Mindset over matter

4 Nov 19

A new paradigm is needed for the successful delivery of public services. One that puts local communities firmly in the driving seat

Directors of finance and chief officers working in the public sector, along with policymakers and practitioners all over the UK, are struggling to cope with a rising tide of demand alongside reduced real-term budgets. Meanwhile, a quiet revolution is taking place.

This shift in mindset has become more urgent as councils, police, schools, the NHS and housing associations realise that they can’t go on cutting without investing in real change. This means building strong, happy, healthy and socially connected communities, and believing in their ability to take decisions that improve their own lives and those of their neighbours.

In Wigan, where I used to be chief executive, we tested out this approach eight years ago, by creating a new social contract between citizen and state. Rather than initiating yet another silo project, we tied together existing projects and programmes into an overarching, simple and compelling partnership with residents – the Wigan Deal.

In 2011, we faced the prospect of £160m being stripped from the council’s budget: according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the third worst cuts of any UK council. We knew that the status quo wasn’t an option. But rather than simply cut frontline services and put up council tax every year, we decided to freeze it for seven years – our side of the Deal. 

Council tax is a big proportion of people’s monthly income, and freezing it in return for residents doing more recycling, taking better care of their own health and the local environment, and looking out for their neighbours resonated with them. Satisfaction with the council shot up by 59%, despite the fact that we had lost over half of our resources.

An asset-based approach lay at the heart of the Deal and we used a renowned anthropologist to help us design the framework. Put simply, it was based on the same overarching “mindset” principles as the government’s Troubled Families Programme. It helped us join the dots around people and place, and cut through the complex proliferation of initiatives and departmental solutions, whether originating from councils or Whitehall departments.

This new approach involved working human to human – not state official to failed “unit of need”. We decided we needed a different conversation, one that meant us asking, what are you good at? What does a good day look like for you – and how can I help make that happen every day? What’s going on in your local neighbourhood that you would like to be a part of?

It involved appointing key workers to build strong relationships based on trust, whose job it is to help people navigate the complexity of public services. And integrated place-based teams to share information and target support to those who need it most. Their role is not to judge, but to see the best in people, no matter what.

People not processes
We decided to stop spending all our staff time and money on processing people; passing them around a system where we keep assessing them, and then referring them on to another agency to deal with only part of their problems. 

The social activist Hilary Cottam, in her analysis of public policy, Radical Help, calls for a reinvention of the welfare state. She provides practical examples of the waste that we all have in our systems. The duplication and pointless bureaucracy. The lack of timeliness. The confusion. The absence of a person-centred approach.

We need to trust public servants to work with people, not just to do things to them. Local leaders need to make it all right to test new approaches in integrated place-based teams, and invest more in local community grassroots organisations. This, and not cutting community and voluntary groups, is what will really help people and reduce public demand for expensive, ineffective and clunky state solutions.

We also need to listen really hard to families and communities, and trust that they will make the right decisions about their own lives with the right support. And be courageous enough to stop doing – and shut down if necessary – the things that don’t work, and strip away pointless layers of management. 

This in turn frees up frontline teams to self-organise, for example, along the lines of the Dutch-based Buurtzorg model of neighbourhood care: a system that is gaining traction globally as a way of helping people live independently with much less formal support.
Commissioning alongside communities or, even better, passing the role over to them, is increasingly recognised as the way to go.

The New Local Government Network (NLGN) has produced some practical material on community commissioning, which recommends investing early on in building grassroots community support infrastructure, social connections and relationships with families. From Tiny Acorns, published by NLGN in September 2019, shows how applying this model to children’s services is a lot less expensive and more effective than taking children into care.

An estimated 80% of our collective public sector resources are spent on processing people: assessing their needs, evaluating how much of a fix they should get through various differential thresholds for social care, and finally referring them on to somebody else who can help. With input from Cottam, we turned that on its head and instead spent 80% of our precious staff time on working intensively to help support families be the best they could – and just 20% of our time on the necessary underpinning processes.

A striking example of how this can work involved a woman and her children on a council estate in Wigan. They had been passed around repeatedly by the criminal justice system, with over 20 interventions in five years. She was spinning on the centrifugal spot of a fragmented system. Her life and that of her three children was going backwards, while she was “costing us” £250,000 per year in multi-agency staff to pay for her and her family to spiral downwards. By having a different conversation and finding ways to build on her and her family’s assets and capabilities, the council has helped turn her life around. She now has a job, her children are back at school and out of care, and the mental health of the family is getting stronger by the day.

This approach has been spread out across Greater Manchester and is now embodied in the work of 10 councils. Their shared approach to troubled families work has been encapsulated in mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham’s public service reform white paper – a localised manifesto with the Troubled Families mindset at its heart. Its philosophy is that everyone is valued, everyone is special, everyone is unique.

An asset-based mindset is increasingly “on trend” in certain circles. But the key thing for public service leaders, both political and managerial, is how to systematise this approach. It’s not just another initiative, another project, pilot or pathfinder, with its own dedicated monitoring and project team, and Prince Two evaluation regime. It has to be simply the way we work; something embedded in our DNA.

A different relationship
As chair of the NLGN, I’ve been helping to broadcast the think-tank’s exciting new community paradigm concept. A recent report on the issue set out the need for a radically different relationship with communities, one that rejects the hierarchical and transactional mindsets of traditional public service models. These are no longer sufficient to meet the tidal wave of demand from residents, particularly in the context of a declining resource base.

The community paradigm approach fosters collaboration between the public servant and the citizen, sharing power and resources more directly with people, to embed prevention and ensure future sustainability. It builds on the philosophy of asset-based working and takes it to the heart of all public policymaking for the future. 

Shifting power and resources away from separately governed institutions, such as the NHS, local government and the police, and towards communities is an exciting legacy of the Troubled Families programme. It is a way to address the fundamental issue of unequal power relationships and discourage “learned helplessness”.

But we need to transform this from a mindset adopted by just a few organisations into one that all public services operate as a default setting. We need many more examples such as Bolton NHS foundation trust, which aims to be the first community paradigm health trust in the UK, working with police, council and voluntary partners in Bolton to empower the community.

Our staff became public servants because they genuinely wanted to help people and improve communities, not just fill out forms and get through inspections. So let’s embrace the community paradigm, cooperative councils and a million and one other separate deals and initiatives, and systematise them into something that we do every day. Because it works. 

Professor Donna Hall, CBE, is chair of the New Local Government Network and of Bolton NHS foundation trust

  • Professor Donna Hall

    Professor Donna Hall, CBE, is chair of the New Local Government Network and of Bolton NHS foundation trust

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