Building a better future through civic partnership

Following the first series of these word press blogs, I produced a short pamphlet Networking for Social Change, exploring how through citizen action we can help to create local communities which are sustainable and include everyone as equal citizens. Drawing together key messages from this second series of blogs, I have now published a complementary pamphlet Building A Better Future Through Civic Partnership. Available at

In this sequel, I continue to emphasise the importance of citizen networks as grass roots drivers of community development, but consider in more detail how local innovation can be scaled up to the level of towns and counties, typically the first or second levels of democratic local government.

The new pamphlet examines how citizen groups and local authority leaderships can work together to create the civic partnerships required to deliver local change which meets the triple objectives of protecting the environment, advancing social justice and enabling sustainable economic development. It concludes with a 15 item checklist of questions to guide both ‘sides’ in these partnerships in co-producing strategies for a better future.

In parallel, colleagues at the New Economics Foundation have just produced a much more detailed publication Commissioning for outcomes and co-production, described as ‘a practical guide for local authorities on how to put social, environmental and economic value at the heart of their commissioning decisions’ which provides a very useful complement to my new pamphlet. In particular it describes several examples of local efforts to achieve multiple outcomes through particular initiatives. These include the reform of mental health services in Camden, the development of young people’s services in Islington and Lambeth and providing better school meals in Nottinghamshire.

The nef guide is addressed to local authorities but as its title suggests, it puts strong emphasis on ‘co-production’ between these authorities, the people and communities they serve and indeed the providers of these services.

Enlarging key themes in my pamphlet, it seeks to conceptualise a new approach to commissioning which:
• Distinguishes three phases in the commissioning process: gaining insight into what is required; planning and procuring services; and delivering and evaluating them.
• Emphasises co-production, partnership and learning from experience as important activities throughout this process.
• Makes a focus on outcomes for people and the whole community the key driver of change.

This third element is especially illuminating in our search for ‘win – win’ initiatives which simultaneously serve multiple goals.

In the nef approach, commissioning agencies and partnerships are encouraged to develop an outcomes framework and to invite potential providers to work with people who use their services to co-produce activities which will best deliver these outcomes. This framework needs to reflect the Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012 in attending to environmental, economic and social goals as well as identifying more specific outcomes based on what is important to people in relation to a particular service. Moreover the outcomes need to attend to both the interests of particular service users and benefits to the wider community.

In articulating the social outcomes, nef makes ‘well-being’ a key objective, given more precision, for example by attending to the five ways to well-being: ‘connect, be active, take notice, keep learning and give’. It also draws attention to the importance of looking ‘upstream’ so as to find opportunities for the prevention of problems as well as dealing with their consequences.

All this becomes clearer through the examples. In the London Borough of Camden, the focus was on improving mental health day services. The local authority already had a high level set of sustainable community strategy goals, concerned with sustainable growth, a strong economy, connected and vibrant communities and responsive public services, which had been translated into more concrete priorities. These provided the basis for identifying community level outcomes.

The five ways to well-being, again translated into more concrete priorities relevant to mental health services, provided the basis for identifying service level outcomes including being well-housed, maximising personal income, getting a job, staying healthy and extending friendship networks. Camden commissioners also specified some of the processes (or quality characteristics) they expected would contribute to these outcomes (e.g. information and advice, personal support, educational opportunities etc.) without trying to define the precise shape of future services.

Here then is a framework for potential service providers, working with people using these services to shape and cost proposals for future provision. It is also a framework which other parts of the local authority and other service providers could use to identify ways in which their activities could contribute to greater success across these outcomes.

There is a lot here to inform other efforts to achieve effective civic partnerships.