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What's blocking the community right of way?

Our Community Rights project in Dudley focuses on smaller groups who have less influence over service delivery. However, we haven't found much evidence that they are clamouring to use the Community Right to Challenge to redress the balance. Why is this?

In the main groups in Dudley want to continue doing what they're doing but do it better and receive more support. Local groups tend to respond to community need by providing a range of support activities using whatever assets they have at their disposal, including the good will of local people (elsewhere it's called ‘social capital'!). One of the project participants said that they catered for the ‘whole person' that walked through their doors rather than dividing them up into specific needs based on particular services.

Most groups do not align themselves to existing public services so their approach doesn't mirror the way that council directorates operate. Sometimes it feels like we have two parallel universes with council service directorates in one, volunteer powered community groups in the other with the ‘professionalised' voluntary sector trying to straddle the two. A lot of the contributions community groups are making to public service delivery are ‘hidden' such as the group working with young people who stated one of their aims as encouraging them to attend and make the most of school. These groups don't always fit neatly within the parameters of service departments so can miss out on funding and support.

How often does a local authority really explore the potential of these groups? How often do they invite them to look at the ‘big picture' and their role within it? How often do they inform them about gaps they could help to fill? And if they do, is it presented in a way that makes sense and in a language they understand?

With regard to the Community Right to Challenge there is also a big sign blocking the way which informs groups that if they want to challenge they must go down a route called ‘procurement'. If a community group is successful with an expression of interest to run a service then the council has to run a procurement exercise in which other organisations, including private companies, can participate. It might be called localism but you have to do it this way!

To most small groups procurement is part of that ‘other universe'. It seems to be about giving out big contracts to big organisations. It's difficult for them to scale up, especially when they rely on voluntary effort. If they want to get together in a partnership this takes time and energy away from the bread and butter community stuff. Although the idea of keeping things local and valuing community knowledge might be included in procurement criteria in most instances it is simply price that wins out in the end. With these barriers in the way how many groups will be willing to do the hard work to trigger a process that could lead to a mega-company eventually winning the contract?

The Community Right to Challenge is couched in terms of voluntary and community groups bidding to take over a service if they think they can run it better. But what if they think that the way to improve service delivery is for them to make a bigger contribution to one aspect of a service in collaboration with the existing service provider? Is this desire even recognised within the legislation? Are they able to make this ‘challenge' without risking the whole service being handed over lock, stock and barrel to another provider?

When we talk about ‘a public service' what do we actually mean? Perhaps we need to explore the ‘anatomy of service delivery'. This would start by dissecting each public service to see how all the parts work together to make the whole. Can we make these parts work better together? Instead of expecting community groups to deliver services in the way that the council does, how can their unique contributions be best used? What things should the local authority do because they are still best placed to do it? Can we join up different parts of different services to build better packages that cut across the current ‘silos' and sectors? And, most important of all, how can we carve out the space for community groups and council officers to come together to listen to each other, learn from each other and build collaboration?

Lorna Prescott from our project partner Dudley CVS has shared some thoughts on the changing roles, skills and support needed to reshape public services based on the University of Birmingham Policy Commission report: When Tomorrow Comes: The Future of Local Public Services.

One way not to do it is the way many local authorities usually carry out consultation. Too often this is imposed from above, with a series of options that someone else has worked up. You are expected to respond, usually as indviduals, with no opportunity to deliberate with others being consulted and even (heaven forbid) re-shape the options you are presented with. Then the consultants go off to crunch the data with all too often the community not getting to find out what became of all of it.

Often these formal consultations are the only way for citizens to influence service provision, other than making formal complaints. As Toby Blume has argued the repealed Duty to Involve did give citizens a general right to express views to inform decision making whereas the new community rights are more specific about citizens taking on responsibility for doing something.

Done in a different way, though, consultation can become the first step in a process of building collaboration. How about giving an active role to community groups to do some of the consulting? How about moving beyond the mere identification of needs (the ‘deficit model') to explore what a community can contribute (the ‘assets/strengths' model)? And how about making the whole thing a creative process for building collaboration between communities and service providers? The current jargon might be ‘co-design' or ‘co-production' but it's not what you call it, it's the way that you do it.

Nick Bird

Tuesday, 20 December 2011
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