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The next phase of public service reform: people helping people

The results of the first Community Life survey were published with little fanfare earlier this month. We can't draw conclusions from one data point, but it felt significant that three quarters of the population described themselves as having volunteered in the past year.

Whether we call it formal or informal volunteering, giving, social action or simply 'people helping people' - spending some of your time in the service of others is a deeply ingrained part of our culture. 

Tapping into that cultural norm is central to the next phase of public services reform. We need more innovations that combine the resources of the state with the resources in communities.    

Of course, this isn't a new idea. School governors form the largest army of public service volunteers, with 300,000 people giving their time regularly to support their local school (I'm one of them).   

The actual British Army is getting on for 30,000 volunteer reserves and members of Territorial Army working alongside the paid professional force. In the police we now have 20,000 special constables who volunteer on a regular basis.   

And it's not just formal volunteering in public services. First aid training has been with us for over 100 years and means that ordinary people regularly save lives. The National Childbirth Trust supports 43 per cent of new parents through volunteer led groups and builds lasting social networks.  

There are lots of great examples, but the problem is that most of our public services still operate on a paternalistic model where they do things to people not with them, and fail to engage with the capabilities, networks and resources that they don't directly control.   

That needs to change and I think there are at least four areas where we can do much more (hopefully others will have more).  

First, we need to get better at harnessing voluntary effort to augment public services. That means public service institutions being more open and making better asks of people.   

Inspiring the Future works with schools to match them to local people who can talk to kids about how their careers developed. Apps for Good get coders mentoring young people to design apps that solve real world problems. Both are connecting schools to hundreds and thousands of people who want to give their time to support young people.   

Second, public services need to consciously engage with people's networks and communities.  

Tyze is a secure online tool that enables a network to organise support for people with care needs, bringing together family, community, friends and professionals like GPs. Shared Lives is a scheme where people share their family and community life with someone who needs some support to live independently. Both recognise the simple truth that professional interventions are much more powerful when combined with social connections.   

Third, public services need to focus on equipping ordinary people with the skills and knowledge to help each other out.  

First aid training is the obvious poster child here, but it remains a national scandal how few of us are equipped with the basic skills to save someone's life. Street Doctors is just one of many projects that are trying to fix this - using medical students to train kids how to deal with knife wounds.

Expanding the concept, the Alzheimer's Society Dementia Friends campaign, backed by the government, is going to equip a million people with the knowledge to spot and help someone suffering a dementia episode.  

Finally, public services need to create opportunities for peer-to-peer support. 

What the National Childbirth Trust does so well is get parents supporting each other, sharing knowledge, providing support and building networks that last. Beatbullying has pioneered the smart use of safe technology to enable young people to support other young people online.   

There is huge potential to take this further, particularly in the field of health and well-being. Nesta's own work on People Powered Health has been supporting new approaches that make peer-to-peer support systems more normal in fields like supporting people with diabetes.   

So many public service reforms come and go, but just a few manage to create a new normal.    

What we need now is a more concerted effort to find the most promising ideas in social action and to support them to become as much a part of life as school governors, the Territorial Army or Special Constables.    

@philipcolligan is Executive Director of Nesta's Public Services Lab and an Adviser to the Government on Social Innovation.  

This week the Cabinet Office announced a new Centre for Social Action and, as part of the Centre, a new £14m innovation fund in partnership with Nesta.


Philip Colligan

Philip Colligan

Philip Colligan

Guest blogger

Philip is the Chief Executive of the Raspberry Pi Foundation.

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