Here's something I wrote in November 2006 for the journal of the Institute for Public Policy Research, in an edition about empowerment. It tells some of the story of the "double devolution" local government reform process in which I was involved, from a partial standpoint. Mostly a positive experience, but the difficulties we encountered struck me as just a symptom of a larger British malaise, and stimulated me to think a bit about how power actually begins from below, with us. As a wave of speculation rises about Gordon Brown's constitutional plans, I thought it was worth re-posting here.
(Blackwells appears to own all rights, but as the author I am allowed to post it with acknowledgement.) The most widely applicable excerpt follows - the rest is for the local democracy fiends...
In his party conference speech in autumn 2006, Gordon Brown said, “In the new century, people and communities should now take power from the state.” This was a remarkable statement, giving credence to the idea that this is a man who has been thinking hard about the alternative legacy of the 1906 Liberals and reopening the state. While David Cameron is playing in this space, Brown has been purposefully shaping it. But the direction of the rhetoric jars with the actual pattern of how Whitehall, Westminster and local authorities and agencies are operating today. The challenge we face if we are to realise this aspiration is therefore not a small one. As Brown implied, empowerment cannot be achieved simply top down by the state – it is also a task for us as people, individually and together at once.
Britain has an ancient, powerful story of sovereign Parliament. But parliamentary sovereignty need not be opposed to popular sovereignty, just as representative democracy need not be opposed to participatory democracy. In each case, the former can provide a solid core to the latter, broader process, while relying on it for sustenance... Power begins with people, and is then delegated up to Parliament; legitimacy is prior to legality, and Locke trumps Hobbes. This is the strongest foundation for new alliances between citizens and their legitimate representatives. As Elaine Applebee (an inspirational activist who became, as director of Bradford Vision, a social entrepreneur par excellence) says: people have the power, through their actions and inactions, to make all things work – or to block them.
Power, once concentrated in the state, can blind its wielders to its limits and origins. That is one of the lessons of Iraq, where the deep sources of legitimacy – popular sovereignty and international recognition – were treated too cavalierly. The next phase of reforms we take forward in our country should reverse the current of double devolution, beginning with people and communities. We need to take on big challenges about the way our political parties and other institutions and processes operate; constitutional tasks from the shape of the second chamber to striking a new balance between executive and parliament, and central and local government; and the fine-grained questions of how public services work and people self-organise. All of this can be done beginning with communities and the wider public good. It can be done through trusting the people, rather than resorting to the contorted hallways of royal commissions – as Power’s Lazarus-like revival as campaign may shortly propose.
Finally, and uppermost in my mind after a troubling recent visit to Jerusalem: we need urgently to tackle the catastrophe of Britain’s place and action in the world – a problem composed of structures, personalities and policies together. As citizens, we need to take advantage of new avenues to tackle global collective challenges...
(Yes, like Avaaz.org.) Read the whole thing below, if you're locally-minded, or interested in the intricacies of British public services...
Power Up, People: double devolution and beyond
PPR, November 2006
copyright the genial old fellows at Blackwells
copyright the genial old fellows at Blackwells
Over the last two years, we have started to shift the British story about power and decision-making in the direction of grassroots democracy. Credit is due to my colleague Geoff Mulgan for coining the ‘double devolution’ concept, which has acted as a lightning rod, seized on by Gordon Brown, David Miliband and others before there was even time to publish the book of the same name. This current helped catalyse the positive though initial steps taken in Ruth Kelly’s local government White Paper, Strong and Prosperous Communities. It has also started to unjam tectonic plates elsewhere on the political landscape. Strikingly, the Tories are not just out of the Stone Age when it comes to local democracy; on some issues, they may be taking high ground which Labour could claim for a more socially responsible vision.
This is one challenge progressives ought to relish and take on with élan. After all, “power in the hands of the many, not the few” is our phrase, and much remains to be done if this aspiration is to be realised. But to shift empowerment up another gear we need to be bolder in our political philosophy and strategy, and more creative and effective in the way we design and evolve policy and social systems. As government and as political movement, it is also time to learn some lessons of humility and generosity. It is only then that we can be confident of our footing, and of our prospects for an open and popular renewal. There is much to do, and not a few mistakes demand to be undone.
