What’s next for localism? There are lots of things we could talk about: the future of localism under the coalition, the future of localism under our next Government, whether that be Labour, Conservative or another coalition.
We can talk about things we need to do: demand management and service transformation and the ways of doing them, such as through shared services, smarter commissioning, re-organisation, sub-regional growth agendas, greater financial freedoms, City Deals and pooled budgets.
All of these things are important and they’re all things LGIU is working on with councils across the country. All of them are part of the answer to the question: what next for localism?
But do any of them really meet the challenge? How will our older people be cared for when there’s a hundred times more of them? Will our children have the right skills for jobs that don’t yet exist? How do we rebuild local economies in a changing global context? How do we manage local resources?
There are many great ideas, but the question you should always be asking yourself is – do these ideas meet this scale of challenge? Do they even lay a foundation to meeting this scale of challenge?
I would suggest that they can not as long as we see localism as a political project delivered by the centre. Instead, we need to see it a process of radical transformation through networks of local innovation. We call this connected localism: connected across places, across services and across the public realm.
This demands a different approach to public services: a synaptic approach. Synaptic as in a network of connection, stimulation and catalyst. Synaptic public services is about councils shifting from doing things to making things happen. That sounds like a small difference but it’s actually a fundamentally different approach.
It means thinking about the total asset base of a community and the value in social networks and civic energy. It means thinking about early intervention in terms of capacity and resilience. It means really thinking about how we structure incentives for action: for the market and most importantly for citizens. It means understanding the networks of social action already present in every community and aligning public services with them. Public agencies need to become the synaptic network across which “neurones” of social action can travel.
That’s huge rethink of how we see the public realm and we’re only at the beginning of understanding what it means in practice but it is the real task we face. It may not be what’s next for localism but it should be what comes after next.