11 March 2015

A Better Place: Communities, Citizens and Consumers & New Approaches to Social Policy & Public Services

Alistair Stoddart, Community Engagement & Scotland Lead with The Democratic Society, shares some initial thoughts from the Better Place forum. 



Last week, a very diverse group of community development workers; academics; campaigners; public service managers and local and national senior officials gathered at the University of Edinburgh for a forum organised by the Electoral Reform Society, the Democratic Society, What Works Scotland, Improvement Service and the Scottish Government: ‘A Better Place: Communities, Citizens and Consumers & New Approaches to Social Policy & Public Services’.

The purpose of the Better Place forum was to help decision-makers, practitioners and experts examine ways to allow greater citizen involvement in public service decisions and delivery. The event tried to identify common language, approaches and leadership profiles that can help bring about more collaborative work between and among institutions and citizens in a changing Scotland. The discussions that took place during the forum have been recorded and will be analysed to produce recommendations for practical action.

The forum took place over two sessions. An evening session introduced the background, theories and ideas and allowed the group to get to know each other. The following day, they were put to work, producing a set of ideas that will be worked up into recommendations.

Indra Adnan, Director of the Soft Power Network, outlined various global shifts, or ‘revolutions’, which encourage a change in focus towards community orientated public services. These shifts included revolutions in connectivity; mobilisation; collaboration; mediation; and location, which open up opportunities for hyper-localism, the erosion of hierarchies, and collaborative public services.

The next day, we discussed issues of: language and approach to community engagement; structures & processes required for to enable a better coordinated response to the needs of citizens; the roles of leadership and accountability; and the practical steps needed to move our communities and services to ‘A Better Place’ of citizen focused public services.

There is a lot of analysis still to be done, but here are my reflections from two days of stimulating conversation.

Language and approaches


 
There was a consensus in the room that a shift towards collaborative government, citizen focused public services and co-production, was the right direction. The Better Place Forum was a fertile environment for metaphors. Many described a genuine collaborative government, with co-design of services implementing the Scottish Approach to Government as ‘The North Star’ or ‘The Summit of The Mountain’ – the better place we are trying to steer towards.

Others described a new collaborative public sphere as a Garden, where people should be free to experiment with new ways of delivering public services and involving the public in policy making. It was noted that current leaders should “stop being architects and start being gardeners”, moving away from grand plans, delivered from the top, and to nurtured projects that grow over time.

Although metaphor-crafting was entertaining, and there was a lot of overlap in language, I was left with the impression that we still needed a clearer narrative and lexicon – a shared way of describing talking and about this change in government and public services. It needs to be straight forward, easily understood, and easily shared. While the language of public service increasingly features words such as: participation, co-design, collaboration and engagement, there is a strong need for a clear and joined up narrative. Such important ideas cannot become simply new buzzwords that will disappear over time. The words highlighted during the forum should be part of the new language of contemporary government in Scotland. Hopefully, after full analysis of the forum data, this new narrative will be within reach.

Structures and processes 


While there was agreement over the general desired goals, I think there is still a lack of clarity about the structures and processes required to reach the ‘North Star’ of citizen focused public services. But this was not seen to be a problem by many of the delegates. This was because attendees felt that “space” should be given to find the best practices and processes for citizen engagement within public services. So, although attendees “know where they want to go, but don’t know how to get there”, delegates surmised that there was a need to identify small projects and activities that might ‘spread’ across the public sector, ‘growing’ a new and engaging way of providing public services.

I also think there was a feeling that new engagement processes should be seen as valuable throughout policy making development. It was noted that policy-making processes should shift from being seen as a conveyer belt, and towards a constantly evolving ecosystem, that adapts to the lessons learned from community engagement and other citizen-focused exercises.

Leadership 


From my perspective there was agreement that if we wish to achieve greater citizen involvement in public services and social policy there was a need to change the attributes of leadership. This was best described as a shift from managerial hierarchical leadership, towards participative and facilitative leadership. Leaders who are comfortable with allowing staff (and citizens) to experiment with new ways of doing things, and realise it is fine not to know all of the answers.

I think there is a description emerging of a new public service leader that is able to equip and grow the capacity of staff to facilitate and involve communities in shaping services and policy. It seems that leaders in a ‘Better Place’ are collaborative and networked leaders, open to iterative procedures.

These initial thoughts will be expanded upon, or altered, as soon as all of the data from the forum has been analysed in the coming weeks. My brief summary would be that we need: a clear narrative for this contemporary way of organising public services and doing government; the creation of space or spaces to experiment with processes to achieve the desired results of better connected public services and a citizenry who are involved in decisions that shape their lives, creating better policy in the process; and the involvement of elected politicians, as well as more citizens, in these conversations as we journey towards the ‘North Star’ shining over our organic garden of citizen-focused public services.



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