York has a long tradition of working with our citizens and communities in innovative ways. In the 1990s we introduced participatory budgeting. Working with citizens across our 21 neighbourhoods, we pioneered the development of Neighbourhood Agreements and explored the social contract between citizen and state. In 2016, York’s People Helping People partnership came together to re-imagine our approach to volunteering and explore how we might enable a ‘people led approach’, embedding social action across the city.
Today, citizens are increasingly coming together to define what they want and find new ways to meet that through collaboration and the delivery of people powered public services. People's strengths, skills and networks - their assets - are being harnessed to provide self-supporting networks and a deep reservoir of community resources that people can draw upon to keep well and lead independent, fulfilled lives.
We are on a journey to becoming an asset-based place. In this context, the local authority and other statutory partners are facilitators. We can help bring people together, provide some of the resources - the buildings and infrastructure - and even in tough financial times, we can provide some of the money. But we acknowledge that we do not have all the answers.
York is now confident in the things it can do, and the difference its citizens’ skills and expertise make, but we also have the humility to recognise our limitations.
York is building a place where we have strong, resourceful, and connected people - a hub of place-based social action. We have a leadership role in making sure a diverse range of support exists locally, making the best use of resources to support communities.
We are working to align a number of collaborative initiatives, including:
Across all of our work, we have been developing the evidence base for change. We have asked people, community organisations, public sector and businesses what encourages or discourages them to contribute to their local community.
Despite York’s history of community development, our active citizenry and volunteering was not being strategically connected or mobilised to help address complex problems, with city leaders sometimes absent from this narrative and co-production process. In order to have a wider and deeper impact, whole systems and areas need to be aligned.
The ‘aha’ moment came at our People Helping People conference in 2017, where we asked the public how we could we could work with them. We publicly acknowledged, that in an age of austerity, increasing attention is often paid to what councils ‘cannot’ do, making it vital to gain some clarity on what the organisations and people of an area ‘can’ do. Through joint consideration, we recognised, every area and its citizens can achieve more when they combine their expertise, time, creativity and resources.
This is the future for York, sharing power with citizens and the council creating a space for everyone to act. I would suggest that people can lead that change only when acting as local citizens, not when acting in professional or service leadership roles; we should be responsive to need, but looking for capability and potential.
This matters for me, it’s why I came into public service. Local government based on strong values, humility and people has to be the way forward - the new normal. As such, our language has evolved to be more compassionate, caring and relational, building on asset based community development practice and recognising the relationships that we develop with people will change the system.
In my experience of 30 years in the public sector, genuine power sharing with citizens and growing social movements is not always understood deeply and it can be hard for politicians to see this untapped capacity. However, times are changing and I remain convinced that the future of public services are ‘people powered’ and social action ought to be the norm rather than the exception.
I hope we have a future of more compassionate, collaborative and caring public services, augmented by the power of people and a public sector that is more enabling and facilitative. We need to support all citizens who want to take part in imagining, creating and communicating a future where we can all make a contribution to the health, wellbeing and success of our communities and economy.
If the 21st century is to truly be the century of the citizen, let’s maintain the momentum that is gathering for social change.
Around the world local governments are plugging the power of citizens back into places, institutions, services and democracies. In this series, five public service innovators placing citizens at the heart of their work share their experiences on this journey.