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Local by default

Source: Public Sector Executive Oct/Nov 2014

Locality, the umbrella organisation representing community renewal and neighbourhood action groups, has appointed a new CEO to take over from Steve Wyler. PSE spoke to Tony Armstrong, the new man in charge.

Locality is a network of more than 700 community-led organisations and 200 associate partners, formed in 2011 from the merger of Bassac and the Development Trusts Association.

As well as offering training and support to its member organisations, Locality also delivers government programmes, including Our Place, Neighbourhood Planning support, and the My Community Rights advice service. With Office for Civil Society funding, it also runs the Community Organisers programme.

Its chief executive Steve Wyler, who has contributed to PSE, stepped down in July and was replaced by Tony Armstrong, who had previously led the Living Streets charity and was a civil servant working on community renewal and public health projects before that.

Dealing with cuts

He told PSE: “It’s been a very busy first couple of months. I’ve spent a lot of my time on the road talking to our members, because I was very keen to get a sense of the issues they face and the activities they are involved with. I’ve met about 60 or 70 member organisations so far. The inspiring range of things that people are doing has been a pleasant surprise.

“The difficulties people are facing have really come through to me: they are working with lots of cuts to local government, dealing with increases in social problems, people having greater demands in terms of needing debt advice or in terms of needing financial help.

“But the thing that unites all of our members is this great sense of enthusiasm for dealing with those problems – and what I the call bloody-mindedness in their approach. They’re committed, so committed, to making a big difference despite those problems, and in trying to think of creative solutions: new ways of delivering services and helping their local communities. It’s that sense of determination that really comes through.”

Creative solutions

Asked to define Locality’s role, Armstrong said it is about supporting its members to find enterprising solutions to social problems at the neighbourhood level. But its community-based members can approach problems holistically, and look at issues or even families in the round to find appropriate solutions.

He said: “As a national organisation supporting those members, we try to give them support and facilitation. It’s lonely being a chief executive of one of these membership organisations facing such difficulties on a day-to-day basis. We can provide networking and support, and we make sure we’re putting our members in touch with each other for peer-to-peer support, and to learn from each other.”

Locality offers direct support too, on things such as asset transfer, or technical help on financing and governance. “We offer webinars and training to give people the skills and knowledge they need to be more effective,” Armstrong added.

Campaigning for change

But as well as this internal support role, Locality looks externally, giving a voice to its members on the national stage, representing them to government and publicly.

“We highlight the good practice that’s going on across the membership, and pick up issues that affect what’s happening in our members’ patches, to government – whether that’s lobbying for policy changes, or, increasingly, starting to think about whether we can do more public-facing campaigns. I’m very keen that we start looking at that.”

Turning Locality into more of a campaigning organisation with policy goals is important for Armstrong. But how easy is it to square this with its role in winning and delivering government contracts with the Department for Communities and Local Government?

“Government is not one single monolith,” Armstrong told us. “There are many different people within government trying to do lots of difficult and different things. My experience in this role so far, and also in my last role, has been that actually government appreciates you being able to give evidence on what’s happening on the ground, from your experience of running those contracts and those programmes.

“Most civil servants I’ve ever come in to contact with will say that people who are experiencing what happens on a day-to-day basis through their work are best-placed to tell them what needs to change, what can be improved, and what’s right.

“There’s sometimes a perception that taking a campaigning approach means being oppositional, or being aggressive. I don’t see that. Campaigning on an issue can help what government is trying to do, by shining a light on it and drawing attention. That, potentially, could mean that more money can become available for that issue, or there’s a greater chance of achieving policy change or legislative change.

“It’s a subtle relationship, in terms of when you work with government and when you campaign.”

Huge demand

He said Locality wants to be “assertive” but also evidence-based. When PSE said that some of its members wanted it to be more aggressive, he acknowledged: “Some of our members are facing really difficult social issues. There’s just a huge increase in the demand for the services they’re offering.”

Armstrong said he had just been told of a fight between two mums in a queue for debt advice at a drop-in centre, when they saw that not everyone would be able to get in. But now the drop-in centre has had to go appointment-only, further restricting the help it can offer.

“I suspect that throughout my time here I’m going to have pressure to be more outspoken, to be more demanding, because that fits what people are experiencing. What I’ve said to people is that obviously we will be vocal when we need to be; but it’s not just a case of being aggressive for the sake of being aggressive. We need to be evidence-based and positive, and offer solutions.”

Same issues as the early 2000s

Armstrong said leading Locality is the “perfect job” for him, with his recent campaigning and charity roles, and his background in the civil service and in neighbourhoods policy.

“Quite a few people are still around in the sector who I used to work with when I was in government. In some ways it’s really great to be back, and some of the things are familiar – but in other ways it’s depressing how some of the issues that were around in the early 2000s are still there and haven’t been solved or changed.

“The thread throughout most of my jobs has been a focus on communities: supporting communities to improve their local neighbourhoods.”

Reforming public services

A big campaign for Locality at the moment is ‘Local by Default’, which we have covered in PSE in recent issues, since it was launched at the House of Lords in March.

At the heart of Locality’s argument is that economies of scale in public services are usually a myth – that combining public sector procurement into larger and larger contracts to try to drive down unit costs through efficiencies of scale tends to fail.

Armstrong’s predecessor Steve Wyler called that a “a highly convenient myth for command-and-control politicians and for those who want to see mass privatisation of the public sector”, adding: “But not only is it false, and wholly unsupported by evidence, it is devastating in its consequences. It leads to an industrial approach to public services, riddled with standardisation and silo working.”

Instead, public service commissioning and delivery should take place ‘by default’ at the neighbourhood level, rising to other levels only with specific justification; people should be seen as assets, not just problems; a focus on purpose, not just outcomes; and a focus on value, not costs, by solving problems early.

Armstrong called it “the perfect thing for us to be putting more attention on” and promised additional resources for the campaign. Its recommendations would cost nothing, and ultimately improve outcomes for less money.

“Who doesn’t agree with that concept?” Armstrong asked. “We’re wasting billions giving people inadequate services at the moment that actually don’t address the issues people have, and are actually making things worse in some ways.”

That happens, he said, when people are shunted between service providers, or who get no help at all when they fall just below a certain threshold, but whose problems then get worse. “By the time people do reach those thresholds, it’s often too late for them to turn their lives around,” he said.

Storing up problems

Locality and the Social Economy Alliance have been debating those issues at the party conferences this year.

“We’ve got into this way of thinking where salami-sliced budget cuts mean you just outsource to whoever comes along saying they will deliver at a low price. But that’s not cost-effective; you end up storing all of the high-end problems.

“The value of our membership – locally-based, multi-purpose community organisations – is that they look at people holistically, can see them as assets rather than just problems, and can start to intervene early because they’ve got the knowledge and the ability to be able to signpost different services.”

Projects that had particularly caught his eye recently, he said included Barca-Leeds, which is redesigning services to help people overcome deprivation-related health and social issues, with funding help from the LankellyChase Foundation.

Armstrong told us: “They’re doing some really interesting work, and we’re keen to see how we can take lessons from that.”

He also had praise for Wigan Council, one of a number of local authorities that seems genuinely interested in redesigning services along ‘local by default’, neighbourhood-led lines.

“Local authorities are going to be subject to increasing cuts over the next two or three years, which are already programmed in. It’s good that some of them are starting to see that there’s a whole new way of being able to deliver services that can actually save them money, rather than just thinking about that salami-slicing or outsourcing approach.”

‘Local by Default’ will also be a key theme at Locality’s annual convention, which takes place in Cardiff on 17 and 18 November.

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