How can local authorities step into a Citizen future?

Jon Alexander
Jun 8, 2020 · 11 min read

In Subject, Consumer, Citizen: Three Post-Covid Futures, we set out our understanding of this as a crucible moment, in which the story that dominates and defines the next phase of our lives is up for grabs. This could be the time in which a truly participatory future takes shape. Since sharing that view, we’ve been working to understand what the most important intervention points might be in making sure it is — and it’s become clear to us that local government is as crucial as any.

The surge in community spirit and action through Mutual Aid groups and other such initiatives is perhaps the most significant green shoot of this Citizen future. Local authorities have a vital role in nurturing and building it and could themselves flourish by doing so; or they could become the point at which this eruption of civic will is snuffed out, and likely continue to suffer themselves in the process.

In this piece, we start by setting out how the three possible futures we have identified might manifest in this sector, then focus in on what local authorities can and should do in order to build towards the Citizen future. To do so, we’ve drawn on inspiration from our work both in the sector (including in particular our continuing work with Kirklees Council and the Government of Jersey) and beyond (including with organisations like The Guardian and the Co-op); and on the work of other organisations, including the New Local Government Network, the Democratic Society, Involve, Notwestminster, and many more. What follows is work-in-progress thinking — but it’s standing on the shoulders of a whole swathe of both theory and practice.

Three futures for local government

The stories of Subject, Consumer and Citizen have all been present in local government since Covid-19 hit; this is true in terms of the relationships both between local and central government, and between local government and citizens.

In the Subject story, the role for individuals is to keep our heads down and be content with our lot, while the God-given few lead society forward. In a local authority context, this has involved stepping into the role of Local Protector, for example in shielding the vulnerable and providing them with essentials. If this story were to develop and take hold, local authorities would become the administrative outposts of a controlling state, something that can seem appealing in this time — authorities could become a lot bigger and better funded in such a future, with a much-expanded remit. But they would be told what to do, and they would tell people what to do. This sort of system is highly unlikely to have the answers to the many and diverse challenges already present, let alone those coming down the road.

The Consumer story is the story that was dominant in wider society before Covid-19, and had been driving local government reform from the days of New Public Management. We’d argue that even some of the best-intentioned efforts of recent years — for example bringing “user-centred design” into the local authority lexicon — represent a refinement rather than a meaningful shift from this story. In this story, the role of government at all levels is to provide services to consumers, and as such should be as small as possible since markets are better at providing services. Local authorities are like the branch outlets of a retailer, shop-floor staff to central government’s head office, and more to be managed for compliance rather than given autonomy and power. We the people are seen as atomised Consumers, motivated by narrow self-interest, to be served efficiently and effectively. The arrival of the virus briefly threw this story up in the air, but the default is that it will reassert itself now — and it is a story in which neither local authorities nor citizens will ever be able to fulfil our potential.

The Citizen is the story that opens up a really exciting future. We’ve seen this story emerge in powerful and exciting ways, most notably the surge in civic energy that has expressed itself in Mutual Aid groups, in less formalised street-level networks, in the overwhelming sign-ups to the NHS Responder scheme, and much more besides. In many cases, local authorities have stepped into the immediate space impressively: our friends at Kirklees Council, for example, came in behind and in support of local civil society, building Community Response Kirklees together — not attempting to supersede or dominate, but providing the infrastructure, resources and expertise that enable these emergent solutions to fulfil their potential.

What we don’t know — what no one knows — is how to build this into future models, resisting the gravitational pull of business-as-usual as we move out of a constant state of emergency and into a new normal, or at least some sort of operational stability. No one knows exactly what local authorities would look like in the Citizen future, because we haven’t lived in it yet. But the starting point is that as Citizens, we see ourselves and each other as fundamentally capable of working together, and wanting to do it — and that means a very different role for government at all levels, not as a service provider but as an enabler.

