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Collaboration: Past, present and future

For me, there are some fundamental questions we must ask to understand the relationship between communities and their public services.

In my view, it is the history of the relationship between public services and communities that is responsible for some of the present challenges in collaboration, but we can also be hopeful for change in the future.

In the late 1960s, people got what they were given, good or bad. We had some community development in the 70s, but that did not really impact on the delivery of mainstream services. The early 80s, with the rise of more radical local Labour parties, heralded ‘power to the people’, but in reality we moved from ‘be grateful for what you’re given’ to services run to suit the operator rather than the customer.

This picture has now shifted, and I’d like to say this was due to progressive thinking or even persuasion. But I think what caused public authorities to talk to local people was the fear, protest and pressure that followed terrible events and injustices. The murder of Stephen Lawrence and the Macpherson inquiry is a notable example which eventually brought about a quite dramatic and long overdue change among police authorities.

It is the history of the relationship between public services and communities

that is responsible for some of the present challenges in collaboration’

Successive governments have invested in community involvement in response to trigger events, launching regeneration initiatives like City Challenge, the Single Regeneration Budget and New Deal for Communities. Many of these followed the familiar pathway from pressure to confrontation and then communication, but with few exceptions they have fallen short of meaningful collaboration.

I believe that lack of trust is at the heart of a lack of collaboration. In some cases residents continue to carry a resentment of being ‘done to’ in the past, particularly if it was ‘badly done to’ for so many years, and find it hard or unwilling to bury the past and embrace full collaboration. On the other hand some service provider staff still ignore user preference and/or resent user influence; and some local councillors resent interference from those they see as unrepresentative activists.

Will cuts change the relationship between residents and public services?
There are a number of possible repercussions. First, cuts in public service provision could awaken some hitherto silent residents. That could spark confrontation, but hopefully followed by some talking and collaboration. In some cases it could move local service providers closer to their communities, since they will both be fighting for the common goal of an end to austerity and a way to tackle the service deficit.

Alternatively, or in addition, the cuts could move most public service provision the way of the private, voluntary and community sectors. Many believe that it is the private sector that will get the major role, bringing in ‘privatisation’ by the back door. Let’s hope that a plurality of public service provision results in the best solutions for each community and that one side effect is better collaboration between communities and all sectors, including the private sector. One lesson I have learned is that improvement in local areas cannot be sustained on public investment alone. It needs wide collaboration.

How can we create positive collaboration in the future?
After all these years of mistrust it won’t be a quick fix. Public service providers must stop ‘consulting’ and start listening from the basis of a blank canvas and then acting on what people want. If they’re asking local communities to help out in this period of austerity, then give them control, not just responsibility. For their part local residents should respect their democratically elected representatives. Both must search for common goals and seek compromise.

I also genuinely believe that Big Local offers the right model for empowering communities – a £1m commitment to each of 150 communities courtesy of the Big Lottery Fund (note: not the public purse); an underlying belief in the talent of local people (the asset-based approach); and the right enabling support over at least 10 years to build the confidence and skills that allow local people to take the lead.

This model has the potential to provide a legacy of social capital that offers real hope of a lasting impact. Can this approach help the cause of collaboration? No question, of course it can. The essential first ingredient is a platform of community interest, involvement, a strong voice for local people and confidence. Without that, there is no agenda for a kind of collaboration that is different from the past.

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Sceptic
Sceptic
8 years ago

The Lottery may not be ‘public purse’ but it is an effective tax on low income groups that should be used to promote additionality – not replace core services

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