Note of Better Way Cell 3, 28 February on ‘local is better than national’

Local is not always best

Steve Wyler opened the discussion by saying that he recognised that local is not always better than national – we have been told that travellers and gypsies for example had found it more difficult to establish settlements once decisions were made locally.  Local was often preached but less often practiced.  A belief in the value of small communities is at least 200 years old, and yet Britain remains highly centralised.   

One problem in ‘creating villages’ is that people often get excluded, black, Asian and minority people in particular.  For many, the problem is that we have lost a sense of community and sense of ownership of place.  The challenge is to be truly inclusive and give all people a voice. 

The role of national standards

The choice is not always a binary one: even in the context of localism there is often a role for national legislation and government to enable,  or to set universal standards.  Part of this is about fairness and avoiding a so-called postcode lottery. 

It is very easy to get this wrong, and to end up with perverse incentives or gaming – eg in relation to school exclusions.  National standards should not be a blueprint, and must allow for local innovation and discretion.  Principles are much better than targets – one of our Better Way propositions.  For example, there should be a national ambition to safeguard children, but local solutions will and should vary.

There also needs to be a stronger sense of what works best at what level – the principle of subsidiarity – as some things can only be done locally, others nationally, and there is also regional and international action to consider.

Challenging ‘scalability’

We should challenge the concept of scalability ie that small-scale experiments or practices are only of value if they can be scaled up to a size that is deemed to be more economical.  Locality has produced an excellent report on why local by default should replace so called diseconomies of scale: Bigger is not always better.

It is values and process that can be learnt from others and adopted more widely, not a single model, and a model that is imposed from on high can end up being a form of national control that undermines local delivery. 

‘Contextual ‘ versus ‘content’ knowledge and skills

Local, community based organisations are often relatively rich in the understanding of ‘context’ – and may have many volunteers and staff who have direct experience of it.  This is why they can be highly effective locally.

But they may be less successful in competing with national organisations for work because they appear to be less well qualified in terms of professional ‘content’ skills and knowledge, and these are given disproportionate weight. Being able to connect with a community and create strong communities should be better recognised in the ‘metrics’ of what makes an effective organisation.

 Sharing learning

Local solutions to problems are important but there are a lot of common challenges, even if the combination of circumstances are unique in each case.  So learning from others should be facilitated.  But how to break away from just sharing best practice?

Experience suggests that such sharing works better when organisations are not in competition.  But other factors are also in play: aspirations need to be raised; and people need access to tools that will help them discover what works best.

Raising aspirations: ‘shifting the dial from minus zero to plus one’

Just as individuals can lack ‘self-efficacy’ – a lack of belief in what is possible and therefore of ambition - so can organisations; and they may not even be aware of this.  

Aspirations may be set only on achieving what others have done; on what the contract requires; or to a basic level of expectation (‘moving the dial from minus one to zero).  It is much better for the ambition to be to move from ‘zero to plus one’ and to do so  it is important to understand and start from the essential purpose, not processes.  So, for example, some voluntary organisations may simply aspire to become even better at ameliorating social problems, rather than acting in ways that would prevent them from happening in the first place and genuinely empowering those with whom they work.  Content and context skills will play a part in moving to ‘plus one’. 

Creating tools that create a ‘journey of discovery’

To achieve this, we need to move away from passive learning to giving people at the front line active tools to innovate.  It is about shifting from training people in how to do the job, or simply giving them knowledge, and seeking to build ‘capability’ – a strong theme in current educational theory.  The Buurtzog model is one example of this, with front-line staff empowered to work in ways that work best.

What practitioners need is not a manual but a feedback loop of information on effectiveness that provides a living process of learning, with access to others who may be on that same journey in other organisations.

The aim should be to facilitate a  ‘journey of discovery’ that puts practitioners in control and gives them an appetite to change.  Learning from others should not become a way of avoiding such a journey but should help it.

Regular information on performance must be part of this, but it needs to be done in a way that avoids the problems with much of evaluation - which can be too late, too narrow in focus and used to find out whether existing goals have been achieved rather than to identify the need for different objectives.   Feedback should be fun, information should come in real time, and should measure the things that really matter, not just what funders require.   Asking people in communities what they and others genuinely value should be a key starting point.   

‘Social accounting’ used by social businesses has arguably been one model in the past and has involved stakeholder consultation about what they thought counted the most.  Makerble is trying to deliver this kind of information in this way. Wazoku develops software to enable companies to learn from their own staff.

 Some issues to explore further:

  • Developing a better sense of subsidiarity, i.e. what works best at what level, so that the case for local action is stronger and the right support is in place regionally and nationally.
  • Developing metrics, tools and concepts that help create more effective local action, move away from the idea that ‘big is best’,  raise aspirations and empower front-line staff; and which help others to recognise and reward how they add value through ‘context’ as well as ‘content’ skills and knowledge.