American sociologist Sherry Arnstein came up with the idea of a ladder to represent approaches to community involvement as successive rungs towards ‘citizen empowerment’ 40 years ago. But is ‘empowerment’ always the most important aim of community involvement. And is more community involvement always the right ingredient for better public services?
Successful public services are more like kitchens, than ladders: they make what they do with ingredients from different sources…. and, at the end of a day’s service, it’s what has been served up that counts. People want schools that educate, hospitals that help make you well and the bins emptied on a regular, and reliable, basis.
Emptying the bins is actually a good example of how community involvement can help public services work. It’s recognised that recycling waste – re-using yesterday’s waste ingredients – is better than just burying the leftovers in a hole in the ground, or incinerating them. But recycling tends to take more effort on the part of households. Re-use is even better than recyling: finding a new use for an old jam jar costs a lot less energy then smashing it in a bottle bank and making the pieces back into useful glass. Re-use depends on rather more ‘community involvement’ than recycling: you have to do the washing up and find another use for your jar. Top of the ‘waste hierarchy’ is reducing waste altogether. If you put home-made jam in your jars, then you don’t have to go to the shop so often. Fewer jars, less energy spent and money saved for something really useful instead. The binmen can’t reduce waste, we can. It’s an example of how community involvement not only improves a service but can actually reduce the need for it.
So, community involvement is good and the more of it the better? Not necessarily. Take the example of a medical practice. We, quite rightly, want doctors to have a good understanding of how the services they deliver fit with the lives of the people they serve. They need to listen to and be involved with the community, for example to know: What times should the medical centre be open? What system should there be for appointments? What other services could be offered? But, do we want a committee of local residents telling doctors what medicines they can prescribe? Or, for that matter, our neighbours taking it in turns to sit in the doctor’s chair? There are limits to community involvement – aspects of public service where it’s unnecessary and inappropriate.
Unfocused and general ‘community involvement’ (based on the notion that people ‘having their say’ necessarily leads to a better outcome) is not much more than what Arnstein, in 1969, called ‘therapy’. It might make a few participants feel valued, but what good does it actually do for service users? Especially since ‘community involvement’ often seems to be sprinkled on a service or a project after all the important decisions have already been cooked up. Instead of treating community involvement like magic powder, it should be seen, and treated, as a standard – if potentially transformative – ingredient right from the start.
Better coproduction depends on understanding communities are a key ingredient in public services. As with any ingredient, it is not enough to know that you need it. You also need to know how much you need and of what sort, when to add it, how to use it and where to get it from. Effective cooking with community involvement means taking it seriously and realising that:
Saying ‘We think involving communities is important but in hard times we just have to concentrate on delivering the service’ is as nonsensical as trying to cut the cost of a cake by leaving out the baking powder.
Treating community involvement as an expensive one‐off project is like buying a big jar of spice but keeping it at the back of the cupboard instead of using it.
Adding more community involvement (and at the wrong time) won’t improve the mix ‐ and can lead to unpalatable results!