New Citizenship Project (NCP) has been working with Kirklees Council for around 18 months now, to radically redefine the relationship between council and citizen: from service provider, to enabler. Throughout this project, there has been great opportunity to learn and reflect. Now we’d like to share those reflections, to see what other local authorities might learn and take away from the experience.
What was the starting point?
NCP: We’re a strategy and innovation company on a mission to support a shift in the dominant story of the individual in society from consumer to citizen. We help organisations do things better (and do better things) because we think of people differently. If you think of people as consumers, all you can do is sell to them - whether that’s predefined actions to take or products to buy. If you think of people as citizens, you have to start by asking what your organisation exists to achieve in the first place, and then how people can join in and help you do it: a far more generative and creative place to be.
We start with the belief that people do have a desire to play an active role in making their places better, but that the narratives and structures that are put in place can either help or hinder our agency to get involved. This is all about stepping away from what we call the ‘Subject’ and ‘Consumer’ narratives that have permeated through our society over the last decade or so, and stepping into a ‘Citizen’ future. For a council, this means not doing things ‘to’ or ‘for’ people, but ‘with’ and ‘through’ people.
Kirklees Council: For us, this work was very much inspired by our citizens, who are already doing amazing things in our local places. We know from the work of the Kirklees Democracy Commission that people do want to get involved - our first principle is that everything starts with the citizen.
Since the Commission’s landmark Growing a stronger local democracy report in 2017, we’ve been working to change the relationship between our citizens and our council. We know that there is so much more we can do by working alongside people in our local places. Kirklees Council’s strategic focus on people, place and partners is opening up the space for more participation. We’ve established a powerful public agenda for the community.
But although we’re making great progress with place-based and more participatory ways of working, this has in the past been limited to certain teams within the council. Overall, we need to have a mindset of working with and alongside people, and not just providing services for people (where the best case scenario is that we aren’t blamed for things going wrong).
The New Citizenship Project are helping us to be clear about what we do want to be, rather than what we don’t want to be. Together we’re working with citizens to understand how we can create the conditions that will enable local people and places to thrive.
How did you set about doing it?
NCP: Through our work across a range of sectors, we’ve developed three principles that many organisations have found helpful when trying to become more participatory and citizen-led. We call these “Purpose, Platform and Prototype”.
Purpose is all about understanding what your organisation is really trying to do in the world, and articulating that in a way that brings people along with you. For a local authority, this might be understanding the unique role the council can play in a community, based on a belief in local people, above merely providing services.
The next step is to become a platform that enables people to participate in achieving that purpose with you. For a local authority, this could be about reframing the council from ‘service provider’ to ‘enabler’, but crucially, this needs to happen at all levels of the organisation, and cannot just be the role of certain teams.
Finally, there is no utopian switch we can flip to make these changes across an organisation overnight, so the way to get there is to prototype. For a local authority, this might be about identifying specific projects that would benefit from deeper citizen involvement and building those up in small steps. You might also begin identifying internal ways of working that might be perpetuating the Subject or consumer to then start testing new ‘habits’ that signal the story of the citizen.
Kirklees Council: Using those three principles as a framework, we began working with citizens in two quite different local places in Kirklees - Ashbrow and Fieldhead - in June 2019. We discovered how we can grow more participatory relationships with citizens in local places across Kirklees by exploring a question together:
How can we best work together to make the places where we live better?
Starting with local strengths, we shared stories of what makes us feel proud to be part of where we live. We then explored the common themes in those stories, as well as what was different. By discussing those themes, we established ‘building blocks’ that would help us work together and enable more people to get involved, making those stories a reality for more people.
From those common ‘building blocks’ we produced questions, which gave Kirklees Council a role to play (as a platform) in bringing those shared themes to life in local places across the borough:
- I Care, We Care - How can we put more trust in the people of Kirklees?
- Human connection - How can we promote and enable personal connections?
- Everyone can contribute - How can we recognise and encourage every person’s ability to contribute?
- The spaces to flourish - How can we provide buildings and greenspace where people can be together?
- Celebrate the journey - How can we celebrate people’s everyday efforts?
We then discussed what people would need to think, know, feel and do, in a future where we truly live by these principles. This produced some fantastic insights - a few of which are:
In a future where everyone in Kirklees is enabled to make the places where they live better, we will...
Everyone is equal
Our place is worth the effort
It’s important to look out for each other
How my neighbours drink their tea
How to get involved
Where to get help
Inspired to join in
Reward of helping someone
Pride in our homes, gardens & streets
Take part in local groups
Share skills and knowledge
Simple acts of kindness
These workshops were just the beginning, but they gave us a crucial starting point to work from. We’ve since worked to embed these principles across our work with citizens, in a new approach we call ‘The Kirklees Way’ - creating and sustaining the conditions to enable everyone in Kirklees to be an active citizen.
How will you make it stick?
Kirklees Council: Using the insights from the workshops, and further work in partnership with the citizens of Kirklees, we’re now starting the next phase of our work with New Citizenship Project, working alongside citizens to make the places where we live, work and play better.
We are now faced with an important question: How can we measure active citizenship in local places across Kirklees, and do it a citizen-led way?
To answer this question, we’ll be working in partnership with people from across civil society to develop a measure of Citizen Confidence that evaluates our success in, and holds us accountable to, working in the Kirklees Way.
We’re already supporting citizen-led organisations, councillors and colleagues to use the Place Standard tool, which is a way of having meaningful conversations about local places - this could be your street, neighbourhood or town - through some simple questions. This is helping us to learn how people feel about the places where they live, work and play and to act on those insights.
Over the coming months, we’ll be doing further co-creation workshops, open collective storytelling and experimenting to develop this new measure, as well as creating toolkits to support its use. We don’t know exactly what this will look like, but we’re really excited to continue developing it by working alongside our communities.
NCP: Subject, consumer and citizen are three narratives we’ve been working with for a while now. But whilst previously we’ve seen them as a natural trajectory that will see our society arrive at the citizen - where our role is to speed up the shift - recent events have suggested that these three stories are in-fact competing and at some point, one will emerge as dominant.
In the subject future, local governments step into the role of ‘Local Protector’ - becoming administrative outposts of a controlling and expanding state. Whilst the additional funding and power this future would bring might sound appealing, it would reduce the role of the individual to nothing more than a receiver.
The consumer story is the one that was dominant in wider society before COVID-19, and suggests that the only agency we have as individuals is through our wallets, and that we are here to be served. This is what ‘back to normal’ would look like - where the government's role at all levels is to provide efficient and effective services - and it is a story in which neither local authorities nor citizens will ever be able to fulfil our potential.
The citizen is the story that opens up a really exciting future. We’ve seen this story emerge in powerful and exciting ways, such as in the surge of civic energy expressing itself through Mutual Aid groups. In many cases, local authorities (such as Kirklees) have stepped alongside citizens in this immediate space - not attempting to supersede or dominate, but providing the infrastructure, resources and expertise that enable these emergent citizen-led solutions to fulfil their potential. We’d don’t know exactly what the citizen story looks like, but it is the one we can and need to build.
To help with this, we’re looking to convene six local authorities — representing a range of scales, remits and regions - to work with, build on and challenge these ideas more systematically over the next year, with the ambition of creating an output together that could then be used by other local authorities. The template for this is a process we call Collaborative Innovation, one we’ve already run in several other sectors.