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Citizen central: What Labour can learn from cooperative councils

February was the month when senior Labour figures began to set out a new vision for public services. Speeches by Ed Miliband and Jon Cruddas sketched their proposals for a radical redistribution of power from central government to individuals, communities...


February was the month when senior Labour figures began to set out a new vision for public services. Speeches by Ed Miliband and Jon Cruddas sketched their proposals for a radical redistribution of power from central government to individuals, communities and localities, putting ‘people power’ at the heart of ‘one nation’ politics.

This represents a significant shift from the statism of the New Labour years, and deliberately so. Ed Miliband and Jon Cruddas are not alone in recognising that the command and control tendencies of the past often did not bring about the changes in people’s lives which they were intended to. They also distorted behaviour at the local level and afforded ministers a false sense of security in their ability to drive change down a public service delivery chain. Miliband and Cruddas have made an explicit break with the post-Beveridge social contract, moving away from the belief that the central state is the best mechanism for solving people’s problems and beginning to chart a new direction for the centre-left based on a sharing of power with citizens and service users.

Despite historical references to the communitarian side of Labour thinking in these speeches however, this change of direction has not been dreamt up over a weekend spent with the pamphlets of Michael Young and a few volumes of Richard Sennett. Building on themes central to the Blue Labour movement, increasingly loud calls for a reappraisal of New Labour’s record in power and new clarity of direction have been heard from Labour figures over the past year. Stella Creasy writing in the New Statesman last autumn called for “people-led politics” focused on “help[ing] citizens become more resilient and more open to opportunities“ and “putting members of the public in charge of their own destiny so we can prevent problems rather than just mitigating them”. Patrick Diamond and Michael Kenny, also writing in the New Statesman, called for Ed Miliband to “redefine British social democracy as more participative, more socially liberal, and more community-focused”. The IPPR recently set out its vision for the ‘relational state’, designed to respond to complex and interconnected social issues by devolving power, connecting services and deepening relationships. And, for the Fabians, Jon Wilson’s pamphlet Letting Go said Labour needed to learn to trust the people, as “real, practical democracy is the only answer to people’s massive sense of disempowerment”.

Beyond the theory, however, as both Miliband and Cruddas pointed out, a small number of Labour ‘co-operative councils’, such as Lambeth, Oldham, Sunderland and Newcastle, are already prototyping these ideas. They are building new ways of governing with citizens at the centre of all that they do, and forging a new, more equal and reciprocal account of the role of the state and its relationships with the people it was historically designed to serve. The work of articulating new principles for public services has begun at the same time as they are being put into practice to drive real change.

New principles for public services

The five principles set out by Jon Cruddas in his recent speech are also those guiding Labour’s ongoing policy review: transformation; prevention; devolution; collaboration and co-operation; and citizenship and contribution. These principles are core to the endeavors of co-operative councils. Co-operative councils stress the importance of ‘social partnership’ between citizens, communities and councils, based on a sense of shared responsibility for wellbeing and mutual benefit. Co-operative councils are embracing ‘co-production’ as a default model for public services, developing systems that enable to citizens to be equal partners in designing and commissioning services and determining the use of public resources. They recognise the value of citizens’ contribution to, and role in, solving problems and building stronger communities. They therefore increasingly embrace the role of the local authority as a builder of social connections, networks and platforms for action, rather than the municipal provider of services to a relatively passive population.

Why co-operative, and why now?

Co-operative councils’ analysis of the need for a change in the way they work is much the same as the analysis offered by both Miliband and Cruddas in their recent speeches. Key to this is that unprecedented increases in demand for public services, coupled with cuts in funding, mean that something has to change if councils are not going to retreat into statutory service delivery alone.

However, there is also a recognition that prolonged investment during the New Labour years did not enable public agencies and services to resolve some of the most pressing social issues of our day: for example, pockets of entrenched poverty and worklessness; so-called ‘troubled families’, who receive multiple state interventions to little effect; the impact of lifestyle diseases including obesity.

Co-operative councils agree that traditional models of top-down governance and service delivery at the local level no longer work. United in their search for a new approach, they have looked to the founding traditions of the co-operative movement – collective action and cooperation, empowerment and enterprise – as a foundation for solutions to tackle the challenges of today, learning and refining what this means in practice as they go.

