Nadine Smith 05 November 2019

All politics is local - and policymaking should be too

It’s a difficult time to be a public servant. After years of budget cuts and austerity, the big, complex issues of our time – such as social care, climate change and economic mobility – are coming to a head. Often, it seems that local authorities are best placed to deal with these problems in their areas. But with a lack of trust from citizens after decimated services, ring-fenced budgets and countless levels of bureaucracy, creating effective policy that has real impact on the people it’s designed to help can seem impossible.

In the complex policy landscape of today, there are a number of important factors that public servants must balance when designing policy. The Centre for Public Impact spoke to people at all levels in government from around the world, consulted leading academics and analysed hundreds of case studies to understand what makes policies successful and to create tools for policymakers. Three factors appeared again and again: Legitimacy, Policy and Action, or the Public Impact Fundamentals.

An example of a policy having the right impact at a local level is The Wigan Deal. Following austerity measures introduced in 2010, Wigan was the third most affected local authority in England.

As Donna Hall, former CEO of the council put it: 'For us to continue to function, everything had to change. A new policy or programme would not be enough. It needed a radical rethink about how we could put people and connections at the heart of public services. So The Deal was developed as a new kind of social contract between us and the community.'

The Deal led to a reduction in expenses, improved services, frozen council tax and improved health outcomes for citizens. The area has since been named the happiest place in Greater Manchester. Here’s how they did it.

Legitimacy

Local authorities need public confidence, political commitment, and high quality engagement with stakeholders in order to create effective policy. Without legitimacy, local authorities can struggle to push through initiatives, due to a lack of support and trust.

In Wigan, the response to the original plan was positive, and in the years since The Deal was introduced, public confidence has been high. A public consultation revealed that 83% of residents were supportive of The Deal’s principles, and resident satisfaction has risen by 50%. A key aspect of this has been around communicating what the council is doing and why, to residents in the borough.

The structure of the deal is stakeholder-focused; the council involves members of the community in decisions through the Deal in Action, which brings council workers and residents together on different projects – and consults with local businesses. The council also had a long-standing, trusted leader who was willing to make radical change to make lives better in a difficult time.

Policy

To make sure policy is effective, public bodies must make sure they have clear objectives, strong evidence and an understanding of what is feasible. In Wigan, the council set clear goals for both itself and residents, with a central objective of reducing spending whilst getting people involved in the local community.

The Deal was experimental in its approach, but it has evolved to become a successful contract between people and state, which is different from any other model in existence. While there were potential challenges when it came to feasibility, as it required a new form of engagement between council and citizens, its investment in community development has proved to build strong relationships in the local area.

Action

Effective policy must translate into a real-world setting therefore measurement, management and alignment are vital. Wigan Council manages how The Deal is implemented and is increasingly shifting the top-down provision of services towards the community.

The council also created a report looking into the State of the Borough in 2017, which contains metrics relating to the Deal and its objectives. The alignment of interests between key actors in The Deal has also proved to be positive: staff morale and engagement has improved in the council, and the local authority has been placed in the top quartile of The Times’ Best Companies to Work For.

Finding local solutions

The Wigan Deal made a real impact on citizens, by achieving legitimacy, creating strong and effective policy, and demanding action from the council. Through involving the public and creating a sense of belonging and responsibility, the council built strong relationships, leading to a better borough. Further afield, a recent study in Canada also showed that Canadians who had a strong sense of belonging to their community were almost three times more likely to think elected officials care about what they think. This suggests that building a culture of participation locally will have a positive impact on how citizens feel about government overall, and has the potential to ensure both effective and legitimate policymaking at a local level.

Get your Public Impact Starter Kit here.

Nadine Smith is director at the Centre for Public Impact

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