Civic involvement needs more forward thinking

Even though the UK has a higher level of citizen involvement than in many other EU countries, local people still feel alienated from civic society. The RSA's Sam McLean suggests ways to enhance the values of public service
sam McLean
Sam Mclean: radical shifts in the culture of public services are required

A government report last year on co-production showed citizen involvement in public services to be higher in the UK than in many other European countries considered to be beacons of public service innovation, including Denmark and Germany.

But this is not translating into greater numbers of people feeling able to influence community-based decision-making.

Feeling unable to make a difference locally not only limits citizen participation in community life, it also weakens civic health and the forms of innovation and attachment between people it creates.

A forthcoming Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts (RSA) Citizen Power report on civic health shows that attempts to strengthen civic health, from community-asset transfer schemes to participatory budgeting, have been undermined by a narrow focus on 'consumer power' as the key driver of public service reform.

The wellbeing of our society

Our 'age of austerity', signalled by forthcoming cuts to local government, has the potential to substantially weaken the civic health and wellbeing of our society, particularly in the most deprived parts of the country where public services, from Sure Start centres to Drug Action Teams, are a matter of necessity, not choice.

But it also opens up a space for us to re-evaluate what we want from public services and the values they should embody.

Improving our public services and ensuring they deliver for the most vulnerable in society, demands radical shifts in both the culture of public services and society in general.

The language and practice of civic responsibility and social innovation linked to the needs of citizens should become the norm in public services, and not an exception to the rule. For this to happen, we need public services that are innovative and creative not risk averse and scared to experiment, and who value long-term strategic thinking over short-termism.

There are plenty of examples for us to learn from. A quick review of public service innovation would include pledgebanking in the UK, 'social currencies' in Japan, forum theatre in Brazil, domestic violence courts in New York, Canada's e-government service, rehabilitation services in Denmark, and public service contracts in Sweden.

A new generation of local leaders

These kinds of innovations do not happen by chance or piecemeal reform. They all require a new generation of local leaders committed to radical change, who see social innovation, civic creativity and people power as essential to public services rather than 'added extras'.

The new generation of public services we need, will also depend on people and communities themselves changing. Another forthcoming RSA Citizen Power pamphlet on the policy potential of 'citizen contracts' argues that seemingly intractable problems in society, from incivility to climate change, needs people and communities to think of themselves more self-consciously as 'everyday citizens'. This means us being collectively and individually more engaged and altruistic in public matters, but also more resourceful, resilient, and civically creative in our everyday lives.

This emphasis on civic creativity, people power and social innovation in public services is at the heart of the RSA's flagship Citizen Power programme. This is an exciting two- year partnership between the RSA, Peterborough city council and Arts Council England to explore how citizen activism and community action might improve pro-civic outcomes and services for local people in Peterborough.

The programme includes specific projects on environmental behaviour change and civic innovation, support services for recovering substance users and how to better measure the civic health of communities. These will run alongside projects that aim to cultivate active citizenship among young people through a new area-based curriculum, strengthen social networks through digital participation, and to inspire new forms of civic action through participative arts.

The Big Society is the big idea of our new coalition government. With local people and community groups as the drivers of each project, our work in Peterborough will provide an early test of how and to what extent the 'Big Society' can work in practice. It will also provide learning for other forward-thinking places around the country committed to having innovation and citizen power at the heart of their public services.

Sam McLean is Director of Public Participation and Head of the Citizen Power programme at the RSA

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