These are not simple concepts to articulate, nor to bring to life in the ways these councils work. The scale of this challenge is such that co-operative councils have benefited from taking some of these steps together, with the 19 co-operative councils from across the country coming together to form the Co-operative Councils Innovation Network (CCIN). As well as sharing ideas and expertise, in its first nine months it would be fair to say that this collaboration has also revealed some of the complexities inherent in this agenda.

One important learning point is that not all cooperative councils are at the same stage of thinking and practice about what it means to be ‘co-operative’. This is not surprising, given that the word has a specific meaning in terms of organisational form, and strong associations with the Co-operative party and the Co-operative group. There is much common ground with both, but also points of difference.

As co-operative councils have evolved their thinking and practice, the question of what makes them ‘cooperative’ has become more about adherence to the shared set of principles and values outlined above, than specific organisational models such as mutuals and co-operatives – more about behaviours than form. It has become clear that  ‘being co-operative’ for these places is more a question of ‘co-operative’ as a verb than a noun – a way of working that is principally about creating an equal relationship with citizens and service users, rather than creating new models of service delivery based on mutual and co-operative models (though these so also have their place).

Some co-operative councils are at a relatively early stage of implementation, thinking about what working co-operatively would look like in different service areas, setting up projects to test ideas and looking around at what others are doing. Most, however, have established significant co-operative projects that are changing the way that key services are being run. These include:

• York’s library service, which is transferring to a Community Benefit Society that will work on an independent basis. It will be jointly owned by staff and residents who will be able to shape and deliver a library service that meets the needs of the community, as well as explore new income streams which will be reinvested in the service

• Lambeth’s development of a new co-operative model for the running of its parks and open spaces, working with ‘friends’ groups and other community groups to explore how they can be supported to take over the running of the parks where they wish to. The groups are interested in exploring how they can provide key services such as grounds maintenance in ways which support local outcomes such as employment and tackling reoffending, working in a different way with smaller local suppliers and utilising skills in the community

• Oldham’s establishment of two trading/mutual ‘hybrid’ arms for adult social care, fully owned by the council, with staff and service user engagement at the heart of the model. The new organisations were established in response to budget pressures, but as an alternative to fully outsourcing services to the private sector. Able to work in more flexible and innovative ways than traditional council departments, the new organisations are building new business from self-funders and people with personal budgets, who are choosing to opt out of the private sector, despite the lower prices they can offer. Any profits from the new companies will be reinvested in local services

• Plymouth’s work to support collaboration across the education sector in the city, including working with the growing numbers of schools in the city that wish to follow the example of Lipson Co-operative Academy, which is showcased nationally as an example of how co-operative principles applied to education can achieve dramatic improvement. The council is also supporting the wider development of co-operation and collaboration within education among a range of organisations in the city, for example, helping schools to benefit from the integration of school to school support services and benefit from economies of scale when commissioning support services.

However, while such service-based case studies are useful in showing that co-operative principles do lead to real changes in the way services are designed and run, they also point to the second lesson that has emerged from the work of the CCIN so far: the difficulty of expressing the more fundamental system change underpinning the case studies themselves. A description of isolated examples such as these almost inevitably fails to communicate the significance of the shift in thinking of which such projects are the result.

More interesting therefore – especially for Labour thinkers who are searching for a new account of public services for beyond 2015 – are the smaller number of co-operative councils whose approach has matured beyond early thinking and project or service-based approaches, and are now deeply into implementation and the profound system change that this can imply.

From services to system change Co-operative councils – perhaps alongside a very small number of other councils such as those that are pioneering community budgets – are attempting to fundamentally shift the concept of what public services are and how they should work, with citizens at the centre of all that they do. Redesigning services is a crucial part of this, but in fact it requires everything that the council does to change.

People have occasionally observed that from the outside ‘not much is happening’ in some co-operative council areas – and this may be a fair criticism from their perspective. However, system change means what it says: changing every single component part of the way an organisation works. This means rethinking the very way that the public service ‘system’ is considered, so that it incorporates residents and partners – in ways which may be rather invisible from the outside until all the pieces of the jigsaw are in place that enable the whole system to work differently.

