Big Society and the Co-operative Council

Friday, 28 January 2011 saw the official launch of Lambeth Council's initiative "Co-operative Council" - a new way of power sharing between citizens and the state.

Friday, 28 January 2011 saw the official launch of Lambeth Council's initiative "Co-operative Council" - a new way of power sharing between citizens and the state.

The Council had launched its Co-operative White Paper back in May 2010, setting out its view as to how local public services can be improved, whilst making necessary and unavoidable financial savings. The Paper set out a number of proposals for how the council could use different approaches to public service delivery (e.g. co-operatives, mutuals, social enterprise, and co-production). They also had set up a Co-operative Council Commission to enable citizen, elected member and expert involvement in the development of the new approach to delivering public services in Lambeth. The launch saw the culmination of many months of work and citizen consultation, on how the council proposes to work with the local community to bring about positive change. Unquestionably, it does sound great in theory, with public service providers and the local community pulling together, in harsh times, for the good of everyone - re-shaping services, and reducing the inequality divide – making government work or work better. The challenge of course is how to make something rather abstract for many local people, flourish, and become a reality. It will not be straight-forward. Tessa Jowell, keynote speaker at the launch spoke of councils needing to be risk aware, rather than being risk adverse, surrendering certainty, and to a degree, control. However, we know from our research that the questions that many people will ask is where the checks and balances are, and who will be held accountable if it goes wrong? This is especially important, given that the co-operative ideology is meant to encompass a vast range of services, reaching out to all citizens regardless of background. Ipsos has carried out research on behalf of the 2020 Public Services Trust at the RSA focussing on what politicians should take into account in their conversations with voters about reforms to public services. You will find a summary of the findings on our website. This leads me on to an important point - what will success look like, and how will it be measured? This is not an easy one to gauge, and in truth, nobody can really tell at this stage. The proof will be in the pudding, but it might take a long time for the pudding to bake. Some people may well wonder where the "fiscal stimulus" and continued momentum might come from, particularly if co-operative council doesn't work as well as it might be expected to, over the medium to long-term. The danger, as in the past (and we can learn a lot from history to make the future better), is if funding or resources are pulled too early. This was indeed the argument echoed by the commissioners.

One of the guest speakers at the launch, Lord Victor Adebowale, Chief Executive of Turning Point argued that co-operative council would have happened anyway, even without the recession and tough budget cuts in the local government/public sector. However, cynics will say that it is only happening as the council is strapped for cash, and has little choice but to change. It is without doubt that we've faced the worst economic recession and downturn in a generation, with significant cuts across the public sector, and in local government in particular. The key challenge will be getting the local community on board and to be involved (over and above what happens already). But, as you can see from the following chart, levels of volunteering across Britain have been falling.

The council argues that it will offer incentives (e.g. rolling out the Brixton Pound across the borough, and offering incentives such as discounted sports passes). This will help to motivate people, but ultimately the more difficult challenge will be to make people see that their view counts, and that they can make a real difference. We know from years of polling, the reasons people don't get involved include lack of time, but also a feeling that they can't make a difference or that their view won't count. The council must therefore show that it does mean business and that getting involved will lead to visible changes – it must convince local residents how co-operative council “will” work and not how it “might” work.

At the launch, we heard some inspiring case studies/examples of how the local community has pulled together in the past (e.g. to build a children's centre) but these have happened without Co-op Council. It will be interesting to see how Co-operative Council will build on these foundations - what will Co-op Council do that will increase community engagement in shaping or re-shaping services more so than without the initiative? This is a key challenge, requiring continuous work, hard work. The council of course must make it work, because there is no alternative. Derrick Anderson (Lambeth Council CEx) mentioned that the council fully supports Co-operative Council - but if it is to work, then the need for council staff will decline (as indeed argued by Lord Adebowale). Last July, when we asked people whether the Big Society was a good or bad thing for them personally 44% of public sector workers thought it was a good thing (compared to 42% of private sector workers) but 35% thought it was a bad thing (compared to 29% of private sector workers): suggesting perhaps that the jury was out on the impact on staff at that time. Ultimately, the council deserves recognition for taking such a bold step into the unknown (let’s face it - it could have just cut services, full-stop). There is the real argument that local government may never be the same in any case, and that change is both necessary and good. One way to make this change, some will argue, is through the Co-operative Council initiative. What is clear, despite the challenges, is that success will be measured in deed and not words, and this is the key challenge for the council over the next twelve months, and beyond. Many onlookers (and outsiders) including me will be watching intently. Co-operative Council has a Facebook page for those wanting to add to the discussion and debate.

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