• Opinion
  • March 28, 2019
  • 7 minutes
  • 1

Struggling local councils are getting citizens to help deliver vital services

Opinion: New analysis from Oxford University points to growing trend across UK

This piece was written by Nigel Ball, Deputy Director of The Government Outcomes Lab, a centre of research and practice at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford. For more like this, see our public private partnerships newsfeed.


Brexit is distracting politicians from caring about local issues, yet many councils across the UK are scrabbling for spare change to help the most vulnerable.

A new report, released today by the Government Outcomes Lab at the University of Oxford, reveals that local councils are now turning to their own communities and residents for help delivering vital public services and collaborating with them to overcome complex social problems.

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Rallying around the problem

The report, titled Are we Rallying Together? Collaboration and public sector reform, dissects this approach to sharing responsibility in 10 places across the UK, including Oldham, Wigan, Wirral and Plymouth.

It finds that collaboration between councils and the communities they serve is a response to austerity and the desperate need to save money.

But it is also happening because conventional approaches are not working. Despite public spending on voluntary organisations in the UK hitting £15.3 billion ($20bn), there is a clear failure to tackle some of the toughest issues in society. Today, homelessness, chronic unemployment and educational underachievement are still widespread and growing.

In response, partnerships are being forged between councils and local businesses, community and voluntary organisations, as well as individuals.

Whilst these collaborations look different, the report shares four key ingredients that characterise the most successful attempts at collaborative working:

  1. New leadership that is not based on hierarchy but is inclusive and equal.
  2. A more trusting culture, where frontline workers can make their own judgments rather than blindly following protocol.
  3. Practical changes like co-locating teams, bringing in new types of meetings, and shared use of data.
  4. A different conversation with communities, moving from “what can we do for you?” to “what would you like to be able to do? What resources have you got to help you to do that, and what are the gaps?”

Value for money for the taxpayer 

Whilst collaboration is being touted as the answer to the most complex problems in our society, how do we know it is actually working? And when no one is “in charge” who is accountable for success or failure?

We can see that collaboration between the public, private and voluntary sectors is emerging in many different ways across the UK. It is essential to look at what is happening on the ground and see whether these approaches really are delivering.

These partnerships vary widely. However, analysis of the 10 sites of collaboration in the report has allowed us to categorise them according to a four-part typology: collaborative councils, collaborative markets, agents of change, and system connectors. This framework is a useful lens to draw out some of the differences, and similarities, of approaches in different times and spaces.

The report considers the respective challenges of these different types of collaboration, and provides key considerations for measuring success. The notion of measurement and target-setting was found to be contentious for many of those involved in working across the community-authority divide — but provision of learning and feedback was seen as essential.

Why does this report matter?

A rejection of traditional, top-down approaches imposed by a centralised elite. A desperate response to a decade of financial pressure. A recognition that we should engage citizens more in the delivery of services which are supposed to be for them.

This report is a starting point for understanding what collaboration is really about.

As with any research inspired exercise, we find ourselves ending this phase of investigation with more questions than answers.

The following are several questions that we think are most pertinent to future collaborative practice and where research can be most valuable to practitioners working collaboratively.

What regulatory constraints prevent collaborative approaches? Does collaboration deliver better value and impact? How do we embed collaborative practice that is resilient and effective in navigating setbacks and disagreements? How can we design systems for flexible governance, feedback and learning? What is the “right way” to engage citizens in public services without exploiting them?

We welcome conversation, discussion and debate about these questions. Given the increasing interest in collaborative approaches, we encourage researchers, policymakers, public managers and practitioners to reflect on what the future can and should look like.

And we welcome conversations with those interested in working together with us on both research and engagement. Not only is there more to be learned, there is more to be done to ensure decision-makers and doers are able to benefit from all that is already known. — Nigel Ball

(Picture credit: Pexels)

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