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Local government has changed.  Quite simply, public services can no longer be provided unilaterally – delivering effective policy outcomes is a collaborative process.  Collaboration brings challenges but delivers tangible advantages and cash savings.  As the so-called 'graph of doom' hangs over our future, successful councils will be those that can lead through the power of their collaborative influence. 

Reducing the ever increasing gap between demand and capacity will require sustained collaborative action on three fronts - reducing demand, unlocking social capital and innovating around traditional service and functional models.  As difficult as this challenge appears, the scope for creativity and innovation, indeed its very necessity, brings with it an opportunity for local government to begin a process of reinvention.  And we don't need permission any more, a general power of competence puts us in the driving seat.

Here in Wiltshire, we have been focusing on creating an environment in which local people and local services can work together collaboratively to ‘co-produce’ solutions to local concerns.  We use the story of ‘Eileen and the Grit Bin’ to illustrate how this works. 

Eileen is 87 and lives an independent life in her own home, she is frail but can get by without support services.  Eileen lives on a hill and at the top of the hill Wiltshire Council has put a grit bin.  When it is icy or when it snows, Eileen’s neighbours rally round and clear her driveway and the surrounding  pavement and they put down grit so that she can get about without risking a fall.   Eileen’s neighbours enjoy helping Eileen and this has extended to running her to the shops, picking up prescriptions, keeping her garden tidy and calling in regularly to check if she needs any help.  The Council’s role and financial input is minimal – a grit bin and some salt, but that small cost unlocks social capital that can be quantified in terms of hard cash.  And, the longer Eileen can continue to live independently with the support of her friends and neighbours the greater the saving for the Council and the NHS.

Eileen’s story is a simple illustration, but it serves to remind us of the importance of social capital in reducing demand and increasing 'services' provided to those in need.  The story also highlights the role of the Council - in this case a bucket or two of grit helped mobilise a community.  As financial pressures bite, so inevitably the importance of good neighbours and volunteers will increase.  Wiltshire’s approach seeks to incentivise, encourage and mobilise the investment of social capital in the delivery of public goods through a range of co-production initiatives.

Eileen's story also helps to illustrate the importance of narratives in the social policy process.  Identifying opportunities for co-production requires a practical understanding of the needs of different people. Policy and decision makers can better understand and respond to local needs when these encompass individual stories like Eileen's.  Sure, this understanding is helped by the sharing of local service data, but it is the local narratives and stories that really brings this to life.  The Area Boards in Wiltshire have been challenged to seek out and document these stories by talking to different community groups in their own places and on their own terms. These narratives can inform local decision making, influence resource allocation and build understanding about issues that often remain hidden from public view.  

Civic engagement is not a spontaneous phenomena.  People need to be invited to take part and provided with the resources and help they need to make their voices heard.  We need to understand what motivates engagement and how this can be facilitated.  We must value diversity, respect differences and accommodate minority views – but above all we must listen carefully and respond to what we hear.

I'm not setting out to justify a policy of austerity and I am not ignoring the moral and ethical dilemmas that exist.  But, from here it seems that we simply cannot afford to waste any more time dithering with redundant rhetoric. 

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