I, like others, have been encouraged by a series of creative conversations over the last few months convened by Compass, the Fabian Society, IPPR, Demos and others. There is an energy bubbling on the centre-left which has not been felt for some time, and it includes that vital ingredient: frustration with the status quo. Ideas of empowerment, a responsive state, individualistic solidarity and social transformation are starting to spark in the popular consciousness. However, neither energy nor ideas that respond to the zeitgeist are alone sufficient. Those ideas must be given form in the practical actions of governments, and in the way we live our lives. They must change the rules of the game in our democratic society – which means revisiting some of the questions asked by the Power Inquiry. Finally, they must also feed into a coherent political strategy for the centre-left. We have some way to go on all these fronts.
Double devolution: interim progress report
I carry no mandate to report on how the vision of double devolution is progressing. But I can offer some personal reflections on what has been achieved thus far, what the new local government White Paper means and the challenges that remain. We might even find that we need to reframe them more boldly, and to start to turn the way we think about power upside down.
A quick reminder of the problem diagnosed in Double Devolution: British local government is neither very local, nor much like government. Our councils on average serve populations an order of magnitude larger than in most other countries. But despite their scale, they have lacked the power to make much difference to people’s lives, constrained from influencing key services like policing and health, and turned into transmission mechanisms for central government in areas like education. So we need to shift power downwards twice over: from Whitehall Westminster
We judged that some kind of cross-party consensus would be necessary if such a historic rebalancing of power were to be achieved in the unwritten constitution of Britain
Over the last six months, we have seen an almost unprecedented flocking of political leaders around the rhetoric of devolution and local empowerment. In his June speech to the Public Services Summit, Gordon Brown announced, “The Treasury is now working for our spending review on the double devolution of power from Whitehall
David Cameron leapt on the bandwagon the month after in his Chamberlain Lecture in Birmingham
More is shared than just the rhetoric. After almost six decades during which the national conversation has focused on establishing uniform entitlements and deploring ‘postcode lotteries’, the value of democratic local choice is starting once more to be acknowledged. In his interim report, Michael Lyons focused on the value which can be reaped from this approach, ranging from better efficiency and outcomes to greater innovation and public trust. He stressed that “economic theory, and indeed common sense, argues that since people’s preferences and needs, and the costs of delivering services, vary between areas, then the best way of spending limited resources will be different in different places”, and added fascinatingly and correctly, “It is simplistic to define ‘fairness’ in public services as meaning the existence of a uniform national set of public services and a uniform national set of priorities for the improvement of those services, whatever the opinions or priorities of local people.”
As I have argued at greater length in a paper on the future of local finance, Lyons here puts his finger on a flaw in our national system of service delivery: fairness in public services cannot be judged adequately without reference to costs, needs, preferences and trade-offs, all of which vary from place to place. The best way to spend public funds within an area should be determined with reference to these local factors. If Sir Michael carries this intuition forward into his recommendations and they are taken up in the Comprehensive Spending Review, the implications for the future of public service finance and silo management will be profound.
The experience of the last year in the NHS has also shown us with increasing clarity how hard local choices made by quango boards, rather than through a local democratic process, will overwhelmingly fail to be accepted and owned by local people. The lesson of local democratic choice must inform whatever reforms are pursued to increase independence of the health service at national level.
This conclusion about the value of local democratic choice and its compatibility with an ethic of fairness holds in general not only for strategic local government, but also to some considerable extent at the very local level of our neighbourhoods, market towns and villages, in particular when it comes to liveability, community safety and local facilities. Concerns about equity have always been used as an argument for restricting local choice. Ironically, the arguments deployed by local government to limit neighbourhood choice precisely parallel those which national government uses to constrain local government from variations of approach. As a corollary of its own case for freedom of manoeuvre, local government should accept that local choice in neighbourhoods can deliver better value without danger to equity.
Here too, acceptance of a sensible devolutionary approach is growing. I have been tremendously encouraged by our conversations with local government over the last two years, in particular through the Transforming Neighbourhoods consortium we set up at the Young Foundation two years ago: this now includes fifteen local authorities alongside Whitehall
- “Every council should know and understand the distinctive communities and neighbourhoods that it serves.”
- “Every council should have arrangements in place to enable people to be more actively engaged in shaping the future of their communities – giving them influence over local services and action, and helping them to develop the capacity to tackle local issues for themselves.”
