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Social action as an organising principle for public services

Source: PSE Dec/Jan 17

Carrie Deacon, programme manager in Nesta’s Innovation Lab, explains how commissioners can move people power from the periphery to the heart of service design.

Many are now convinced that the public services we inherited from our grandparents, in which people are passive consumers of public services, are unsuitable and unsustainable in the context of the challenges ahead. Social action has a key role to play in augmenting and reforming our public services, from community networks supporting older people to live well and peer networks for people living with long-term health conditions, to local people supporting young people in their communities to navigate job and training opportunities. 

Whether we call it formal or informal volunteering, giving, social action or simply ‘people helping people’, spending some time in the service of others is a deeply ingrained part of our culture. There is a long tradition of people helping people in the UK, and there are some great examples around the country of the potential of this work. But this must be harnessed as a core organising principle of public services, moved from the periphery to truly operating at scale in how we design and deliver all of our services. 

Embedding people helping people as a core principle 

In the future, the best public services will be people powered – designed to be more open, where each interaction creates connections, deliberately works to enable creative and active citizenship, and brings together skilled professionals and the time and talents of local people and service users to change communities and lives. And importantly, this will not be for 10 people, or 100 with specific needs, but embedded and designed to be how we operate. 

There are many compelling reasons for embedding people helping people as a core organising principle of public services: it would increase the resources available to achieve social goals; give public services access to new knowledge and expertise; reach people and places that public services cannot, leading to a fundamental change in the way we respond to social needs and challenges; and create better services with reciprocal value for the people who give their time. 

Over the last three years, Nesta and the Office for Civil Society have been on a mission to find and grow the best social action innovations that augment public services. The work allows us to point to promising examples now available across England, which we hope will allow social action to be viewed as something that can operate nationwide  and not just locally or on the fringes as a ‘nice to have’. For example, because they have scaled, any school can now request a Code Club, any local authority a Shared Lives Plus caring scheme, any ambulance trust a GoodSAM first responder scheme, any GP surgery a Breathe Easy group, any job centre a CIPD Steps Ahead mentor and any prison governor a User Voice Council. 

This is an ambitious agenda, so many public service reforms come and go, but just a few manage to create a new ‘normal’. To make this shift we need to support many more of the best social innovations – from inside and outside of public services – to scale. Social action is just one field where public services play a pivotal role in supporting effective scaling of social innovation. As such, we think it is imperative that every public service commissioner considers how to make their service more open to ideas from outside – be they alternative delivery models or radically different approaches. 

If public services are going to harness the potential of great social innovations, we think they could better support them to scale in the following ways: 

  • Understanding what works and spreading, copying, replicating and commissioning the best innovations quickly. If a model is already established, with evidence of success, there may be opportunities to avoid reinventing the wheel, enabling resources to be concentrated on ‘localising’ these models
  • Creating spaces where new ideas and services can be ‘pitched’ to a single audience. For example, the fragmented market in education requires innovations like the Access Project or City Year to build relationships with individual schools as buyers. This slows the progress of scaling well-evidenced initiatives, and makes it very costly for projects to scale
  • Commissioning innovation and experimentation with thought of scale from the start. Although innovative approaches and experimentation requires risk taking and possible failure, considering what scale would look like in an area or with a user group early, and how this might be achieved, can affect how outcomes and approaches are commissioned. It is imperative to avoid short-term or unsustainable approaches
  • Developing tenders or contracts that don’t drown out earlier stage or local solutions. These are more likely to be smaller in nature, whereas big corporate delivery agencies sweep up ‘block contracts’ at a size that scaling social innovations could never compete
  • Creating partnerships with fledgling social innovations. All of the best social action innovations we supported to scale needed a partnership/buyer who was an early adopter. Taking a risk to try something new can be difficult unless local public services create a culture where inquisitiveness and experimentation in the pursuit of better impact is rewarded
  • Nurture, develop and scale in-house innovations. Stockport MBC has taken a radical approach to embed people-powered asset-based approaches across its health services, and is looking to scale this across other service areas, as well as support other boroughs in Greater Manchester to adapt their approach. Seven UK councils have adopted the Cities of Service model and made it their own by thinking how social action can be embedded as an organising principle to address city challenges 

Our work to create demand and awareness amongst public service commissioners, for brilliant and well-evidenced social action models that operate at a significant scale, will continue. But if the full potential of people-powered public services is to be harnessed, we must all think bigger in our ambitions.



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