Across the country in communities, in health services and in local authorities, a change has been happening. From East Ayrshire and Cambidgeshire to Leeds and Plymouth, leading public service innovators have been redefining the relationship between citizens and the state, and the very core of what public services are for. They are moving upstream from problems to prevention, shifting to a new operating model to better enable individual agency and help communities to lead change.
Outside of public services, a wave of exciting civil society organisations, from Mutual Aid to Participatory City to Civic Square, have been shaking up services and neighbourhoods by creating platforms that enhance individual agency and support citizens to shape social changes together. The huge movements of Extinction Rebellion and Black Lives Matter have woken the world up to the power of people to affect change collectively, demanding action to save people and planet, and remove entrenched systemic and structural inequalities.
Over the last 10 years, Nesta has been working to make the case for this radical reimagining of the relationship between citizen and state: one that redistributes power, with public services enabling communities and citizens to better address the complex challenges we face, supporting healthier and happier lives. Through a series of programmes, including People Powered Health, Sharelab, the Centre For Social Action Innovation Fund and the Upstream Collaborative, we have researched, grant-financed and supported people-powered innovations which put compassion, connection and collective power at their heart.
And we know this shift can make a powerful difference. Through the Centre for Social Action Innovation Funds (co-funded with the Cabinet Office and DCMS), from 2014–2020, over 100,000 people have supported 665,000 others, creating healthier, happier and more connected lives.
There are many compelling reasons to redesign public services to more actively engage and unleash our potential as citizens and communities. Our public services are facing a new set of challenges that dominant ways of organising are no longer able to meet: from rising demand, ageing populations, the rapid rise of new technologies, large-scale shifts in our economies, changes to the way we work and existential threats such as the climate crisis.
Falling trust in politicians and local councils have opened up a deficit of legitimacy, with a rising sense of powerlessness over many aspects of our lives. 47 per cent of people report feeling they have no influence over national decision-making; 43 per cent of people feel the same locally. We have become increasingly distant and detached from decisions that affect our lives and the services we all use, yet we increasingly expect more responsive, personalised public services that better support our aspirations and needs.
To help people through the immediate crisis and recover and renew as communities, we need to accelerate the people-powered shift.
The decade of austerity and tight fiscal arrangements has only served to heighten this dilemma and COVID-19 has further exacerbated existing problems. Yet, amidst the devastation and uncertainty, we have seen neighbours help neighbours, thousands get involved with mutual aid groups, 750,000 people register to be NHS volunteers, and thousands more get involved in their communities, or civil society and local government response.
People power is nothing new, of course, and can take many forms – from formal voluntary roles such as school governors to informal acts of neighbourliness, managing community assets or demanding change through a social movement. Whatever we call it, helping each other out is a deeply ingrained part of our culture. Many of these approaches are so woven into the fabric of our lives and communities that they can easily be overlooked. And many of the biggest transformations to our society have come through radical activism and campaigns of social movements – from the Disability Rights Movement to the service-user movement driving the deinstitutionalisation of mental health services.
This typology of people power outlines a variety of ways people participate in, alongside, and outside, public services to make change:
Recent polling, conducted last week by Britain Thinks on behalf of Nesta, found that despite there being a decrease in public participation in their communities during the lockdown, 83 per cent of those surveyed had an interest in getting involved with their communities in the future, with informal help, giving and formal volunteering being the most sought after ways to do so.
A review of the evidence from the field, alongside learning and evaluation from the 116 innovations we worked with as part of the Centre for Social Action Innovation Funds, indicates that when designed and delivered well, people-powered approaches improve lives in these eight ways:
And we know that in economic terms, the contribution of people power to society is enormous. We conservatively estimate the economic value of the unpaid time and resources we give helping each other, combined with the wellbeing benefits from people power, to be between £103 billion and £122 billion a year – yet its value is often unseen and unacknowledged.
Enabling people to help others through compassion, connection and collective power needs to become a central organising principle for public services. There is much more that could be done to recognise and develop its transformative potential that would benefit us as individuals, families, communities and society as a whole.
Nesta is calling on government and civil society to seize this opportunity for a power shift: a shift in power from government to communities, as we outline in our new People-Powered Shift report. Also a shift in how we organise our public services ,as we learnt from working with 20 local authorities on the Upstream Collaborative and outlined in the New Operating Models Handbook. Together, this shift can help us take forward the next stage of people-powered public services.
Danny Kruger MP’s report, Levelling Up Our Communities, (published last week) goes a long way in detailing the shift required to tackle inequalities and renew our social covenant. Whilst we may not agree with all of the recommendations, it’s an important prompt for government, local authorities and public services, civil society and communities, to push for a shift in power and resources to support communities and places with COVID-19. We particularly support the report’s recommendations for a £2 billion levelling up communities fund, better ways to fund and support social infrastructure, alongside substantial funding of £750 million to bolster civil society to support communities in the face of a huge loss in income, which echoes similar recommendations we outline in our report The People-Powered Shift. We urge the government to take forward these commitments at such a critical time.
To coincide with Nesta’s people power shift week of events, and release of The People Power Shift report and Upstream Collaborative Handbook, we are calling on the government to support the acceleration of a people-powered shift through:
Radical change can be expensive. In recent years we have seen big, bold investments in genomics, climate resilience and capital infrastructure, such as HS2. If only a tenth of the investments predicted to go into HS2 went into consciously supporting the value of compassion, connections and our collective action, imagine the possibilities.
Many public service reforms and social change movements come and go, but the bubbling energy and movement for a more people-powered future is palpable.
The field is rich with ideas, leading thinkers and organisations including: Hillary Cottam, Alex Fox, Collaborate, Carnegie UK Trust’s Enabling State, OSCA’s work Good Help, the Centre for Welfare Reform, New Economics Foundation, New Citizenship Project, Centre for Public Impact, RSA, Compass’ work on 45° of change, Onward UK and NLGN’s Community Power to name but a few. And of course the public services that are themselves showing us how to make this change, including the 20 councils who were part of the Upstream Collaborative.
This is the moment to invest heavily in the good work that already exists, like the models developed by the 110 innovators we backed.
Together we can capitalise on this moment of extraordinary community spirit that has emerged in response to COVID-19, unleashing our civic imagination, compassion and collective power, and make a people-powered shift for good.