Ed Wallis

Head of Policy and Public Affairs, Locality

How the tide is turning: away from outsourcing services at scale, towards unlocking the power of community.

There is a set of things that most people involved with public services now readily agree on. Rising demand and the increasingly complex nature of need have been placing services under huge strain. With these fundamental shifts happening at time of huge budget cuts – particularly at the local level – many of the services we rely on are facing crisis.

What has been much more contested is what the correct response should be. For local authorities, the dominant approach has been to scale up and standardise. So we’ve seen councils across the country seeking to drive down short-term costs by bundling up services into big outsourcing contracts, where large providers can deliver “one size fits all” services at the lowest price possible.

But while this may have provided councils with some immediate budgetary relief, it’s really been the opposite of what we need. It has doubled down on a transactional, market-driven mindset, which sees people as passive recipients of services rather than partners in care. As Locality’s groundbreaking report “Saving Money By Doing the Right Thing” highlighted back in 2014, too many public service systems “assess rather than understand; transact rather than build relationships; refer on rather than take responsibility; prescribe packages of activity rather than take the time to understand what improves a life”.

Ultimately, we’ve been throwing fuel on the fire of the complex demand challenge facing our public services, rather than stamping it out at source.

On the margins, however, other places have been experimenting with a different way. Instead of seeking solace in scale, they’ve been building strong partnerships with community organisations, sharing power, and maximising their local strengths.

Locality’s Keep it Local campaign has been supporting this approach for a number of years now. We’ve helped individual councils develop new ways of working to unlock the power in their communities. We’ve worked with community organisations across England to build sustainable community capacity and help them play a bigger role in local services. We’ve conducted action research with six local authorities to understand the challenges and opportunities presented by commissioning and procurement. We’ve produced a range of guides and toolkits to support people who want to go further in this Keep it Local journey.

Now what we’re finding – and what this collection of essays shows – is that a real shift is beginning to take place. The tide is turning. The margins are starting to become a movement.

Partly this a recognition that the trend towards scale hasn’t worked. We call this “scale fail”: big contracts that have not delivered either the quality of service or savings promised, have proved inflexible to the changing nature of local need, or have ended in expensive legal proceedings when things have gone wrong.

It has also been accelerated by Carillion’s collapse and the increasing spotlight on the entire outsourcing market. Suddenly having one big contract with one big provider doesn’t seem such a risk-free bet.

But fundamentally it’s being driven by a growing understanding that the Keep it Local approach is the right answer at the right time. The complex, long-term nature of our big social problems means they can’t be solved by top-down plans or simple market incentives. Instead, they require deep and lasting relationships to be forged, with power widely dispersed and services joined-up around the distinct needs of every person.

Local areas have experts in exactly this on their own doorsteps: their local community organisations and small charities. These organisations are locally rooted and trusted, and there for the long term. They have strong existing relationships with local people, especially with those whom public services traditionally struggle to connect with. They are multi-purpose organisations that can respond flexibly and provide services which are tailored to the individual.

Bureaucratic commissioning processes and big contracts have been preventing these organisations from participating in local services. The Keep it Local approach turns this on its head, with the starting point being how to build a partnership that unlocks this “power of community”.
We believe that doing so means, first and foremost, better, more responsive services for local people. But not only can this have a transformative effect on the lives of individual service users, it’s the way to reduce long term pressure in the system by tackling underlying issues at source.

What’s more, at a time when the nature of council funding is fundamentally changing, there is growing interest in using procurement spend to invest in the local economy, rather than seeing precious public sector resources leak out unnecessarily.

This collection showcases the people, places and organisations who are driving forward this new way of working.

Since we launched a new phase of our Keep it Local campaign with Lloyds Bank Foundation for England and Wales in May 2018, we’ve developed a Keep it Local Network. This has been bringing together councillors, commissioners, community organisations and policy experts to share ideas and practice on the best way to reshape local services.

Through this we’ve co-designed a set of Keep it Local principles, which we think can build high-level support across councils and guide Keep it Local practice on the ground. These essays explore each of the Keep it Local principles in more depth – with key contributors who have been leading thinking and practice in each area:

1. Think about the whole system not individual service silos. Collaborate’s work with councils across the country has identified a growing realisation that public services need to be understood as part of a wider system, alongside a new recognition that place matters. They are also seeing how commissioners are increasingly trying to work collaboratively across sectors, places and silos to grapple with complex problems. Here they explain how councils can start to make this shift in practice.

2. Co-ordinate services at the neighbourhood level. Anna Hartley, a Director of Public Health, draws on her experience at Wakefield Council to show why neighbourhoods need to be the starting point for our services. We live our lives in neighbourhoods. It’s where our networks are, and where strong reservoirs of relationships already exist, which are there ready to be built on. So she outlines how councils can put neighbourhoods at the heart of their approach and help local people to have good lives.

3. Increase local spend to invest in the local economy. The Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES) have been at the forefront of the growing community wealth building movement. They explain councils’ growing desire to use their procurement spend progressively to support the local economy – but also that community wealth building doesn’t stop there. It’s a practical strategy for fundamentally reshaping the local economy so that it works in the interests of local communities.

4. Focus on early intervention now to save costs tomorrow. The New Local Government Network (NLGN) have been making the case for a big shift in how we think about public services: away from the state and the market towards a new “community paradigm”. So here they set out how a new approach which is focused on mobilising communities can enable councils to make the shift to prevention and early intervention.

5. Commit to your community and proactively support local organisations. A Keep it Local approach isn’t possible without the community capacity to sustain it. So Alison Haskins, chief executive of Locality member Halifax Opportunities Trust, shows how important it is for councils to build strong local relationships and support community organisations – and how this has been happening in practice in Calderdale.

6. Commission services simply and collaboratively so they are ‘local by default’. We frequently hear how EU procurement rules drastically limit councils’ room for manoeuvre and inevitably create bureaucratic, risk-averse commissioning and transactional contracting. Julian Blake is the lawyer who wrote The Art of the Possible in Public Procurement and he explains how this is far from the case. Properly understood, the Public Contracts Regulations 2015 enable councils to commission in a way that supports a Keep it Local approach.

Each essay is accompanied by a case study from a council who has been trying to put these principles into practice – showing how the Keep it Local approach is being made reality across the country. Taken together, we think they show the tide is turning: away from outsourcing services at scale, towards unlocking the power of community.

But we know changing direction is a difficult thing to do. So we have also published “Join the Keep it Local Movement”, a new resource to help you adopt a Keep it Local approach in your area.

We’re at a critical juncture, with “business-as-usual” no longer an option. We want to support places to take a different path. Join the movement that’s gathering pace by signing up to the Keep it Local Network.