Do we need a community power act?

Simon Parker
Nov 12, 2019 · 4 min read

Adam Lent, my excellent successor as director at NLGN, thinks we do. In a blog post today he sparked a really useful discussion about what it takes to make community power a reality. If you’re reading this, you probably agree with Adam that we need to radically shift our model of public service away from statist top-downery, and towards a model which engages the genius of service users and local people. And you probably recognise that there are huge barriers to making this happen.

Adam’s solution is a major act of parliament which would require councils and other public bodies to explain how they will transfer power and resources to communities, combined with substantial devolution and all locked in with a new, locally-driven inspection regime. It’s exactly the sort of big, bold idea NLGN should be producing. Hilary Cottam has since written a really good piece in which she both welcomes the proposal and questions whether an act of parliament will really remove the barriers to change. I want to build on that and suggest that Adam’s Act needs a second act.

When it comes to Westminster mandating local government to empower communities, we have been here before. The Localism Act of 2011 contained two important new rights designed to help communities buy assets they cared about, and to challenge local government’s right to run a particular service. I can’t find an evaluation of the impact of the rights, but my experience tells me it was pretty mixed. Put it this way: if the rights had been successful, we wouldn’t be talking about a Community Power Act today.

There were, I think, three highly questionable assumptions going on in the Localism Act. The first is that mandating a right from the centre will make that right actually happen on the ground. The second is that councils are the barrier to community power and must be told to do something different. The third is that communities are ready and willing to wield the new rights. I worry that a Community Rights Act might in practice encode some of the same dodgy assumptions about how change happens.

Hilary rightly argues for a new model of public service which involves professionals not looking up to power and down to communities, but seeking power and agency in their relationships and collaborations. But I wonder if even this level of radicalism really captures the challenges we face in making community power a reality. When public service professionals talk about community power, we tend to see it as an extension of our services and the outcomes we hope to achieve. We want to engage communities in achieving our goals. At worst, we see communities as a way of delivering our services more cost effectively.

But for me, at least, community power sits outside public management frameworks. It is not a question of how we achieve healthier or more prosperous communities, but a shift in democratic consciousness towards a much more active and engaged vision of citizenship. It is about creating communities and individuals that can navigate the vast cultural and economic challenges of a fragmented digital age and the onset of the Anthropocene.

This is a gigantic endeavour. The forty years of the neoliberal project have severely weakened the once-mighty British capacity to make collaborative decisions. The state has responded with a depressing tendency to create adult-teenager relationships with communities. Our collective participatory muscles have weakened through lack of use, and we’re going to have to build them up again.

In his book The Nordic Secret the Swedish writer Tomas Bjorkman and his Danish co-author Lene Anderson argue that the Scandinavian countries flourished in the industrial era because they deliberately developed their populations to create a new kind of citizen. That is where an attempt at growing community power should start. Following the Harvard psychologist Robert Kegan, we might argue that we need to develop more self-authoring and self-transforming minds so that we can have more self-authoring and self-transforming communities.

I promised a second act to Adam’s Act, so here are my proposals, which should be read as building on what he has already written:

1. Create more free time: community power thrives when people have time to devote to their friends, neighbours and families. You could do this through a universal basic income or a reduction in working hours without loss of pay.

2. Create independent, long-term funding for the commons: endow a network of local foundations, led by local people, which could provide steady, ongoing funding to support community organisations.

3. Give every citizen the right to three gap years for civic service: everyone would be able to take time out across their life course for personal development in their communities, receiving a stipend and other government support to cover basic living costs. These would typically be taken after the end of formal education, at midlife and before retirement.

4. Transform citizenship education: if we believe that 21st century citizenship is fundamentally participatory, then we need to ensure we are teaching young people the skills they need to participate. At one level this probably includes digital literacy, but at another it might involve more young people learning by helping to address public problems. I probably need some teachers to help with this one.

5. Transform public leadership training: we need to ensure that the development we offer senior public servants prepares them for the world of community power. This means a curriculum based on skills such as facilitation, psychology, community and organisational development and improvisation.

Give us rights, but give us the ability to use those rights too. That’s how we’ll build the new thing.

In love and appreciation.

Simon Parker

Written by

Local government irregular. Ideas for everyone. Tend to start on twitter, write up raw drafts here, sometimes get published in respectable places.

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