I recently wrote an essay for LGiU’s new collection, Municipal Futures, on The Learning Council. In it I argued that, whilst there have long been calls for councils to get better at learning from each other, in the future this will not be enough, and councils instead need to start to learn from the practise of their private and third sector partners. Councils need to constantly reflect on their own practice and those of others, becoming more efficient, more flexible, and more adaptive.
In the essay I laid out some examples of where councils are already doing this. Amongst a few others I picked out the Better Gyms chain, a model originally developed by Greenwich Council which was so successful they expanded to 115 centres across London and the South East, in doing so behaving like any good business. Another example I gave was Liverpool Council’s Procurement Board, which has taken on some of the spirit of voluntary sector organisations in incorporating a social value mission into their commissioning process. These are some great ways in which councils demonstrate that they’re starting to think in a different and more innovative way, more like a business, more like a charity or social enterprise. But I also think there are some great new ideas and projects out there that councils should be getting in on, or playing a bigger role in, that they aren’t currently.
One project I’m particularly interested in, and found out a bit more about in the course of my research for The Learning Council, is the co-workspace project. Mostly spearheaded by social enterprises, co-workspaces allow the self-employed, start-ups and entrepreneurs to rent a space in a central location on a flexible basis. You get security (we’ve all had that experience of having to decide whether to take your laptop to the loo with you when working in a café…), you get somewhere to charge your laptop, you get coffee, and you get a reliably peaceful environment in which to come up with the Next Big Thing. The project has been gaining momentum for some time and its ethos of encouraging collaboration and creativity is really exciting. I have used one of the co-workspaces in Kings Cross for an LGiU roundtable, and thought it was a fantastic and innovative response to the need for cheap, reliable workspaces for the swelling ranks of the self-employed.
How do councils fit in to the project? I think co-workspaces are a great opportunity for councils and should not only be considered the territory of social enterprises. Local growth is high on the policy agenda at the moment, and councils must be at the forefront of creating the context for SMEs to flourish. Some local authorities have already provided space for social enterprises to set up. For example, the Brixton Impact Hub is located in Lambeth Town Hall and will be supported by Lambeth Council from early 2014 for two years.
But where there isn’t an organisation offering co-workspaces, why shouldn’t a council set one up? Councils could offer competitive rents for spaces they already own, and in return they could not only boast of helping to incubate the exciting new local start-up, but also raise some revenue by exploiting their existing physical assets. They would be emulating those social enterprises who are delivering co-workspaces at the moment, demonstrating to local businesses that they believe in giving them a helping hand, and putting the council at the heart of fostering local growth.
There are lots of ways in which councils can look to learn from private and voluntary sector partners. As I wrote in my essay, by learning from and applying new ways of thinking, which challenge traditional notions of public service activities and the ‘character’ of local government, councils will go some way to learning how to become the kind of flexible, adaptive organisations they need to be. Councils taking on new projects such as co-workspaces is just the germ of an idea, but now is an exciting time for councils to move outside of their comfort zone.