by Michael Walton
In development there is longstanding interest around greater participation of citizens as a means of improving the responsiveness and effectiveness of public services. This is important, complex and difficult—especially when the initiative flows from above, even more so when donors pressure governments to induce local participation.
It was thus intriguing to meet Labour MP Steve Reed to discuss the cooperative councils that have emerged in the UK. Steve is currently Shadow (Opposition) Minister for Civil Society and Young People at the national level, but was previously the elected head of the Lambeth Council in London, a poor, racially mixed part of London. He and his associates, including the black head of the council administration, introduced what seemed to be a radically different approach to decision-making and service provision. The central principle involved the redistribution of power from the bureaucracy to the clients of public services in order to create and mobilize the agency of citizens. This was in sharp contrast to the traditionally hierarchical, rule-bound approach to service provision, including within the old-style Labour practices. See this newspaper report in The Guardian.
There was no set pattern, since the bureaucratic histories, needs and patterns of citizen mobilization varied substantially across services. Rather the principles were driven initially from the top, complemented by mobilization by below, with different solutions across services. They had to fight bureaucratic cultures and hierarchical decision-making, and also created flatter organizational structures and a more cooperative decision-making within the council itself. The context was of tightening budgets, imposed by the macroeconomic situation. There were some dramatic successes in service quality, alongside the inevitable ups and downs. There hasn’t been a careful documentation, unfortunately—they were clearly too absorbed by action. However, this did spur something of a movement across other councils in the UK.
In another parallel with development debates, there are discussions of whether a government can genuinely induce cooperative processes—since coops are traditionally voluntary. Read The Guardian’s take on if the new model can work.
In IMAGO we have seen just this debate around voluntary and government-induced self help groups in India. That is surely an issue, but, I see the philosophy as different: around the need to work on both mobilization from below and changes in government practices and cultures if there is to be real change in services. This echoes both what Jonathan Fox used to call the need for a “sandwich” movement from above and below, and the theory of change in Transform Rural India, that involves both transformative local organization and working with politicians and bureaucrats on improving commitments to responsive services. Where the cooperative council principles are exciting is in the systematic internal reform of governmental processes, linked to both political and social pressures.
And in one promising connection, Newcastle City Council committed to becoming a Cooperative Council. This is where the Poverty Stoplight has an important client in the civil society sector. The participatory poverty analysis of the Stoplight, with its direct link to action, could be a highly aligned complement to the principles of a Cooperative Council. This could also help the Stoplight process, since it would allow a bridge to the external constraints to action for individuals and groups that the government can potentially respond to.