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Tackling local poverty needs national system change

Local systems change is vitally important to tackling poverty. However, without a supportive national system policy change, it could all come to nothing. We must use the growing enthusiasm for local system change and the positive benefits it accrues to challenge the national policy system. Only with that will we get the fertile territory for local systems to truly transform services and the lives of the poorest.

At CLES, we are privileged to be working across the country with groups of local authorities, housing associations, businesses and other key local actors to develop and deliver joined-up approaches to tackling poverty and inequality. Over time, duplications, gaps and silos in provision have become common features in many of these local systems. This has meant that in some places provision has not been as effective as it could be, with complicated patterns of deprivation being merely managed, rather than overcome.

Austerity, ever-dwindling budgets and increasing demand have in part led many local authorities to accelerate and adopt systems approaches and transformative practices. Today, local systems-thinking approaches are common, and partnerships between sectors and organisations, many of whom are new to each other, are all the rage. There is no doubt that these refreshed approaches must be welcomed. While terms like ‘person-centred system’ are very of-the-moment and can sometimes be reduced to meaningless jargon, the creation of such systems can have real potential to overcome entrenched and complex patterns of poverty.

However, there is a problem. In the current political, economic and financial context it is difficult to see how this can ever make huge inroads into poverty. Of course there is hope that new local system approaches prompted by devolution, newly pooled budgets or cross-sector steering boards will eradicate poverty. However, these hopes arrive in the boardroom hand-in-hand with an elephant: for every positive step towards poverty alleviation being made by local systems change, there are national barriers.

Recent national government policies such as welfare cuts and sanctions, as well as longer term issues such as consistently low funding for mental health, are deepening and hardening the circumstances for the poorest. Recent national announcements, like a focus on home ownership at the expense of social housing, bring more doom and gloom. On an even more expansive scale, the continued fragile state of the global economy could mean that further economic crises deepen the very poverty and inequality that progressive local systems change seeks to overcome. Such an expansive catalogue of national and international issues mean that, although local systems change is vital, our updated local structures may, at best, continue to merely maintain the level of overall poverty, rather than delivering on the promise to make things better.

However, we must not give up on changing our systems. Instead, the challenge is to take both the lessons learnt and positive outcomes that continue to be achieved by local systems change and use this evidence to influence national systems change. Localities must not sit back and accept the top-down imposition of national policies that work against the very things they are trying to achieve. Instead, localities need to use their newfound partnerships and collaborations to get more belligerent towards national government, and use evidence to actively seek to erode the negative influences of the wider national system on local socioeconomic inequality.

When it comes to tackling poverty, improvements to the local system are vital. But we must recognise these changes should not be the end point. Instead they are the first step towards the essential overhaul of the wider national system. We must rise to the challenge.

 

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Tony Hutchinson
Tony Hutchinson
8 years ago

Hi
In my previous life I did some work use the One Public Estate initiative led by the Cabinet Office on stimulating public agencies to share premises and use the money released to reinvest into the local area. As ever with such things when the money ran out for the consultancy input so did the enthusiasm for the concept.

Nigel Rose
Nigel Rose
8 years ago

I very much agree. I am fed up with the language of plans and strategies that adopt a sense of positivity whilst failing to acknowledge that the most that any of us can hope for is that some of the changes might make the decline in public services a little slower. With Devo Manc Local Authorities are even more circumspect in acting as an advocate for people living in poverty in case they jeopardise the special relationship with Osborne.

Fernando Centeno, CED
Fernando Centeno, CED
8 years ago

Good analysis, particularly ‘updated local structures may continue merely to maintain the level of overall poverty’, which is an argument for tracking your rate of progress against your priority needs as well as an opportunity to become strategic to produce best scenarios under difficult economic circumstances — all the best!

Jenny Rouse
Jenny Rouse
8 years ago

Hi Tony and Nigel thank you both for your comments!

It’s a tricky one isn’t it….we all know that whether all the cuts had happened or not many local systems needed a shake-up, and it is fundamental to ensuring people in poverty receive the most effective local support, but how do we (i) as Tony suggested, ensure that all the focus on local systems change is not just a short-term obsession? (ii) that we don’t focus on the local at the expense of challenging what is happening at national level?

I think getting some evidence together about any short-term outcomes about systems change initiatives is a big part of (i) to keep the momentum, but we need to be happy that in short time scales and current climate the outcomes will not be ‘overcoming poverty’ or ‘50% reduction in public sector demand’. In terms of (ii)…a systems approach to openly challenging national barriers that stand in the way of the aims of local systems change would be interesting…

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