- “Every council should ensure that it has mechanisms in place to allow communities to shape services and hold their providers to account.”
- “Every council should provide practical support for councillors in their representative role to act more effectively as community advocates and leaders, and help communities, where they wish, to exercise direct power and influence through parish councils or similar bodies.”
Some of this presents serious challenges to how local authorities have historically operated. The excitement lies in the fact that much of the local government community now appears to be approaching this task with commitment and ingenuity, and that we now have access to a growing body of evidence that that community involvement in services and responsive approaches such as neighbourhood management can have real, measurable impacts on public satisfaction, local well-being and service outcomes.
There is a growing acknowledgement that a situation in which 61% of us do not feel we can influence local decisions is unsustainable, not to mention falling levels of satisfaction and slowing improvement, and that community governance and neighbourhood management can help tackle these challenges; that 71% of us identify with our local neighbourhood, and 73% want more power over some services and budgets devolved to those neighbourhoods. What is more, all this has happened in advance of the government setting out its reform proposals.
The White Paper: from technocracy to democracy?
In October 2006, the new local government White Paper was finally published. Government is leaving councils’ empowerment models up to them, but shifting the rules of the game to encourage them to do it seriously. It is offering new powers to communities and citizens, including community calls to action, support for community assets, and some significant reforms to parish or community councils. But no one-size-fits-all framework will be imposed: councils can evolve their strategies in ways which make sense locally. The ways real power is shared in our towns, villages and neighbourhoods will be decided locally, not nationally.
The early response to the White Paper has been mixed. It has real failings, and the devil is in the detail. But even if it had been written in the context of a more clement political climate within government, we could not have expected it to achieve everything that was being demanded. In fact, it achieves real advances in some areas, and leaves space for the package to be filled out over the next year.
The heart of the community empowerment package in the White Paper is a subtle but powerful reorientation of local government around the needs and priorities of citizens and communities. Over the last few years, the Best Value duty has required authorities to make arrangements to secure continuous improvement in the exercise of their functions, having regard to efficiency, effectiveness and economy – so far, things have been so technocratic. As a first step toward more public participation, it also required tick-box consultation regardless of the degree of real influence which might be opened up, with the inevitable consequence being public fatigue and disillusionment with such processes.
A major reform of the Best Value framework is now proposed, with “a new Best Value duty to ensure participation” of local citizens and communities. It will require councils to take appropriate steps to “inform, consult, involve and devolve”, giving them the discretion to do so creatively. Strikingly, this proposal goes a long way toward adopting the Power Inquiry’s recommendation that “public bodies should be required to meet a duty of public involvement in their decision and policy-making processes”. The extent to which this new duty will lead to real change has yet to be seen, and considerations of efficiency, effectiveness and economy will rightly continue to be important. But government appears to be realizing that public participation can have worth not just democratically, but also instrumentally, by increasing value in the service delivery chain and improving public satisfaction, aspirations and feelings of efficacy.
What is more, it is intended that this reform will be followed through in the commissioning and performance frameworks. The proposals around commissioning are among the vaguest, and we can expect the reality to emerge gradually as the CSR moves forward. The Office of the Third Sector has been doing some of the most interesting and balanced work in this area. The White Paper claims that the new framework will “put local people’s priorities and views at the heart of service commissioning”. Likely approaches will range from individual budgets to collective choice and involvement in service specification, delivery or monitoring, depending on the function under consideration. Delivery may start to centre more on citizens and communities than on service providers and silos, often through joint or pooled efforts and process re-engineering.
The next generation of Local Area Agreements will encompass a wider range of “area-based funding”, and be used as a vehicle for agreeing changes, in particular where they are cross-agency. The Comprehensive Spending Review will go further to deciding the extent to which the local democratic process can have purchase over mainstream services such as health or policing. It will set more ambitious efficiency targets, requiring creative solutions such as co-production. There will be greater contestability and, it is claimed, a ‘level playing field’ in commissioning, which may give more opportunities for third sector bodies, depending on whether the playing field is leveled according to rules of public value. There should be more emphasis on all kinds of value throughout the commissioning cycle – identifying functions where economies of smallness apply, as well as those which involve economies of scale.
