Published on June 15, 2012

Neighbourhood Community Budgets

By Simon Burall

Simon Burall is a Senior Associate of Involve. He has extensive experience in the fields of democratic reform, governance, public participation, stakeholder engagement, and accountability and transparency.

Picture of potential community projects mappedThe government’s Neighbourhood Community Budgets scheme is an ambitious attempt to put power and money in the hands of local communities. While getting the engagement with local residents right is going to be important, equally important is ensuring the buy-in and active support of all statutory partners in the area.

I have just got back from an inspiring Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) workshop on Neighbourhood Community Budgets (NCBs). This is an ambitious programme which aims to bring all service providers in an area together to pool budgets which will be under greater control of local people. The programme is currently in pilot phase and involves fourteen areas. DCLG have set a genuinely ambitious target, to give power and voice to local communities and they are doing it in some of the most deprived wards in the country. It is something we have seen previous governments try to do. That NCBs potentially involve money and power over services might make this different.

The workshop aimed to support the pilot areas to share their experiences and learning. I want to reflect on what I heard without betraying any confidences of those present given that they were in sharing warts and all mode.

The fourteen pilots range from areas that have highly diverse and transient populations to those that are relatively more homogenous and settled. They also have very different baselines in terms of what engagement has gone on already. Some talked very proudly of the work they have already done to engage the community, and the structures and processes in place. Others acknowledged the extent of consultation fatigue and lack of willingness of many in the community to engage actively.

As a result, DCLG is sensibly not being proscriptive about what the pilots have to do, or how. The pilots are therefore going about their planning in very different ways; on one level it was very difficult to draw clear lessons and parallels. However, by the end of the day it was clear that they are all struggling with a core set of problems that are amongst the knottiest when government tries to change the nature of its engagement with communities.

Engaging the community to define the issues

A couple of the pilots have set-up processes where the community itself is defining the issues and services areas in which budgets will be pooled and controlled by the community. Others have decided to narrow the issues and areas themselves, or to undergo an initial period of consultation with the community about priorities and visions before handing over more control.

There are clear tensions for both routes and while I have a strong personal preference for which way I think is best, I actually don’t think the answers are that easy. The tension exposed in those pilots which more tightly frame the issues and services, and go down more of a consultation route initially, is that they are still retaining a significant element of control about how the NCB will be framed.

Many would argue that unless the community has control at this level real power won’t be ceded. Except in areas where considerable and meaningful engagement has already happened I don’t necessarily think this is the case though. Statutory authorities, those who will eventually have to pool some of their budgets if this is to work, are operating within a very tight legal framework and are, rightly, held firmly to account for how they spend the public money. By more tightly bounding and framing the issues on which the NCB will have control over, the pilots are trying to ensure that the community works on an issue which is one over which they can actually have a level of control.

The risk, and I will return to this point below, is that those that give communities a wider canvas won’t have the eventual buy-in from all statutory partners and so the community won’t get the control it thinks it is going to get.

Just as too tightly framing the issues will turn an NCB into something where communities only have the illusion of control, making them too wide without adequate buy-in risks raising and then dashing hopes. Both of these are outcomes which will make future engagement harder as consultation fatigue sets in and suspicions are hardened.

This issue of how to frame the process to communities is critical. Communities have to be given real control over significant aspects of the NCB if it is to meet their needs. If an NCB doesn’t meet the needs of a community then it will not be able to achieve significant engagement beyond those who engage with government already. Scoping and consultation are fine and sensible routes to help understand motivations and needs, especially if the buy-in from strategic partners is still being sought. But it cannot, and must not, be used to control and tightly define the ultimate frame of the NCB; this will inevitably lead to a failure to engage the groups this programme is aimed at.

Establishing engagement processes to give control over budgets

Of those that I spoke to in detail, two of the pilots are setting-up community based structures which will hold the pooled budget and be responsible for spending it. Others are less clear at this stage how the structures are going to work. Some are hoping to move to a structure which will hold the budget, although there are various challenges they face in doing so. Others are clear that any structures that are established will have control over a virtual budget that is still legally held by one or more of the statutory authorities in the area. A couple of pilots are thinking at this stage that any structures set-up would only have an advisory role.

The purist in me feels that power will only be handed over when control over the budgets is taken by communities. A few at the workshop felt the same. However, the pragmatist in me recognises that this might not be the right solution at the start. We know from our own work that individuals and communities don’t always want full control; they may feel happier with working collaboratively with service providers to transform the way those services are delivered, or even in a role that is much more advisory. The critical thing to get right is going to be a difficult balance between supporting the community to do what they want (while trying to push their horizons further) and actually being able to deliver on that promise. Which leads me nicely into my next point.

The importance of the partners

The issues that the NCBs are going to be dealing with will require the active engagement of a number of statutory authorities in an area, including health, police, and the local authority for example. As is clear from what I have said above, if they don’t all buy-in to the objectives of the NCB pilot in their area and how the process is being run then there are real risks that, as communities try to exert control over spending priorities, the partners just won’t play ball.

We often find ourselves saying, as I do here in another context, that it is absolutely critical to get all of the key partners with power on board before trying to engage deeply with a community. The risk is that a key partner won’t give up a budget when needed. If this happens, the community will understandably be less willing to trust government next time it comes saying it is going to give away control.

This means that all of the pilots must pay at least as much attention to engaging with all the partners who will be needed as they do to engaging with the community. For many of the pilots this will inevitably mean that the issues and services over which the resulting NCB has control will be much more restricted. However, if communities are then able to enjoy real say over real budgets and services then the rewards could be high. Particularly if this makes it easier to widen the remit later as confidence is built.

Not doing engaging all partners early will set the NCBs up for failure.

Inputs vs outputs, outcomes and impact

One risk is that by badging these as community budgets, peoples’ attention is focused on inputs. This could lead to not enough time being spent defining and agreeing a shared vision and measures of success. Without this there is a real risk that when the decisions actually come to be made by the community and/or partners the lack of shared vision is exposed. There are all sorts of methodologies that can be used with partners, stakeholders and communities to develop such shared visions.

Learning and evaluation are a key objective for the DCLG team. Given that this is a pilot and the lessons picked-up here will be important for the eventual roll-out of the programme this is clearly critical. There is however a real danger that if monitoring and evaluation are done for the statutory authorities at the local level, and DCLG at the national, the communities will be left out. A key question for the pilots to ask themselves is who is the monitoring, evaluation and accountability for? Who will it be done by? If communities aren’t front and centre of the answer then there is a significant risk that it won’t meet their needs. The NESTA Neighbourhood Challenge had an interesting approach to reporting for their 17 pilot areas. Rather than asking for regular reports to be sent back to London, NESTA required the pilots to blog about progress. This allowed NESTA to monitor progress while making sure that the communities were able to comment and engage too. This isn’t the only answer, but it points to a different way of thinking when it comes to monitoring and reporting.

As I say above, this is an ambitious agenda which is being rolled out at a fast pace. The mood in the workshop reflected this, I felt that people were really keen to make this work and were really getting their teeth into the knotty challenges that I highlight above. However, these things take time. Those pilots which appeared to be willing to cede meaningful control over budgets were the same ones that had been engaging actively with communities for long periods of time. This is a difficult luxury to offer the pilots, but the more space they can be given the more likely it is that they will be successful.

Picture credit: samuelalove

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