The future for citizen-run services

Researchers and practitioners met at the University of Birmingham on 9-10 June 2011 for the first seminar of series funded by the Economic and Social Research Council on ‘third party government’. A slightly ambiguous term which nonetheless draws the attention to an often neglected but major plank of public policy over the last two to three decades, the location of public policy making at arm’s length from the institutions of representative democracy. A discussion of ‘third party government’ opens up questions democracy, delegation of authority, transparency, and autonomy in the contemporary state. ‘Third party government’ is also a focus which allows discussion across public, private, voluntary and community spaces where public policy is being shaped and delivered. Core themes of discussion included:

  • Who are the actors and stakeholders who ‘fill’ these ‘spaces’ of third party government?
  • How do these different actors interact and co-ordinate?
  • How can third party government be considered in a comparative perspective particularly between the US and UK?

Discussions included a number of highly policy relevant topics from the commissioning of public services to the role of the third sector in delivering public services to the potential for citizen-run services.

Citizen run services have been central to the current Coalition government’s policy agenda of the ‘Big Society’. ‘Big Society’ builds upon but also challenges the role for citizens outlined by the previous New Labour government. The challenge comes in the shift from citizens ‘influencing’ or shaping decisions which affect their everyday lives and the public services they receive to actively ‘doing’ and becoming involved in the delivery and even running public services. The ‘Big Society’ has been relentlessly (arguably deservedly) critiqued since its emergence in the run up to the 2010 General Election and is now somewhat of a beleaguered brand (it was recently re-launched for the fourth time), but what does it mean for the future of public services?

There are some initial concerns that the ‘Big Society’ raises for looking at citizen-run services. ‘Big Society’ has been pitched as a response or correction for the ‘big State’ associated with the previous government. However, delivering on the ‘Big Society’ cannot mean the ‘small State’ espoused by many. Extensive and varied evidence shows that the community action demanded by the ‘Big Society’ is importantly catalysed by state intervention and sustained through state support, advocacy and brokerage. This ongoing role for the state is particularly important in disadvantaged areas to ensure that the Big Society is not something which only includes those with the existing skills and opportunity to get involved.

This is an argument that citizen-run services should not be about citizens delivering services on their own, but in collaboration. But it is not about apologising for the current role of the state. Demands for citizen engagement have long been swimming against the tide of a managerial revolution in public services. Indeed, opportunities for citizens to get involved have often been structured to allow the ticking of a box rather than reflecting what citizens are interested in and informed about. There are often mismatches between citizens’ needs and priorities and what they are assumed to be. Public bodies can often be narrow and inflexible. Innumerable policies have been developed with the aim of engaging citizens, but rather than looking at citizens in the round, such policies have often caricatured citizens, focusing only on ‘real’ or ‘ordinary’ people. Such measures have also often been set in a context of contradictory measures which have pathologised or ignored some citizens whilst seeking to ‘activate’ or ‘empower’ others.

So, where do we go from here? Well let’s not under-estimate or assume that the state, notably in its local form doesn’t have the capacity to respond to the challenge of the ‘Big Society’. Many public sector staff, notably those who engage regularly with citizens in their communities, have the expert ‘local knowledge’ to inspire and catalyse action in those communities. In order to deliver the ‘Big Society’ we should be encouraging these skilled public sector staff to collaborate with citizens, communities and organisations of the third sector to shape and deliver services that best meet the needs of communities. But, these individuals who ‘work’ the spaces of third party government are the same people being targeted by current cuts to public spending. The Government should be cautious that it is not losing the very people who can deliver on their policy ambitions.

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