Sunday, 15 January 2012

30. Community Government

A number of councils have recently been pondering the question: What should be the role of local authorities?’  Examples include Essex, Enfield and Lambeth.   

I wonder, however, whether many of these debates, whilst valuable of course, suffer because they do not draw on useful thinking from the not so distant past.  I have previously mentioned the Commission for Local Democracy as a valuable source of ideas and discussion and there is also a whole series of linked books from the 1990s, under the heading of ‘Government Beyond the Centre', worth looking at.   

The purpose of this post is to highlight one of the most significant ideas from the 1990s – the idea of community government.  This idea was outlined by the excellent John Stewart in ‘A Future for Local Authorities as Community Government’ – his contribution to Local Government in the 1990s (1995) edited by John Stewart and Gerry Stoker.

Stewart was responding to what he saw as an over emphasis on structure in debates on local government at the time when what really mattered was to clarify ‘its role and way of working’.  He was concerned that local authorities had come to see their ‘main role as the delivery of services specified in national legislation and accepted the stimulus of central government grant and circular as the main spur to action’.  This service orientation, although accepted as a natural state of affairs in the UK, contrasted with local government in Europe and even a earlier UK tradition, dating back to the later 19th Century, which saw solving wider community problems as an important role for local government.

Community Government

Stewart’s proposed alternative was community government.  This concept sees the primary role of Council’s as solving the problems of the wider community and, more than that, as a means for communities to debate issues and resolve conflicts so that:

Community government is achieved through political processes that balance different interests and values.  A local authority is the political institution for the authoritative determination of community values, based on public discourse.


For community government to be achieved the critical change is for a power of general competence to be granted to local authorities, one that could even be used to extend legal powers such as for regulation.  Further than this councils need to have formal powers to influence the work of other public service providers even to the extent of taking direct control as this is the best way to ensure that the concerns and wishes of local citizens can be met.

Community government implies news ways of operating:
  • Many ways of working – councils having the freedom and capacity to meet needs in different ways including direct service provision, contracting, grants, regulation etc   
  • Responsive in action – beyond simply good customer service this means that the whole organisation recognises that it only has value in as far as customers and citizens see that value and acting accordingly.  The capacity for ‘responsiveness in action’ can only be increased when the level of central government control is reduced.
  • New patterns of organisation – means moving away from traditional committees and departmental structures and investing in the right structures in order to be responsive to a given need as long as these are accountable and sanctioned by citizens.  Once again central government needs provide the space for councils to innovate and experiment.  Examples include arms length companies, public / private partnerships, co-operatives and decentralisation.
  • Rebuilding accountability – recognising low turnout as a problem for local representative structures, considering proportional representation and finding ways of engaging citizens actively in services and the business of the council.  
Community government is an idea that has been influential.  In the modernisation agenda associated with the 2000 Local Government act, for example, it is possible to see the influence of this idea – in the power of wellbeing, in the requirements for local strategic partnerships and community strategies, and in the emphasis on democratic renewal and community engagement.  More recently the emphasis on localism chimes with the notion that local councils should be free to meet the needs of their local population the way that they think best. 

Local government today is of course far from Stewart's ideal of community government.  For my money, however, it is always worth a re-reading - especially if the intention is to rethink the role of local government.

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