The third piece of the “citizens and communities” puzzle is a streamlined local performance framework in which residents’ perspectives will play a greater part, and which adopts most of local government’s own proposals. The inspections, targets and planning burdens should be lifted, with much greater emphasis being placed on local decision-making, citizen intelligence, community involvement and peer review. Government will set a single set of 35 national priority outcomes (excluding education). A small number of improvement targets will be agreed in each area, including greater appreciation of local context. There will be 200 national indicators – not targets – against which change can be tracked. The national outcomes will include a handful of ‘citizen perspective’ measures, such as ability to influence local decisions and satisfaction with local services. Councils will be expected to supplement this slimmer framework with more bottom-up local performance systems, including citizen intelligence, real-time and more localized performance information, and a set of priorities into which communities can input.
Arguably, the Best Value duty, the shift toward commissioning, and an intrusive performance framework including inspections and the Comprehensive Performance Assessment have been the biggest drivers for local government in recent years. So we should take very seriously this rewriting of rules of the game, from a world of technocratic managerialism toward civic participation and democratic local choice. Councils which prided themselves on their excellent or four-star rating are entering a very new environment. As satisfaction and involvement become important measures of success, local government should realize the value of identifying how they might go further to engage citizens, make their services more responsive, or devolve power and influence.
Local government must avoid imposing mechanistic frameworks which will surely fail to deliver this. Instead councils can find ways to encourage and respond to a variety of bottom-up neighbourhood initiatives beginning with the real concerns of local people. Approaches such as participatory action-planning, charters and recognizing neighbourhood bodies start to provide a repertoire for this looser, web-like approach.
This is not the place for a full anatomy of Strong and Prosperous Communities, but a handful of other proposals are worth mentioning in this context. Local Area Agreements have historically been a conversation mainly between councils and Government Offices about just some domains of funding and outcomes. In future they will be wider conversations also including partners and communities, and addressing something closer to a totality of local services. This could even provide a framework for distinctively British versions of the “participatory budgeting” employed in Porto Alegre , Brazil
It is intended that councils and their partners should create joined-up community engagement strategies. Partners will be required to cooperate to agree joint targets. The role of local government and other partners in public health and well-being will be reinforced. Local charters or agreements will be encouraged, and local communities may be able to request them. They may include rights to information; service standards, outcomes or targets; priority actions for service providers and community bodies; and options to take on wider responsibility.
Councils are encouraged to consider how they can strengthen their frontline councillors, through better support, delegated budgets, capacity-building, or relationships with service structures and community bodies. The ‘Community Call to Action’ will be broadened to include all issues which the local authority is responsible for, itself or jointly with partners. Overview and scrutiny will have new – though non-binding – powers of recommendation, including to key partners, and a right of public reply from those partners. The White Paper also encourages councils to consider options for area-based scrutiny, which might include time-limited neighbourhood inquiries, and could involve co-opting community activists or residents to assist in the process. Finally, councils are being encouraged to consider how they take account of petitions as a parallel way of articulating local concerns – though stronger measures on petitions were foolishly blocked at the last minute.
The White Paper proposes to encourage more community management and ownership. It encourages neighbourhood management, pointing to the clear evidence of the effectiveness of such approaches, and hinting that it will be used as a response to underperformance. It also refers to “communities taking over the management or ownership of a public asset such as a community centre, a redundant school building, swimming pool or green space”, and suggests that they may use calls for action or petitions to identify their interest. The question of greater community management or ownership of housing remains under-explored.
A budget of £16.5m is offered by Ed Miliband to help refurbish dilapidated local authority properties for transfer to community bodies. The Commission on Unclaimed Assets is likely in the medium-term to channel significant funding in the direction of community ownership of assets. The Quirk Review of Community Management and Ownership will report in spring 2007 on whether any further measures (such as a community right to buy based on that in Scotland
How far can we trust the people?
Addressing a fringe meeting the Young Foundation held with the Smith Institute at the September 2006 Labour Party Conference, Ruth Kelly opened her remarks with an arresting statement: “It is time for us to become instinctive devolvers”. But centralising instincts remain strong in government. Whitehall
One episode in conversations about the local government White Paper is worth recounting, because it points to some of the problems remaining to be tackled. Over the last year, the Young Foundation has offered a clear vision of opportunities for communities everywhere to set up bodies for neighbourhood voice and action – community councils (reformed parishes) with a democratic mandate and well-being powers, or neighbourhood forums and partnerships with powers delegated from the council. We analysed obstacles in the currently archaic parish framework and proposed a detailed set of reforms, many of which have been adopted.
