Putting people in the lead

19 Feb 2021 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 19 Feb 2021

Pic: Pixabay

The pandemic has led to severe curtailment of our freedoms. Recovering from it should not just involve restoring but enhancing them. It is time to put people in the lead.

Last week Scope reported on the King’s Fund report into recovering from disasters, whose central finding was that successful recovery involves ensuring that community needs are met and acted on. That involves a power-shift whereby communities become central to policy-making and empowered to lead the changes required.

This is not as easy as it sounds and has profound implications for the public, voluntary and community sectors. It represents a direct challenge to the “doing unto others” mentality which is still part of the DNA of many charities and a prime motivator for policy-makers and politicians.

Most of all it requires the humility to redefine who we think of as experts, because it involves acknowledging that there are “experts through experience” as well as academics, professionals, idealists and those who set out to do good things.

There has been some shift towards this in recent years, which can be built upon and accelerated. For example in 2016 Disability Research on Independent Living and Learning (DRILL) was launched. This  £5 million UK-wide project was the first piece of research anywhere in the world into how to help disabled people live independent lives to be led by those affected.

What seemed astonishing about this was that it had taken so long for work of this nature to be commissioned.

Joe Kenny, a blind person living in Belfast told Scope at the time: “I've been totally blind for 34 years now so I believe I'm entitled to consider myself as an expert in how it affects my life. I've always found it confusing that some academics, members of the medical profession and social care professionals seem to think they know more than me about this.”

Co-production is starting to gain traction. For instance service users and carers have been prominent in the Department of Health’s response to the Inquiry into Hyponatraemia Related Deaths. Their insights and experience have been just as welcome as anyone else’s – they are helping shape public policy.

Meaningful co-production is not a tick box exercise. It is the harnessing of a hitherto untapped source of expertise and empowers citizens, who are transformed from mere recipients of services to  policy-makers. This is exactly how it should be given that we both pay for and use the health service.

If co-production were to be embedded in all major policy making we would not just increase the chances that services that are provided are what we want and need, it would also increase our sense of collective ownership of them.

The National Community Lottery Fund adopts a similar philosophy to its funding. Its strategy People in the Lead is based on the belief that people and communities are best placed to solve their problems, take advantage of opportunities, and rise to challenges.

In practice this means that those who benefit from the funding have to be meaningfully involved in the development, design and delivery of the project.

This thinking can and should be extended both within the sector and by public bodies.  

This process is already happening in Scotland.  Here under the Community Empowerment Act councils have a legal obligation to engage with citizens on how they spend their money. This has led to the setting up of several Participatory Budget (PB) schemes. There are different variants, all sharing the same principle – that citizens themselves should decide how many is spent in their communities.

Empowering people in this way ensures that the real experts (people who live within a community and know what it needs) are in the lead and it also strengthens local democracy, encouraging citizenship and engagement.

In Northern Ireland Participatory Budgeting Works has a range of resources and offers training for communities and organisations wanting to get involved. Progress is being made but projects to date have been relatively small scale.

What is required next is for local authorities to pilot larger scale schemes to demonstrate trust and confidence in the communities that they serve.

It would also be logical for the National Lottery Communities Fund to fund PB schemes within communities – after all the process would deepen and strengthen its People in the Lead strategy.

Finally the time for Citizens Assemblies is upon us.

In Northern Ireland we have many important policy issues which are proving intractable for politicians. They range from health reform to education to disputes around cultural identity and dealing with the past.

Devolving all or some of these difficult issues directly to the people to deliberate can help resolve impasses.

This was clearly demonstrated in the Republic where the difficult and emotive issue of abortion law was considered by a Citizen’s Assembly. It’s deliberations ultimately led to a referendum and reform. Politicians did not see it as a threat but as a useful adjunct to their work.

We are currently living through a period when human freedoms are being sacrificed as a result of the pandemic. It is unlawful to go on holiday. We cannot meet up with relatives and friends,  the basic rituals of life - weddings, funerals church services, sports events have been curtailed.  The libertarian Boris Johnson has succeeded where Cromwell and his Puritans failed: pubs are closed and public gatherings suppressed.

It seems all the more appropriate that when we emerge we should seek to create a new social contract between citizens and the state and the givers and receivers of services on which we rely.

What it will take is for all of us in the public and voluntary sector who think we know what is best for others to show the humility, deference and respect to pause a while to ask them what works best for them.


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