Austerity measures implemented by the UK Government since 2010 have reduced funding for some public services and aspects of welfare. Although local government has attempted to absorb real-term reductions in funding, for example by sharing corporate functions, the scale of the cuts is reducing direct delivery in some service areas. Discretionary community-level support services have been disproportionately affected by austerity measures.
At the same time, some public sector policy-makers and practitioners are promoting concepts such as asset-based community development, localism, co-production and community empowerment. The coalition government’s ‘Big Society’ approach to civil society activism forms part of this agenda. But is this realistic in an era of public service retrenchment? And can local government cut services while simultaneously empowering communities?
The vision is for volunteers and local groups to step in and take over services that are no longer being provided directly by the public sector. Service provision will become less centralised and more appropriate and tailored to local needs. Users will have a greater say in the design of and choice among services (‘co-production’), which will result in more efficient and responsive services.
Many of these ideas are similar to those principles of community development prevalent in many local authorities throughout much of the 1970s and 1980s. However the current agenda has a different focus. Rather than seeking to involve groups in decision-making about public services, the focus is on supporting communities to become more resilient and build social capital. The meaning of resilience is contested, but usually understood as referring to the ability to cope with adverse social and economic conditions.
The danger is that support will go to those ‘capable’ communities relatively well-organised and resourced. ‘Fragile’ communities – those already disadvantaged and less able to cope with economic and social pressures – may feel abandoned as public bodies move away from delivering local services.
So what can local authorities do to support their communities at a time when their ability to directly provide local services is diminishing?
- Commit to long-term funding and support, even if progress is uncertain or unproven.
- Build commitment between front-line professionals and communities through practices that involve them working together.
- Be honest about the level of control individuals and groups will have, given the likely level of funding and the imperative to demonstrate outcomes.
- Develop consensus on the need for and direction of change, rather than expecting others to sign up to objectives that have already been set.
- Review approaches to risk, performance measurement and reporting.
- Expand the ‘permissive space’ in which communities are able to take decisions, even if means bending the rules.
- Provide incentives for people to participate or volunteer in a way that is relevant to their situation and aspirations.
- Share good practice between different communities, service areas and authorities.
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