The Citizen story is the one we want to build, and it’s one that has been work in progress for some time — through the New Local Government Network’s work on the Community Paradigm and Community Power, and through what Local Trust, the National Lottery Community Fund and the Democratic Society have been doing with Big Local, Power To Change, and Public Square. The opportunity of the moment is that the Covid-19 crisis has loosened the Consumer story from its moorings: as such, now is a moment for local authorities to seize. From the feedback we’ve had to date, these three lenses already help by making the alternatives more distinct and tangible. Now we want to go further, and offer three steps we believe local authorities need to take to create that Citizen future.

Three steps to the Citizen future

Step 1: Share the big question(s)

When you think and act as an enabler of Citizens rather than a provider of services, the first difference is that you stop trying to come up with the answers. We’ve seen this show up in our work in statements like “If something needs doing, the council has seen it as its role to do it.” What you do instead is listen, identify the right questions, then ask them openly, and hold the space. This starts at the overall strategic level — our view is that councils should reimagine themselves as action research bodies, holding an inquiry question something like:

How can we work together with citizens to make the places we all live better?

This question structure — how can we work together with [citizens] to [deliver outcome] — can be tailored to many different contexts: more specific places (at a neighbourhood or street scale), more specific issues and outcomes, even to the level of the individual citizen. An officer could start it in their work, a senior manager could use it to lead their team, or a group of councillors could model it or demand it as the overarching approach. The attitude of holding a question, rather than providing an answer, is the critical point.

Step 2: Build the platform, inside and out

Once you’ve shared the question, you then get into the really difficult work of creating the structures and processes that make it easy — and ideally enjoyable — for people to work together to build the answers. People means councillors, officers, and citizens, side by side. (As an aside, it’s worth noting that almost all these people — with the exception of a few officers — are citizens of the area anyway; one of the fundamental hazards of the Consumer service provider story is that it creates an “us” and a “them” which actually have no roots in reality.) There are two sides to this work: the internal work of getting officers and councillors to think as platform creators rather than service providers; and the practical work of creating the means of participation.

On the internal challenge, we find it useful to think about the rituals that are in place in a local authority: the day-to-day routines, practices and symbols that embody the idea of what the work is, and are often so ingrained as to be invisible. There is really practical work to be done here to notice and redesign, because at the moment there are likely to be a lot of ritualised Subject and Consumer behaviours. For example:

  • What are the measures of success? If you measure and report efficiency of service delivery, for example, this clearly embodies the idea of the council as a service provider. What if you measured citizenship instead? (This challenge lies at the heart of the next stage of our work with Kirklees Council.)
  • How present are local citizens and places inside the local authority? We’ve seen endless council offices with no photographs on the walls, and no physical presence of local citizens. What if you blurred the lines, perhaps holding a regular webinar where a senior manager or councillor interviews a local citizen to learn from what they are doing?
  • What language and imagery needs to tell a different story? All sorts of things come under this heading, from brand identities which are still often heraldic coats of arms (powerful Subject symbolism) to job titles. These are a personal obsession of mine, things like “Head of Democratic Service”: since when is democracy a service?!

On the external challenge, we talk about totems as a way to get this thinking started: the idea that a few highly visible interventions can play a powerful role in making the Citizen story tangible and real. The key is to combine these with work on rituals in parallel: without rituals, what could have been a totem too easily ends up just a procurement project, managed in a silo, without penetrating the culture (we’ve seen this several times with councils commissioning one-off Citizens’ Assemblies, for example); without totems, rituals are too incremental and gradual for the speed of change this moment demands. If you need a little help coming up with ideas, we’re in the process of developing a local government version of a tool we call the Seven Modes of Everyday Participation (this first iteration was developed for the cooperative movement), which is all about starting from what people can do; here’s a taster:

