"The Wigan Deal" beats austerity by putting unique human relationships at the core. Does it anticipate a more radical future too?
This affecting, even moving video above comes from people and stories that feed into a new report from the King’s Fund, reporting on the progress of “The Wigan Deal”. As Wigan Council put in their own website:
The Deal is an informal agreement between the council and everyone who lives or works here to work together to create a better borough.
We have committed to a series of pledges and in return need residents and businesses to play their part too. So far through working together we have saved £115m, but there’s still a long way to go.
We now have the second lowest Council Tax rates in the whole of Greater Manchester and believe we can continue to balance our books if you help by doing things like recycling more, volunteering in your communities and using online services.
Thanks to the hard work and commitment of residents and communities The Deal has been a huge success, but we all must keep doing more.
It’s not obvious from the text above, but the Wigan deal is a response to an acute funding crisis. From the advent of Westminster-imposed austerity in 2010, Wigan Council was told it would lose 40 per cent of its budget from central government, phased in over 10 years, including the loss of around a fifth of its workforce.
The response from the council was that this wasn’t just an unavoidable requirement to “balance books” (no matter the ideological objections to austerity), but an opportunity to recast the relationship between public services and the public themselves.
What if a “deal” could be made between them, where citizens undertook to improve their own quality of life in a variety of ways - better relationships, better health, more awareness of environment and sustainability - and the Council committed to helping them do that, both “believing in their borough”?
You can see the nature of the “Deal” from their info-graphic below (and you’ll see “The Deal” logo throughout the film):
There is an iceberg of thinking and practice underneath this deal - much of it covered in these pages. For example, someone heavily involved in helping the council reshape their services is the welfare reformer Hilary Cottam (interviewed here by A/UK’s founder Indra Adnan).
Principles in the deal like “Helping communities to support each other”, “build services around you and your family”, and “listen, be open and friendly” is very much along the lines of Hilary’s concept of “radical help” - based on listening to people’s care needs first, and shaping services around that.
From Indra’s column on Hilary, in July 2018:
Hilary identifies the waste of time and resources in throwing multiple kinds of disconnected interventions at single persons or families that are not able to thrive. Most of the time and money is spent on managing the system of care, rather than responding to the vulnerable person’s needs.
Instead, she has proven how a small team of dedicated helpers, creating a constant support structure - but led by the actual persons/people who need help - can deliver outstanding results. What makes a person able to become responsible for their own life is making a relationship with one or more people they can trust, to help them as they grow.
These “radical helpers” have to be willing to take the rough with the smooth, experiment with different forms of help and not bail when results are slow in coming. It’s a journey in which the vulnerable develop the capabilities needed to engage in the networks that surround them - in ways that give them their own autonomy and independence in society.
This is very much the story told in the video. The King’s Fund report identifies four reasons why the Wigan Deal has been effective:
There has been a major drive to work with local people in a different way that seeks to recognise and nurture the strengths of individuals, families and communities and to build independence and self-reliance. [A/UK: We presume this is the opposite of “deficit-based working” - what’s wrong or depleted about this person, how can we fix and repair their brokenness?]
This started with social care workers being trained to have more open-ended, exploratory conversations with their clients, and has now become a new way of working for the council as a whole and, increasingly, for other organisations across Wigan. While asset-based working has been explored in many parts of England, Wigan is notable for the scale at which this approach has been adopted and for the consistency of implementation.
Permission to innovate
Leaders in Wigan Council have created a culture in which innovation is encouraged and frontline staff are permitted to take decisions for themselves and rethink how they work, based on their conversations with people using services.
This has meant taking a different approach to risk – positive risk-taking is encouraged if the potential benefits for clients are believed to outweigh the potential harms. It has also involved moving away from a ‘blame culture’ towards one which emphasises learning from what has not worked.
Investing in communities
Wigan Council has invested in local voluntary sector organisations and community groups through a dedicated community investment fund. Beneficiaries have mainly been small grassroots organisations that have been helped to increase the scale and impact of their activities through financial support and access to expert advice.
More broadly, the council has moved to a collaborative approach to commissioning in which voluntary and community sector organisations are seen as partners and are actively supported to develop and improve.
There has also been a focus on growing citizen leadership through roles such community health champions, dementia friends and autism friends, and on supporting social prescribing using community link workers based in general practices.
As in other parts of the country, partner organisations in Wigan are attempting to work together in a more integrated way, working flexibly across organisational boundaries within local neighbourhoods. A distinctive feature of Wigan’s approach to this is the breadth of organisations involved – in addition to health and social care teams, the police, housing, employment and welfare services and others are all involved.
This creates opportunities to tackle the broader determinants of health and wellbeing in a more coordinated and flexible way.
As the report says, this move - of putting care and service users in the driving seat of their own services - is going on all around the country. See this Australian interview with Scotland’s ex-chief Medical Officer Harry Burns, talking about how the “early years collaborative” they set up was constantly driven by suggestions from frontline carers and user.
The A/UK Take
From the local empowerment perspective (in the light of global crises of climate and technology) that we have proposed in A/UK over these three years, there is much to celebrate here. Hilary’s approach clearly unleashes much energy in otherwise moribund and maybe even defeated local councils. The Kings Fund report says that “building a new culture” (between citizen and public servant) is what crucially drives these changes.
But the Fund also note, from their own focus groups in the area, a key problem:
People’s concerns about issues such as crime and antisocial behaviour appear to be overshadowing progress being made on other fronts that are less visible to the majority of residents, such as social care or public health. This demonstrates how challenging it is for one local system to build a new relationship with the public in isolation.
This raises questions from us that we’ve identified before here: what role is media playing, local and national, in intensifying these concerns - an overpowering agenda of “if it bleeds, it leads”? How much do national phenomena like Brexit, and the relentless focus on it, quench a sense of local optimism that many think-tanks (in the UK and America) have noticed is possible? One can see from cheery promo animations (embedded here) that Wigan Council sees can-do optimism as a resource. Maybe also the insights of Common Cause, about people’s over-gloomy perception of the selfishness of others, could also be brought to this new “culture”.
But our final question might be whether the rich, warm (and very much women-led) cultures of care and “radical help”, shown in the video, could have a better context - meaning something different from dancing to the budget-cutting tune of austerity.
For example, how does a local transformation based on the power of relationship, and the latent capacities of people, relate to major themes around climate and automation?
If the planetary deadlines mean that we have to move from a “stuff”-based, carbon-spewing economy, to something that derives more meaning from humans connecting than purchasing status goods, can’t we see the “relational” shift in Wigan as some kind of answer to that?
If automation and artificial intelligence aims to substitute for many existing routine labours, and the information economy puts huge pressure on wages and work, then isn’t the “move to rich community” represented by Wigan (and many other localities and localisations we cover) one way to prepare for a post-work society too?
Futuristic, in short—rather than just defensive, or accommodating the latest party-political regime. And perhaps, on the basis of its own new “culture”, able to put its own pressure - and make its own claims - on major institutions and regulatory/funding policies.
We’d love to talk to the Wigan Dealers about this - while expressing huge respect for their often beautiful achievement.