How can civic partnerships establish clear goals to guide the action required to meet a complex set of local challenges?
We live in challenging times. As individuals we need to find ways in our own lives to support our families; develop and maintain our membership in wider networks of relationships; earn our living; contribute in other ways to advancing what we value; and learn how to do all of this better. Of course, these various aspects of our lives are inter-related and sometimes in tension, as we search for a good balance between different requirements. So it is at the level of communities.
In the work John O’Brien and I did with public authorities and local people in two English Counties (reported in Conversations about building sustainable and inclusive communities http://www.centreforwelfarereform.org/library/authors/david-towell/conversations-on-inclusive-communities.html ) we were able to identify an middle level ‘system of challenges’ (represented diagrammatically in Conversations, page 8) which connect eleven major sets of issues which call for local co-production of effective responses. Of course, each of these could be disaggregated and other issues added to create a more complex map and, in turn, this could be refined to add further detail.
Historically in British public policy, challenges like these have been addressed through separate policies, different departments of government or other agencies and involving different professions, often through specific programmes or services which were not well connected either with each other or with the communities they served. That was always a weakness but in a period when the costs of failure on some fronts (for example, in relation to climate change) are likely to be huge and the continuing financial crisis is a major constraint on investment, there is a renewed premium on securing maximum impact on local priorities from all our efforts.
An important contemporary response to this requirement is found in what I call outcomes-based policy-making. (See for example the current London Borough of Lambeth experiment in Social Value commissioning http://www.collaboratei.com/media/4098/Social%20Value%20A%20Commissioning%20Framework%20Report.pdf ) The concept is simple (although the practice less so). Essentially the idea is to encourage civic leaderships, working with their communities and other local stakeholders to ask – and answer – the question ‘what are the key things (the valued outcomes) we are seeking to achieve overall in this locality?’ and then to use this public statement of priorities as the template to guide and evaluate everything which is done e.g. through the enabling role of the local authority, the services it commissions and provides and different kinds of community action. Clearly the same approach, but refined to reflect more local opportunities and perspectives, can also be applied at the neighbourhood level.
Central to this approach is the way in which these key outcomes are developed and expressed. As I say in the introduction to this second series of blogs, democratically-elected local authorities and their officers have a responsibility for ‘place shaping’ to promote the well being of the whole community, by protecting the environment, enabling sustainable economic development and advancing social justice, all with the support and active participation of local people.
In Britain, the fullest statement of national policy on sustainable development is presented in the last government’s White Paper (March 2005)Securing the future. A subsequent White Paper (October 2006) Strong and prosperous communities provided a comprehensive framework for local government (as ‘strategic leader and place-shaper’) and its partners to produce and deliver Sustainable Community Strategies. Some but not all of these intentions have been incorporated at least into the rhetoric of the current coalition government, for example in its Big Society programme, and the recent Public Services (Social Value) Act (which came into force in January 2013) explicitly mandates a broad outcomes-focused approach in requiring ‘public authorities to have regard to economic, social and environmental well-being’ (not just economic efficiency) in exercising this local leadership.
So for example, in the London Borough of Islington (where I live), the local authority has defined more fully what these three areas mean in terms of strengthening the local economy and paying the living wage, promoting vibrant and inclusive communities and minimising negative environmental impacts, all as part of a political commitment Towards a Fairer Islington http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7fHnCEU9F-c
On a broader front, it is now 20 years since the 1994 Aalborg Declaration which led ten years later to the European Sustainable Cities Charter www.sustainablecities.eu/aalborg-process/charter This charter has now been signed by 2700 local authorities from 40 countries. The 10 Aalborg commitments (informed by the 1992 Rio Earth Summit Agenda 21 proposals) make sustainability central to local policy making, including through attention to local economic development, protection of the environment, non-polluting transport and responsible consumption; emphasise social justice and the health and wellbeing of local citizens; and recognise the need to advance this agenda through strengthening participatory democracy.
Informed by useful frameworks like these, every locality needs processes of leadership and stakeholder engagement to agree local goals and express these in terms of valued outcomes. They also need ways of working across agency and other boundaries to pursue these goals effectively and ensure that local people are active partners in both shaping the goals and delivering necessary action. The next two blogs in this series, Strand II and Strand III, explore these two requirements in more detail.