To give a sense of what system change implies, let’s look at Lambeth, the first co-operative council. In the borough, the implementation of co-operative thinking has meant putting ‘cooperative commissioning’ – driven by outcomes and actively involving citizens – at the heart of the council’s operating model. This in turn has required a total restructure of the council’s departments, with the dismantling of traditional silos and the creation of ‘clusters’ around outcomes, in an attempt to reflect the ways that issues are experienced by people in the community and the way outcomes relate to each other. It has meant rewriting the council’s constitution, changing the role of cabinet members to formally make them the commissioners of outcomes, with attention now turning to local community-based commissioning and the role of ward members.

Apart from the high profile projects in areas such as libraries, youth services and parks, none of this is especially visible to the outside world until it starts working, but the heavy lifting involved in making these sorts of changes in a large bureaucracy – turning the way the organisation works on its head, so people are at the centre of the system rather than at the end of a ‘delivery chain’ – cannot be underplayed.

Beyond the flagship service-based projects therefore, there are examples from co-operative councils of projects designed to understand how this more equal relationship with citizens can be realised across the whole system. Lambeth’s ‘OpenWorks’ project in West Norwood is exploring the ways in which the council can provide platforms for collaboration and innovation among local people, supporting them to establish their own projects and understand how these can contribute to positive changes in the community. Oldham’s work on the Troubled Families programme is seeking to redesign the way public services work with families, starting from their perspective and understanding the impact of factors normally outside the ‘service lens’ – social networks and norms – on their lives. Sunderland’s Community Leadership programme is developing area-based commissioning of services and outcomes. It seeks to involve ward councillors and local people in decisions that help to ensure that services are responsive to local needs, but also that alternatives to traditional service delivery are created – for example, supporting community activity and ‘local self-help’ as ways of meeting needs which are normally considered through formal adult social care services.

Places like these are at the forefront of the creation of a new state. Whether we call it relational or enabling, it is a state that does not believe it has all the answers, and knows that people can be actively supported to help themselves and each other. It understands that value lies in people and society, and that the state can act to support and mobilise this human and social capital for community benefit. It recognises that good outcomes are as much about people having influence over their lives and living in a strong, supportive community, as ‘delivering’ the hard outputs which tend to dominate our political debates – hospital waiting times, changes to the school syllabus, residential care places. Yes, all of these things matter. But the outcomes they are designed to achieve – healthier communities; educated, work-ready young people; safe and secure older people – require so much more than simple delivery.

It will take huge amounts of political bravery for Labour nationally to say some of the harder things that come with a more equal share of responsibility between citizens and the state. It requires a shift from talking about those specific services or outputs we all become so attached to, which so often act as proxies for the things that really matter, towards a focus on the changes Labour wants to see in our society and a vision of the role of government – at all levels – and of citizens too, in achieving them.

It also requires enormous restraint both in political campaigning in the run up to a general election, and ultimately in behaviour in government. No longer will politicians be able to claim they can solve all of our problems. No longer will they be able to try and pull levers in Whitehall to fix issues in local communities.

This is complex political territory for the left, tarnished in recent memory by the failed Tory narrative of the ‘big society’ and bringing with it the inevitable accusations that this is about a handover of risk and a withdrawal of responsibility on the part of the state. Focusing on citizenship is crucial, articulating the positive contribution we can all make to building a stronger society and emphasising the importance of building a partnership between citizens and state which reflects the value that all can bring. Again, co-operative councils are already navigating some of this complex territory with local residents.

Ultimately, there are big implications for the shape and role of central government too – historically organised around silos with responsibility for delivery – which have not yet been fully thought through.

Ed Miliband was correct when he said that this is about “a culture for the way public services ought to work” and a “sense of purpose [that] acts as a guide” for public servants – central government setting expectations for behaviour and ways of working on behalf of the state, rather than specific outputs. He has begun to articulate a new vision for public services. Whether, given the opportunity, he is brave enough to put it into action remains to be seen. If he does, he has the example of pioneering Labour-run co-operative councils from up and down the country to follow.

Anna Randle helped set up the Cooperative Councils Innovation Network and works on cooperative development and implementation at London Borough of Lambeth

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2014 edition of the Fabian Review.

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