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The global financial crisis was a shock to the system. It changed the landscape of public services for a generation. Local public services across the country are looking ahead to a period of severe financial constraint and the public sector is facing between five and ten years of severe spending restrictions.

Society is not the same thing as the state, but the state provides the building blocks for an inclusive and equal society in which everyone can flourish. The Big Society and Your Freedom should therefore not involve the dismantling of the state, but rather help recreate a public sphere in which all citizens are better able to engage with the state and with each other. Without this approach, we could end up with a very small society that ignores the people we should be striving to enable and protect.

From as early as 2009, both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition have began to endorse the shift from centralised to decentralised government and affirm the significance of innovation to recovery and public service. Our last government published a series of reports calling for innovation rather than just improvement in public service reform. It laid out the role for central government as one of responding to and facilitating innovation through a smaller and more strategic state, and suggested that innovation will follow from devolving power to users and localities.

Few would argue with this approach; the question is how to a) reverse the trend towards increased centralisation, and b) build the capacity to make such a shift viable. This is significant particularly in the context of predicted public sector cuts and a widespread assumption that Government is responsible and therefore accountable for local service failures.

While technology-based innovation can be introduced from the top down, social innovation involves creativity and consequently is not something you can dictate. For instance, innovative solutions that involve co-design cannot be squeezed through conventional processes. They only work when people want to work together and are motivated to get involved.

Each place is unique, whether a village, town or city and one of the most common things people share is where they live.

Citizen Power is a collaboration between the citizens of Peterborough, The RSA, Arts Council East and Peterborough Council to explore new ways of making the city a better place to live.

The Peterborough Citizen Power report highlights the growing strength amongst place-based schemes and provides evidence of how a connection to one’s local area and community can provide the motivation for a more creative approach to innovation.

The RSA’s Citizen Power work in Peterborough is essentially a scheme to develop a range of methods for making mass involvement in civic life happen. 

Right now, within the Citizen Power programme of work, Peterborough are embarking on a Civic Commons project that aims to provide an opportunity for citizens to build knowledge and confidence in a range of themes and to understand different perspectives on local and national challenges.

The Civic Health project is about developing a tool that can be used to both measure as well as develop the capacity people have to shape the communities they live in. The tool will collect information that local authorities can use to understand how much ability people have to shape their local area and how they may better focus their efforts. It will bring together knowledge about local organisations, support groups, community leaders and funding opportunities into a 'civic directory' that the community can draw upon and use in the future. But more than just using the tool to understand the 'civic health' and vibrancy of a particular neighbourhood or place, it should also be used to encourage and enable people to participate in their community.

Through a mixture of surveys and individual case-studies, the tool should be able to paint a clearer picture of the skills and qualities people need in order to get involved in their communities. This information can be used by local bodies to understand which areas or groups of people are most in need of assistance and where to better focus their efforts. But more importantly, the tool can be used by local community groups themselves and the results played back so that people can reflect on their own skills, opportunities and behaviours.

The tool will also be designed so that it can collect not just information on behaviours and skills but also information about local organisations, community leaders, people who wish to be more actively engaged, and funding opportunities into a local 'civic directory'. The directory will be easily accessible and everybody in a particular area can tap into to it. This would allow it to really bring out the hidden opportunities and assets that everyone has and then link them with other people who may want to join up, get help or collaborate with one another - connecting the dots, which I personally think is a great feature.

The first pilot of the tool will be trialled with recovering drug users involved in the Recovery Capital project. At a time when power is being handed back to the people, we can't assume that everybody has the ability to take advantage of these opportunities, especially the most vulnerable. So looking at the ability of people recovering from substance misuse and how they can be involved in the community, how they might access and shape the recovery services they use, their emotional well-being and a whole host of other areas will be key.

An immediate benefit of this scheme is that it allows Government to become more sensitive to the difference between communities, as place based innovation is different in each location, and centrally designed frameworks need to be tailored to meet those unique conditions.

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