations in social enterprise incubation pioneered by UnLtd among others, and you have a compendium of practical approaches that offer genuine substance to a much-maligned 'Big Society' narrative.

For those councils that do seek to hack at the thorns and uproot the briars that prevent community driven service delivery: well, it is no exaggeration to suggest that they will be among this ‘Big Society’s true vanguards.

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