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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.

To change the world, you need to tilt the floor

One of the distinctive features of Cities of Service is the emphasis on strong leadership through a Chief Service Officer (CSO). In the UK, we now have four CSOs who have spent the last few months identifying their city’s challenges and developing initiatives to have a real impact on those challenges, culminating in a Service Plan that was published in Sept.

The CSOs have a challenging role as they turn these plans into a reality, bringing together partners across the council, voluntary, community and private sector under the backdrop of continued austerity. So who are the people leading the change in their communities and what motivates them to do it?

One thing we’ve learnt from the US and the UK experience so far is that there is no typical CSO. In the US, they’ve ranged from former radio DJ to investment banker. Success has been driven by motivation and leadership potential rather than from experience in a particular sector or role.

In the UK it’s a similar story. Brian Bracher, the CSO in Portsmouth, was looking for a new challenge after 30 years in the police:“I was looking for roles in the public or third sector where I could use my leadership and partnership skills. I found the advertisement for the Portsmouth CSO role by pure chance, but felt, from the role description that I had a lot to offer, especially as it provided the chance to be involved at the outset and shape this new and exciting work.”

Why get involved?

When Rachael Loftus, the CSO in Kirklees, first heard about Cities of Service, she was travelling in Louisville, Kentucky. It stuck with her ever since, as she was really impressed by the way small amounts of money could be applied to really local challenges and demonstrate impact.

“When I saw that Cities of Service was coming to the UK, I knew I had to get involved. So much of the Cities of Service ethos suits my way of approaching projects and ideas for change: using volunteers to lead the way and show what can be achieved, allowing innovative ideas the time to grow and develop – then scaling them up, and most of all, the idea that there are always people who are willing to apply their skills and strengths to local challenges if they are asked in the right way.”

What difference can a CSO make?

Dominic Murphy, leading Cities of Service in Bristol, reminisces that his first experiences in volunteering as a boy were his mother’s way of keeping him out of trouble! Now though he sees Bristol as an active city with a strong history of local action and he wants to make use of his position to really improve communication and connections so people engage with the right things.

“At present we have two quite modest opportunities to get involved. We will use them as ‘testbeds’ so that when we come to broaden their scope across more of the city, we will know exactly what is required.”

Dominic has high aims – he wants to make a permanent change to the way the city looks after itself and perceives itself, “so that everyone has something to give to the city”.

Stealing with pride

Already the four CSOs are finding ways to help and support each other alongside the three associate cities in the UK programme.

In deciding how to brand the programme locally, the CSOs shared many ideas. In Portsmouth, they were struggling to find the right way to describe their programme and when Brian suggested Portsmouth Together, it really connected with everyone. “The great thing is that it came from another CSO! Darin at Plymouth was going through the same thing and we shared some ideas - the great thing about this programme is the way that all seven locations are willing to help and support each other.”

Realising the potential

For Darin Halifax, the CSO leading Our Plymouth, it’s the people that keep him motivated: “I believe organised people power can change anything and everything. History is littered with examples where people power has instigated and influenced real transformational and political change. The sky’s the limit.

For Rachael, the exciting part of being a Chief Service Officer is the opportunity to help innovate and unleash some of the creative talents and ideas that people have. “There is something really special about being able to help make things happen by spotting the potential – and then lifting it out of its current limitations, and letting it blossom.”

Herding cats

As Rachael comments, it will take real shift to turn Cities of Service from a series of small initiatives into collective impact:

"You know the old adage about herding cats. How it’s impossible. Well it’s not. To herd cats, you have to tilt the floor. And I’m really hoping that that’s what Cities of Service can do in Kirklees.

There are literally hundreds of amazing projects and ideas going on here but their collective impact is often minimised by not being joined up, by not applying our best techniques and analysis to really get to the heart of the change we want to see. Judging by what the movement has achieved across the US, I’m really excited to see where it could all lead."

Photo credits - Brian Smithson and Richard Lewis


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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