Our 7 modes of #EverydayParticipation
  1. Tell Stories — where people actively share and make sense of stories from their own experience in order to inform what you do. The anthropological approach that sits at the heart of the Wigan Deal sits right in this space.
  2. Gather Data — citizen science projects, where people do everything from keep diaries (as in this great Young Foundation project) to count birds in their garden, can really help understand what’s going on in a place
  3. Share Connections — designing mechanics that encourage people to pass on ideas and resources, rather than just seeing the individual, is a real opportunity. One of the best examples is Mayor Naheed Nenshi’s “3 Things for Calgary” campaign, which asks people to share the three things they intend to do for the sake of the city, and nominate three friends to do the same.
  4. Contribute Ideas — where people make suggestions in response to a shared question, one of the best examples of which is Better Reykavik, a digital project which has seen over 70% of local citizens contribute ideas for how their city could be better.
  5. Give Time — from more classic volunteering to hosting “community visits” of officers to their neighbourhood.
  6. Learn Skills — creating a platform for lifetime learning by connecting citizens together to share skills, drawing inspiration from Restart Project, tool libraries and Men’s Sheds
  7. Crowdfund Innovation — from the council matching funds for crowdfunded local projects (and perhaps inviting local business to do the same), to participatory budgeting. With innovations like Community Municipal Bonds, this could become a very meaningful funding source for local authorities.

What we usually find is that when people start thinking like this — about all the ways citizens could participate — they go from one extreme, of thinking it’s impossible, to the other, of feeling overwhelmed and not knowing where to start. Which is where Step 3 comes in…

Step 3: Start experimenting

The final step is really the first concrete step — pick somewhere and try something. We like to say that there is no grand utopian switch you can flip, so that overnight you go from Consumer story to Citizen story. As such, the key is to start where there’s energy, where there are people who are up for it. That might be geographically, in a part of your area where community organisations have done; or in a particular directorate; or just whatever is in front of your face. Once you’ve decided on where to start, make sure you treat it as an experiment, and make something real as soon as you can.

The reason why this matters is because the traps of the old ways of working are as much about process as output. “Plan, Do, Review” models trap local authorities in the old world of designing to avoid blame, rather than designing to enable flourishing. Getting out there in small ways, being clear with both the intention and the recognition that it won’t be perfect, is the only way we’re going to create the Citizen story. It’s the only way that leaves space for people to make it better.

The Offer

This spirit — of leaving the space for people to make it better — is how we’ve written this piece. Hopefully there’s some ideas in here that can get you going straight away, and if you do try working with any of it or have any comments or thoughts, we’d love to hear from you. What we’d love to do from here though is share it and learn about it with you. Specifically, we’ve got two offers to make:

First, we’re designing a two-part virtual workshop to explore these ideas — initially we’re thinking this would be suitable for a group of around 20 people. We’ll help you take on a particular challenge that we agree in advance, and together we’ll learn more about the ideas as we work with them.

Second, we’re looking to convene six local authorities — ideally representing a range of scales, remits, regions, urban-rural, etc — to work with, build on and challenge these ideas more systematically over the next year, with the ambition of creating a toolkit or similar resource together that could then be used by other local authorities. The template for this is a process we call Collaborative Innovation, one we’ve already run in several other sectors.

If you’d be interested to know more about either of these opportunities, please get in touch via, or find us on twitter. We look forward to hearing from you!


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New Citizenship Project

We are an Innovation Consultancy: we convene…

New Citizenship Project

We are an Innovation Consultancy: we convene multi-organisation collaborative projects, provide bespoke consultancy & develop initiatives, inspiring and equipping organisations of all kinds to involve people as Citizens not just treat them as Consumers.

Jon Alexander

Written by

activist / strategist / citizen / co-founder @NewCitProj / fellow @the_young_fdn @theRSAorg / member @CompassOffice @soclibforum

New Citizenship Project

We are an Innovation Consultancy: we convene multi-organisation collaborative projects, provide bespoke consultancy & develop initiatives, inspiring and equipping organisations of all kinds to involve people as Citizens not just treat them as Consumers.