This week Adam Lent started an important conversation at the New Local Government Network, about how we enable a system shift away from a highly centralised mode of government to one which is community driven. He writes; ‘Currently it takes a rare combination of courage, persistence and vision on the part of local leaders to adopt community power while it is at odds with the overwhelmingly paternalistic and institutional status quo.’
Well put. This is something all of us who work within communities and alongside local government will recognise. Adam’s proposal is A Community Power Act. The Act will dismantle national power structures in order to tackle local economic development, public services and participation. The Act will mandate collaboration and formally inspect that it is happening. Inspectors will have the ability to apply sanctions.
The proposals address the core challenge we face: how to shift from industrial top down systems to new forms of collaboration. The ambition that Adam sets out is exciting – and yet, something troubles me in the approach.
Firstly, I wonder how much of what is currently blocking change needs legislation. Reading the proposed Act, I was reminded of a Minister who made an intervention with similar intent almost 20 years ago. In 2002 Estelle Morris who was at the time Secretary of State for Innovation implemented a Power to Innovate. The power allowed schools to ignore any piece of education legislation that they felt was blocking radical change they wanted to make. Schools simply had to inform the department. None did. Not because they did not want to innovate but because in reality it was not law that was standing in their way but mind-sets. Those that wanted to innovate could.
Times have changed and the room to innovate has narrowed. Adam points for example to the impossibility of designing local labour market and skills policy when decisions and budgets are entirely controlled from central London. I have grappled with this block in the system myself and know that it prevents any meaningful change. The challenges in other words are real. But still I wonder if legislation is the way to go.
The shift we seek is structural and cultural. In Radical Help I describe this as a movement away from industrial / vertical power and organisation to one which is relational and horizontal. The New Horizontalists as I call them, understand that it is rarely formal structures of power that stand in their way. This group which includes radical GPs, long standing community organisers, those with lived experience as well as leaders in our more radical councils from Wigan to East Ayreshire, make change by using their soft power, by facilitating the relational foundations on which the new can be built to last. So here is my second qualm. We cannot equate community power with a transfer of assets to local government. Whilst innovation is happening rapidly those in local government who understand how to collaborate with communities, how to devolve resources and how to do this horizontal work (which always involves grappling with incumbent power at the local and the national level) are still few in number.
And thirdly, I am concerned about inspection. In the new world we would not need inspection because local, horizontal organising is by its nature based on trust and transparency. Our dependency on inspection has grown alongside our dependency on centralised, market driven outcome models where those in power cannot see the effects of their commands and so must send out their troops to police implementation. We could instead liberate the considerable resource locked in these institutions of vertical audit and convert inspectors into learners. Their role would be to move between communities as channels of experience and best practice – a 21st century form of barefoot expert.
If there was to be a ‘law’ that would bring about the change Adam is advocating and so many of us want to see it would be ‘don’t look up, look sideways’. I fear that our dependency on an Act will engrain a mindset that still looks up – albeit in new ways.
But, if we need an Act – and I simply don’t know whether we do or not – I am writing in the spirit of enquiry, not critique – there is an alternative legislative framework available and in place within Great Britain: the Welsh Future Generations Act. This might deliver what Adam is pointing towards but in a different way. Within this act there are no commands and no inspections – instead there is a framework for asking new questions. The intention of the Future Generations Act is simply that, to raise questions: to change the framework by shifting the time horizon, bringing ecological perspectives into view and to encourage participation and new voices to take part.
Implementation has not been easy – many have been unsure at first how to work within the Act, how to ask the questions. But the momentum is growing and there have been some important local environmental shifts. When the Future Generations Commissioner Sophie Howe describes her own role, she says that she sees herself as a coach. She sees it as her role to encourage, ask questions and sometimes to referee but never to command anything new. I admire this response beyond measure – Sophie is modelling a new form of public leadership and explicit in her response is an acknowledgment that we cannot create 21st century institutions by simply devolving power to a new level. New collaborate models do require a new framework. They also require very different behaviours amongst leaders at the local level – within government and without.
It is important that NLGN have started this conversation. We can see where we want to get to, we can see examples of the new and – as Adam writes – we need a new way of ensuring the new gets the systemic support and resource it needs to grow and flourish. But we also need to tread carefully. To use the industrial levers to get us there will not work and may unintentionally suffocate what has started to grow. I look forward to hearing how others think we should grapple with this immense and immediate challenge.
In friendship and solidarity.