About Nesta

Nesta is an innovation foundation. For us, innovation means turning bold ideas into reality and changing lives for the better. We use our expertise, skills and funding in areas where there are big challenges facing society.

A very happy first birthday! Cities of Service UK turns one

There have been many things to celebrate since we started the Cities of Service programme in the UK. The selection of 7 UK cities, the recruitment of the first 4 Chief Service Officers in the UK and the launch of their Service Plans. This September marks the 1-year anniversary since the plans were launched and gives us a good opportunity to reflect on how our newborn Cities of Service are putting their mark on the world.

As with many of our programmes in Nesta, implementing and embedding innovative practice takes time. And there are some failures - where things don’t work out as planned and assumptions don’t quite line up in the way we thought. Love Your Loft was a great scheme to help people clear their lofts ready for insulation - but as the initiative developed it became apparent that volunteers weren’t the key to making the difference. Finding the right young men for mentoring in the Kirklees MENtors programme has been much more difficult than first thought.

As such, the activity in the seven cities has evolved significantly since their plans were launched. Whilst nearly 5,000 people aged between five to 95 have been supported to improve their literacy, to get active in their neighbourhoods, to save £100s on their annual energy bill and to improve their health and wellbeing, the city leads and Chief Service Officers (CSOs) are making some fundamental changes in the way that people engage with their public services locally. New cross-sector partnerships have been built drawing together local universities, council, businesses and community sector. You can now search for volunteering opportunities locally in Telford, Barnsley, Portsmouth and Plymouth. They are working to set an example with their internal employee volunteering policies and coming up with city-wide campaigns to encourage people to do their bit.

The good news is that this effort is paying off. Sixty per cent of residents in Telford’s Pride In Your Community report that they’re more physically active than they were before. Twenty five per cent of volunteers in Love Where You Live in Barnsley are new volunteers - that’s over 400 people who are stretching their volunteering muscle for the first time. In Plymouth, residents have saved £45,000 through taking on energy saving advice and switching providers thanks to volunteer Energy Champions and over 6,500 portions of fruit and veg have been distributed to households in need.

More than this, the Chief Service Officers and city leads have become a focal point for social action and community engagement in their localities. Code Club has been boosted in Portsmouth by the support of the Chief Service Officer, Brian, who has helped broker relationships with the university and library service to help get at least ten new clubs set up and support existing clubs across the city. Swindon is now exploring how its Circles model of volunteer support can be applied to people with a variety of needs beyond their cohort of older isolated people. The city leads and CSOs are learning where they fit in the world and what difference they can make.

Now comes the difficult bit - embedding it, particularly in a time when councils are facing huge cuts in funding. Will it be enough to make the case? We hope so and so do the cities. Many are currently planning what happens from 2016 onwards - whether the Chief Service Officer role will continue and in what form, how to apply the same model of impact volunteering to other public services and how to ensure the cross-sectors partnerships evolve to tackle the meaty issues of the future of volunteering infrastructure in the city. Here’s hoping that in another year, we can report our Cities of Service are embracing the transformation potential of impact volunteering as they stumble into the terrible twos.


Meera Chadha

Meera Chadha

Meera Chadha

Programme Manager

Meera was a Programme Manager in the Innovation Lab working in the Centre for Social Action to support social innovations to scale their reach and grow their impact. She led Cities of …

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