The framework for neighbourhood democracy and service delivery should dramatically improve if legislation proceeds after the forthcoming Queen’s Speech. A new power of community governance review will provide a framework within which localities can come to a collective answer to the question “what is a neighbourhood?” Opportunities for more innovative models of local democracy will be extended. Together with the strengthening of frontline councillors and much-needed reforms to the local party, neighbourhood democracy can offer a first step on the ladder to renewing our politics, opening up new spaces for citizens and representatives to work together, and replenishing too-stagnant leadership ponds.
However, in two areas of the community council reform agenda, government fudged the test. It has thus far offered powers of well-being only to the 3% of first tier councils meeting a flawed Quality standard, rather than accepting the thrust of Sir Michael Lyons’s argument that such a power is the distinctive tool of democratic leaders for place-shaping at all levels. This cautious approach appears to be motivated by paranoia about pressure on council tax against the backdrop of the continuing lack of a bold reform in that area –focusing on the straw that would not break the camel’s back, while ignoring the tonnage in the panniers. We have offered Lyons
The more important failure of nerve around the White Paper relates to streamlining the establishment of community councils. In the run-up to its publication, the national media was full of noise about social cohesion and extremist politics, including the debate about the niqab veil, John Reid’s highly-wrought visit to East London, and disturbances on the outskirts of Windsor
The concerns which led to this fudge were clumsily misplaced. One may even speculate that transference was involved. The Young Foundation’s work in Bethnal Green and elsewhere indicates that housing allocation, schools policy and large regeneration pots are the main drivers of segregation and community conflict – and all of these remain the responsibilities of central and local government. The small budgets, voice, dialogue and public realm issues at the core of a community council’s remit are modest by comparison. Tensions and risks can be more safely and transparently regulated through public governance, including clear standards and equalities, than when left to direct street action. (The disturbances outside Windsor
Neighbourhood governance of small shared issues can in fact help rebuild cohesion in diverse areas, and be a training-ground for moderate leadership. Coming together around commonalities such as the public realm can help bridge divides of ethnicity or faith. Research by Robert Putnam has started to clarify how community governance may help to craft a new, bigger ‘sense of Us’. The growing sense of disempowerment among the urban white working-class and Asian Muslims is a major driver of extremism and social conflict. The risks of empowering them – the risk that the BNP or Respect may gain a public toehold – are far less than the risks of continuing disempowerment. It is vital that people in urban neighbourhoods do not start to feel that they are being deprived of democratic rights available freely in the leafy shires.
These are minor and perhaps temporary cavils against the backdrop of a positive and inventive White Paper. We may hope that most local authorities will rise to the challenge of better democracy, service delivery and citizen empowerment in their areas through inclusive and creative leadership. At the Young Foundation, we are finalising a set of briefings for the Local Government Association and the Improvement and Development Agency which provide guidelines and examples of how councils can do this, as well as case studies of some of the most interesting examples, from neighbourhood management in Wolverhampton
But the failure of nerve on parts of the community council package points up the weakness of the double devolution metaphor. It assumes that power begins at national level and can only gradually and conditionally be devolved downward. It does not acknowledge the reality that power begins with people. When reform is left to the Whitehall
Powering up the people: what’s still to be done
Many issues of local governance reform and empowerment more broadly remain to be resolved. The Treasury appears to have successfully taken control of the key decisions about whether and how central government devolves further power to strategic local government through the Comprehensive Spending Review and a series of processes feeding into it, including a joint review of sub-regional economic development. The conversation about police accountability has not progressed significantly. The question of greater local accountability for other public services remains open.
These spaces may provide Gordon Brown (surprises apart) with a platform for bolder devolution during a first 100 days in 2007. But they also risk leaving a fertile space for other political forces to make hay, scoring points off an approach to devolution which risks appearing grudging and over-cautious. David Cameron has already claimed that “Councils should be the collective instrument of local people rather than the local outpost of central government.” Of course, the same can be true of central government: such statements by the leader of the Tory party about the local state point up the effectiveness of the progressive consensus.
