Tony Armstrong: The long-lasting value of keeping public services local

Our public services are increasingly driven towards large outsourcing contracts with multinationals - it's time to push back and invest locally

Tony Armstrong
Tony Armstrong

Over recent years, more of our public services have been ending up in large outsourcing contracts that are regularly provided by multinational companies.

But at Locality we’re beginning to see a new movement gathering pace: the Keep it Local movement. Instead of outsourcing services at scale, councils up and down the country are looking to unlock the power of community, build strong local partnerships with community organisations and transform their places together.

Together they are creating more responsive services for local people, reducing long-term pressure on the public sector and ensuring precious public resources are invested in the local economy.

Community organisations and small charities play a unique role in the local service landscape. From homelessness to employment support, children’s services to adult social care, they are vital where trusting relationships and innovation are required.

That’s because they know the place and the people. They are committed, passionate and there for the long term.

But mega outsourcing contracts have been crowding them out. So why is the need for a community solution becoming clearer than ever before?

Rising demand and the increasingly complex nature of need have been placing services under strain and many of the services we rely on are facing crises.

The trend towards scale might have provided some budgetary relief for councils, but it’s the opposite of what we need. It has doubled down on a transactional, market-driven mindset, where people are the passive recipients of services rather than partners in care.

The collapse of Carillion has placed a spotlight on the entire outsourcing market: having one big contract with one big provider no longer seems a risk-free bet. 

The Keep it Local approach is the right answer at the right time. The complex, long-term nature of our big social problems mean they can’t be solved by top-down plans or market incentives. They need deep and lasting relationships to be forged, power to be dispersed and services joined around the needs of every person.

Local authorities have experts on this: their local community organisations and small charities.

Bureaucratic commissioning processes and big contracts have been preventing these organisations from participating in local services. Keep it Local turns this on its head, with the starting point being how to build relationships that unlock community potential. This means better and more responsive services, which have a transformative effect and will reduce long term pressure by tackling problems at source.

What’s more, how councils are funded is changing, meaning they are much more reliant on the success of the local economy. So there is growing interest in using procurement to invest in the local economy. Profit is ploughed back into the community, rather than leaking away. For example, in just one area for one community organisation, we found every £1 of income generated by Bradford Trident creates £2.52 for the local economy.

Another example comes from one of our members that was recently commissioned by Calderdale Council to create a community garden and kitchen for local people. This adds so much to community life, instead of seeing profit drained off to corporate shareholders.

Along with councils, commissioners and communities, we have designed six Keep It Local principles, which we aim to use to continue to build high-level support across councils and to guide Keep it Local practice at grass-roots level:

  • Think about the whole system and not individual service silos
  • Coordinate services at the neighbourhood level.
  • Increase local spend to invest in the local economy
  • Focus on early intervention now to save costs tomorrow
  • Commit to your community and proactively support local organisations
  • Commission services simply and collaboratively so they are local by default.

Public services are now at a critical junction, where large-scale fail is not an option. Let’s take a different, better and more sustainable, local path. Let’s Keep it Local.

Tony Armstrong is chief executive of Locality

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