Public services: Partnerships: who cares?

Community activists have little to gain from teaming up with local government, according to David Abse.

Some time ago, central government began thinking about local services.

It wasn't happy with the fact that few people even vote in local elections, let alone take much interest in how their services are delivered. To deal with this, the Government introduced a range of reforms, including changing the way councils' democratic structures worked and the structure of local service delivery. It set new targets for local authorities that measured council departments' service delivery competence.

The Government noticed that local people were often involved in their communities through the voluntary sector and wanted to harness this energy for local service development.

So the Government set up new requirements for statutory authorities to work with their local communities. Council and health service targets included requirements for community involvement. Regeneration money was diverted into new projects designed to involve more local people, including the Neighbourhood Renewal Fund, local strategic partnerships, the New Deal for Communities, the Children's Fund, SureStart and health action zones.

Nothing to gain

There have been a number of consequences. First, local government feels undermined. Second, politicians have assumed that their own civil servants are committed and competent enough to deliver these programmes - when it is apparent to all of those on the receiving end that this is not necessarily the case. Third, no one has stopped to consider why local community representatives should want to get involved in the first place, and why they should want to stay involved after spending time dealing with local and central government bureaucracy.

The policy assumes that local people will get involved because they have something to gain from the process. It assumes that the process will feel worthy and worthwhile, but all too often neither is the case. The Government has clearly stated that the people it wants to involve are 'community champions', people who spend time organising their own community groups or campaigning for local services. But what have they really got to gain?

The average community activist gets involved because they are passionate about something. It might be their local park or a play centre; it could be helping to set up services for people with disabilities. At IVAC, the Council for Voluntary Service in Islington, we work constantly with these people. We help them set up structures that will enable them to succeed, help them raise funds and provide a range of support services. We also try to encourage them to get involved in networks with a common interest.

Occasionally we manage to get someone involved in a new partnership. We have learned that we cannot get people involved at the expense of their core work with their park, play centre or whatever.

Meanwhile, the pressure is on: every service provider now wants to set up a partnership. There's the Compact, there's CompactPlus, there are Local Area Agreements. There are so many partnerships in place that if you were so inclined you could spend your whole life in one or another of them.

What happens at these partnership and network meetings? The reality is that people don't get what they hope for, because although the partnerships have been set up with good intentions, civil servants have got hold of them. The Government will not fund a partnership or network without specific targets that have to be measured, monitored and evaluated. Everyone has boxes to tick, targets to meet.

Why on earth would local community activists want to do this? The answer is that they don't. Although local government officers are warming to the idea of working with communities, and working relationships at some levels are better than ever, it is becoming harder and harder to convince local community activists to get involved. Their experiences have taught them that the processes are dull and bureaucratic in the extreme, and their influence is virtually non-existent.

Lessons to learn

Some things have clearly succeeded. Some local regeneration projects have worked well, and the Neighbourhood Renewal Community Chest has been a success, providing small amounts of money for investment in local groups.

Local strategic partnerships, however, are not the success the Government hoped they would be, for all the reasons outlined above and many more.

And what hope is there for Local Area Agreements when there is so little faith, or even interest, from local communities towards their statutory 'partners'?

The voluntary and community sector has learned a clear lesson: there is no point in setting up a partnership, no point in repeating the 'involving communities' mantra, while local communities and local individuals in communities have so little to gain.

All this needs to be considered as a matter of urgency. What would make people get involved? Why should they be involved? Why should they care?

Part of the issue at a local level is one of desire-do local political leaders really want to be involved in partnership, let alone local communities? At a national level, it is more an issue of structures and processes: what can be done to make the partnership experience a rewarding one?

Given our experiences so far, does government have the structures to deliver what it has tried to set up? We fear it does not, and that unless there is reform at the top as well as the bottom, not much of this can possibly succeed.

David Abse has been director of IVAC, the Council for Voluntary Service in Islington, since 1999.

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