Think enabling gardener, not machine controller: how powerful communities are shifting government mindsets

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More fertile outcomes from the second CTRLShift conference in Stoke the other week. This is a fascinating blog from their site, by Adrian Brown of the Centre for Public Impact. He’s writing on how the autonomy of the localists and self-determinists at an event like this teach the traditional public services some lessons.

Here are three big ideas the top is taking from the bottom:

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First is the concept of subsidiarity; the idea that decision-making rights should reside at the lowest possible level in a system. Recognising that much of the information about how to improve a system is embedded in the system itself, it follows that we should push authority to information and not the other way round. In public services this implies that, wherever possible, local actors should be empowered to shape solutions including frontline professionals such as teachers, doctors and social workers.

Subsidiarity is closely linked to the second shift towards localism which stresses the importance of local accountability mechanisms and decision rights. Around the world, people have far greater trust in government bodies that are closer to them, because they have shorter accountability loops and can develop more locally appropriate solutions. In addition to representative democratic mechanisms, participatory mechanisms that open up deliberation and decision-making, can also flourish far more easily at the local level.

All of which emphasises the third shift, the importance of place as the dominant organising principle rather than hierarchical service silos. So-called ‘place-based’ solutions start with an understanding of the assets, stakeholders and relationships in a locality and build from there, recognising that how success is defined and pursued might look very different in different places. Indeed, that is the point.

We might describe the delivery mindset as envisaging the state as a giant machine ready to be optimised. By contrast, the enablement mindset would view public systems more like a garden that requires cultivation rather than control.

What are the deeper causes for this shift in focus, of what Brown calls the Enablement mindset:

Firstly, the nature of the challenges that the public sector is trying to address is changing. For example, mental health is now a major public health crisis in many developed countries and is linked to other problems such as substance abuse, domestic violence and unemployment. In other words, this is a complex and varied problem that is being poorly addressed by existing approaches.

Secondly, just as the internet has disrupted almost every industry, it is now disrupting the public sector. By making more information more easily accessible than ever before, it is democratising knowledge and upending hierarchies. For example, teachers can collaborate to share and improve lesson plans with colleagues around the world, rather than waiting for national guidelines. Similarly, patients can pool their knowledge about rare conditions, so that they become better informed than their doctors about the treatments available or the side-effects of certain combinations of medication.

Thirdly, respect for ‘the establishment’ is in freefall in many countries, with a suspicion that experts and other elites don’t share the values of the populace. Deference to hierarchy is being replaced by demands for more autonomy and self-determination. Localism is on the rise. Young people, in particular, are challenging old hierarchies, power structures and mindsets. They no longer just want to be customers or consumers but instead, be active participants able to shape services to their needs and play a part in their delivery.

These trends are advancing rapidly and seem unlikely to be reversed, and governments around the world are beginning to ask what it means for them.

Some of us here are old enough to remember Labour parties of the past promising an “enabling state” - not much came of it. And we are much more partial to Michel Bauwens’ notion of a partner state, which recognises the self-organising power of civil society organisations and initiatives, and reacts with a profound stance of support, not control.

But nevertheless - and echoing the ideas of Matt Leach of the Local Trust, posted here previously - this is a promising shift in mentality for public government. We’ll do out bit to maintain the power-balance on the localist side of things.