We’ve talked a lot about giving power to people in our “Power To Our Communities” series and now we want to reflect on how that interplays with the public sector. In particular, how do we create a state of deep trust between the public sector and the communities it serves? The last nine months have highlighted just how important that relationship is to all of our lives, and yet as ideas and programmes get launched at breakneck speed in order to tackle the fall out from the pandemic, we risk ignoring the foundational importance of deep trust. Without there is no cooperation and without cooperation there is no impact.
This is especially important when communities are done with compromising on challenges that were previously tolerated — the type of work we do, the level of income we have to live with, the lack of connected thinking between public and mental health provision, the need for racial justice, and so much more. Both communities and the public sector have a role to play in all of this but only through deep trust can it be done in a way where the public sector doesn’t feel like a distant force competing against the hopes and efforts of communities who have to live all of this every single day.
Of course, for a while now, people have been trying to find ways to build bridges between the public sector and communities. For example, the Open Government Partnership has been on a mission since 2011. As things stand they have 78 country members, many local governments and thousands of civil society collaborators. In 9 years this has led to over 4000 open government reforms. Nesta is also doing a lot of work in championing a people-powered shift so that communities hold the power and the means to do something with it. (Through their work on the Upstream Collaborative, they worked with 20 local authorities to see how public services can be people-powered.) It’s really refreshing to see that there is more equitable and human centred design embedded in public services across the country, and that there has definitely been a shift in how the public sector defines the relationship between them and the citizens they serve; They are actively working with communities in a way that enables people to work on solutions that prevent issues rather than just relying on the public sector when dealing with the aftermath.
However, over the last decade, whilst all those efforts have been happening, things have changed drastically across the world. For one thing many democracies are in peril, we have far more populist leaders, our internet is a swamp of disinformation, wealth gaps have widened, people are struggling. Despite all the efforts of so many, those headwinds are impacting trust. And then came along a pandemic.
In the UK, 47% report feeling that they have no influence over national decision-making and 43% feel the same about local decision making. This trust gap needs to be eliminated and urgently. Communities want and need public services that matter to them. At the same time they feel removed from the decisions that affect them. As a result, they’re doing things themselves because they have a sense of urgency to solve the problems which inhibit them from living their best lives.
Mutual aid groups are a great example. Volunteering efforts during the outbreak of the pandemic happened almost instantly and organically. Then came the public sector volunteering efforts. The former didn’t come from the public sector, it happened as a result of people having time to help, and most importantly — wanting to help their communities. At the same time, the public sector wants to help too but cannot move as fast — decisions have to be made that consider scenarios that might not be important to one community but not all.
So, in the face of all of this, how can the public sector and communities become aligned in a shared purpose without anyone feeling their priorities have been compromised?
Having spoken to community leaders here are 5 key principles that will help:
1. Find ways to have meaningful conversations
Hard work is happening in the public sector, tough decisions are being made, people are striving to do their best for communities but those details can be lost in the headlines. More conversations and repeated interactions lead to common ground and understanding. What if every public service department connected the people that work within it to the communities that they live within? What if those bridges were given the time to converse to people within their communities? What if every community could see a headline and say ‘We understand where that came from because we have been chatting to people who work in that department’.
What would it take to make that happen and turn it into a key metric to measure — “How many meaningful conversations have our teams had with people in their communities?”
Once you have that reality, only then can initiatives like open-decision making be truly trusted and understood.
2. Create opportunities for collective actions
Often the only interaction that people have with the public sector is when something goes wrong or they are told they have to do something. This dynamic has to change. Yes there is plenty of work being done on co-production but how can we ensure that citizens feel their ideas and thoughts are really taken onboard?
What if people with lived experience of the very challenges we need to solve, were hired as researchers and imagination enablers? What if there was an exchange programme where lived experts swapped places with policymakers?
All of this is possible and an ambitious model of people powered solutions is something the Cares Family is doing. They have just launched their Multiplier programme. Over the next five years, they’re working to identify and support 50 leaders to build connections in their own communities in ways that work for them. They want to create a dynamic wave of “new ideas to reduce loneliness and build bridges across the UK, led by people’s lived experience, where they are”. This is exactly the kind of programme that should be supported by the public sector and also rolled out in so many different areas.
3. Build alliances with trusted bridges and give them power
The public sector cannot do it alone, there has to be a bridge and communities and civil society are critical allies. Through them, it becomes easier to find and elevate local leadership in a way that recognises their efforts and enables long-term success on the ground.
Take the Selby Trust in Tottenham as an example. They already had trusted alliances and were prepared for a crisis where those alliances would work collectively. They were able to mobilise with the council, the Local Area Coordination network, and 31 mutual aid groups. All of them worked together with trust to support those who needed support in the area.
DCMS’ Placed Based Social Action programme is another example of bridge building. For example, they supported the Halifax Opportunities Trust to employ a team of community organisers to work with local businesses and the community to ensure that their diverse community was reaching those that needed it.
Truth be told, there is no shortage of movements to give power to. For example, the LEx Movement is a community of 880 (so far) lived experience leaders across the UK. It has become a vibrant, resilient, and culturally diverse community of individuals, organisations, and coalitions. Every single LEx leader has immense trust and knowledge about their local community and environment. They should be front and centre of any work the public sector does.
However this has to be done respectfully, there has to be a model where acknowledgement and attribution are the core principles. Power is given when ideas are acknowledged and attributed. For far too long, people with lived experience have given up their ideas through consultations, focus groups, and workshops. Imagine if knowledge equity existed? If those people were given more than a footnote in a report? The public sector could work with organisations like the Centre for Knowledge Equity to make this happen.
Just imagine if every single policy area had leadership from people with lived experience?
4. What assets and resources can you share?
Communities have ideas but they may not have the resources to bring them to life. We need to build a map of assets and resources that can be shared — everything from space, training, access to policymakers and decision makers. Space is such a crucial commons — a study by the Social Integration APPG found that mutual aid groups flourished in areas which had “abundant community assets where people of different backgrounds can meet and mix’. That requires public spaces where people can meet, bond, and plan. At the moment that’s mainly happening on Whatsapp, Facebook and Zoom but once we come out of the other side of this pandemic, we need public commons where people from all walks of life can come together and build trust.
Everything that can be shared, should be shared. Each time this happens, you’re building trust and cohesion. This sort of shared space and asset alliance has been happening in Camden since the pandemic started — Somers Town Community Association, The Living Centre, The Francis Crick Institute, Global Generation, The Ossulston Tenants and Residents Association, Phoenix Court, Central St Martins, and Lend Lease, have all come together to work with and support people in St Pancras, Somers Town and Regents Park during the whole crisis. All of them are sharing resources and the whole operation is being run from the Somers Town Community Association’s own space and The Living Centre that it operates.
That level of trust has been built up over the years and when it came to the biggest challenge the local community has faced in so many years, everything was ready to go. Now imagine if the public sector had said “Here are all the resources and assets we have in your area — you can use all of them.”. Not everything that has to cost money, often just using what you already have can lead to so much good.
So, what would you add to this list? We’d love to hear your thoughts and then we’ll publish a list of different trust building ideas that we can collectively share with key public sector departments.
This reflection is part of our new series “Power To Our Communities” — see what else we have coming up and subscribe here