It is nonetheless vital that this interval in leadership does not lead to paralysis. Some of us are involved in cross-party discussions about a set of simple common principles for a new settlement between the centre and localities, a process which may help unblock some remaining obstacles to progress. Should it choose to take it up, Labour has a narrative of sensible radicalism available to it which probably matches the public mood on devolution most closely – a narrative which includes minimum standards and checks and balances, but is prepared genuinely to trust people and communities. It could even look closely at the private Sustainable Communities Bill, which is not incompatible with the White Paper, and contains much of merit: citizens’ initiatives, local freedoms, even the saving of post offices. A majority of MPs (359 to date) have signed up, along with 1000 councils.
In his party conference speech in autumn 2006, Gordon Brown said, “In the new century, people and communities should now take power from the state.” This was a remarkable statement, giving credence to the idea that this is a man who has been thinking hard about the alternative legacy of the 1906 Liberals and reopening the state. While David Cameron is playing in this space, Brown has been purposefully shaping it. But the direction of the rhetoric jars with the actual pattern of how Whitehall Westminster
Britain Britain Scotland Westminster
Power, once concentrated in the state, can blind its wielders to its limits and origins. That is one of the lessons of Iraq
Finally, and uppermost in my mind after a troubling recent visit to Jerusalem: we need urgently to tackle the catastrophe of Britain’s place and action in the world – a problem composed of structures, personalities and policies together. As citizens, we need to take advantage of new avenues to tackle global collective challenges, learning from the experience of Make Poverty History. I am thinking of CeasefireCampaign.org, through which hundreds of thousands of people around the world joined to demand a ceasefire in Lebanon within a handful of days, and Avaaz.org, set to take this further early in 2007. Power cannot simply be interrogated or inquired into; it needs actively to be taken and shared. Whose democracy is it anyway?
 Double Devolution: the renewal of local government (Young Foundation/Smith Institute, 2006)
 Strong and Prosperous Communities: the local government White Paper (2006)
 Big Bang Localism, Simon Jenkins (Policy Exchange, 2004); Size isn’t Everything, Barry Loveday (Policy Exchange, 2006)
 See for example Everyday Democracy, Tom Bentley (Demos, 2005); Democracy and the public realm (Compass, forthcoming 2007)
 See for instance The Adaptive State (Demos, 2003); on individualistic solidarity, Neighbouring in Contemporary Britain, Alessandra Buonfino and Paul Hilder (Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 2006) and Democracy and the public realm (ibid).
 Power to the People: an independent inquiry into Britain
 Remarks by the Rt Hon Gordon Brown MP, Chancellor of the Exchequer, at 21st Century Public Services: Putting People First Conference (6 June 2006, via Treasury website)
 David Cameron Chamberlain Lecture on Communities (14 July 2006, via Conservatives.com)
 National prosperity, local choice and civic engagement: a new partnership between central and local government for the 21st century (Lyons Inquiry into Local Government, May 2006)
 Where’s the Money? Neighbourhood governance and the future of local finance, Paul Hilder (Young Foundation, November 2006)
 See youngfoundation.org for more details, including a wide range of papers and presentations.
 Closer to People and Places: a new vision for local government (Local Government Association, 2006); Closer to People (LGA & IDEA, 2006)
 See in particular Improving delivery of mainstream services in deprived areas: the role of community involvement (ODPM, 2005), Research Report 28 – Overview of the 2003 and 2006 Round 1 Pathfinder Household Surveys (DCLG, 2006) and Neighbourhood Management at the Turning Point? (DCLG, 2006).
 Data cited in the White Paper: drawn primarily from the Home Office Citizenship Survey (2005) and, in relation to consent to devolution to neighbourhoods, from a YouGov survey for the Local Government Information Unit (2006).
 See Local Democracy and Neighbourhood Governance, Paul Hilder (Young Foundation, 2006) and The potential for neighbourhood involvement in the design and delivery of public services, Saffron James (Young Foundation, 2006). The works of our intellectual colleagues Professor Gerry Stoker at Manchester Institute Political University of Lincoln
 See Where’s the Money? Neighbourhood governance and the future of local finance (ibid).
 See in particular Better Together, Robert Putnam (
 “Cameron: Let local people decide how council tax is spent”, Helene Mulholland and agencies (The Guardian, 3 November 2006)
 “We will always strive to be on your side”, Gordon Brown (25 September 2006).