Paternalism in Local Government

Cllr Nick Forbes is the Leader of Newcastle CC. You can follow him on twitter at @nick_forbes and find his website at www.nickforbes.org.uk

Much is made of ‘you said, we did’ exercises in public bodies like Councils, where a list of actions stem from requests from the public. It is a far cry from the ‘you said, we ignored’ public services of old and people are rightly proud of public services becoming more responsive.

But for me there is much further to go. The idea that the grateful public have had their wishes fulfilled by a benevolent overlord called the Council is not the right tone to set for 21st Century public services.

One of the first things we did after taking control of the Council in the local election in May was to scrap a bureaucratic process of ‘Ward Charters’, which was the former Lib Dem administration’s way of dealing with localism. Residents were asked what they wanted and that was fed into a policy sausage machine at the Civic Centre.

There were broadly two answers to residents’ suggestions. One was along the lines of “we’re doing this already and we’re fabulous at it”, often said with a tone of institutional pain that the public weren’t more appreciative of the Council’s fabulousness. The other answer was (more frequently) “no you can’t have this”.

Underpinning this process was a massive bureaucratic exercise – I sometimes wonder if residents had asked for the moon to be made out of cheese the Council would have sent the request to who they thought the relevant officer was and set up a working group to look into it.

Councils are the modern incarnation of an ancient tradition of people coming together to decide things and provide services collectively.

Somewhere along the line they grew their own institutional thoughts and feelings and have become distant from the collective they used to represent. The challenge, then, is to reawaken that collective will, and avoid providing simplistic “one size fits all’ solutions, because that would repeat the mistakes of the past.

Some of the options must be about empowering the public at a local level. For example, residents should decide where garden waste recycling collections would work better than garden composting schemes, or have a choice about which roads and pavements get repaired in their area.

Service users should be involved more in the running of services, helping to set opening times or prices, with the full facts available to them about the cost of the service and the resources available.

Other solutions might include service users taking over the facility as a collective, or management teams or staff groups taking over services. If care staff collectively owned Southern Cross would it be in the mess it is in today?

To achieve this shift in power will require institutional as well as cultural change. The Government’s plan is to pursue privatization and market testing of services, with efficiencies being driven through competition.

However, I believe there are many areas that are better served by considering public interest, rather than a profit motive. And, crucially, the energy and enthusiasm of local people can be harnessed within a not-for-profit framework.

People are willing to volunteer for the National Trust, or Marie Curie Cancer Care, or the British Red Cross, or a thousand other organisations that provide public benefit – it is in those organisations’ DNA, and part of the sense of social responsibility and civic engagement that they promote. It is inconceivable that people would seek to volunteer for Southern Cross, for despite providing public services through procured contracts it is not perceived as a social institution.

At the heart of this cultural change is the simple truth that people are not only motivated by money, but by a strong sense of doing what is right or good.

Places that harness the energy within individuals and communities, and lead the institutional changes required to use it to empower people, will be the ones whose public services prosper, because of equal importance placed on both the public and the service.

The good folks at Eland House have a problem on their hands. The official line is that the Localism Bill has been delayed by “parliamentary congestion”. There's also speculation, however, that the Bill is being delayed because some of its content is creating a headache for the civil servants. One of the most interesting sticking points is providing a legal definition of what a community is.

In the spirit of seasonal goodwill, we thought we’d see whether Twitter could help the civil servants crack this tricky question. So, Tweeps, we’d be delighted if you’d have a go at defining what a community is in 140 characters. Please use the (slightly inelegant) hashtag #ComDef so we can collate the responses and do something interesting with them. Remember, there’s only two weeks until the civil servants give us their version.

We'd also be very pleased to see comments on the bottom of the blog.