What We Think

The Challenge

The challenge for public services, housing organisations and the third sector looking to respond to the new policy context is how to stimulate increased interactions and deepening relationships with citizens that have a positive social outcome and, where appropriate, reduces or even eliminates the need for state intervention.

Photo by Jonathan Rolande of FlickrSo, how effective are public services at stimulating, brokering and facilitating relationships? How many times have you been to a public meeting yet not felt heard;  or received a parking ticket and not felt able to talk to someone about it; or called your housing service and been frustrated by the wait, or the choices from automatic call direction system; or not been able to get through to the person that you really want to; or taken a ticket at a customer service centre only to find out you were waiting in the wrong queue?  One of the problems public services have is that ‘engagement’ is often seen as the role of a small team, when in fact, relationship building is the responsibility of everyone and much more impacted by the day to day interactions delivered by everyone.

Society is the sum total of the relationships of the people within it.  A local authority’s or organisation’s society could be defined as the sum total of the interactions or relationships between it and its citizens. The vast majority of a local authority’s interactions with people are defined by the provision and receipt of statutory and non-statutory services, where too often residents are treated as passive recipients of services.

Whilst the quality, consistency and efficiency of services provided by authorities has improved, this has often been at the cost of relationships with the focus on centralisation and CRM processes restricting the ability of front line staff to act outside of set processes that have been predetermined and proscribed. Indeed, the introduction of these processes has often resulted in less qualified, experienced and knowledgeable staff operating at the front line.

So whilst services and efficiency have improved significantly, the relationship between authorities and citizens has not. This is a bold statement, but is evidenced as follows:

  • Rates of residents’ perception of influence have remained flat over the past decade despite a massive increase of focus on consultation, engagement and a duty to involve (IPSOS MORI People, Perception and Place, 2009)
  • Research we undertook for the London Civic Forum found an ‘influencing gap’ – the gap between the opportunities citizens have to influence when authorities proactively consult on strategic issues and the lack of influence they have when dealing with reactive day to day issues with a frontline service
  • Trust between citizens and local authorities depends just as much on experiences as it does outcomes (Demos, State of Trust, 2008 and Trust in Practice, 2010)
  • There’s a correlation between poor local government responsiveness and low levels of civic participation (Barnes, Stoker and Whitely 2003)
  • Evidence that people with higher levels of political trust ‘select in’ to participation (Hooghe & Quintelier 2009)

What this tells us is fundamental. For too long many people in local authorities, housing organisations and parts of the third sector have spoken of the apathy of people in their local communities. This is often spoken of as a constant that cannot be changed. The evidence suggests that this is not the case.  Apathy is actually a function of the relationship between citizens and their public services.  It can be changed.

Our Solution

We believe that public services must be able to mobilise their citizens, in particular within those communities that struggle to engage in the opportunities Localism has to offer. Our view is that for this to happen, they must actively change the relationship, treating residents as citizens all the time rather than passive recipients of services.

We believe there are four aspects to achieving this:

  1. Moving ‘community engagement’ to the front line so that every interaction with the citizen is an opportunity to both redefine the relationship and engage the citizen
  2. Increased opportunities for residents to shape the future delivery of services, with a focus on co-design, co-commissioning and subsidiarity
  3. Supporting communities to deliver for themselves, be this thropostits2ugh volunteering, the development of social association or through supporting social enterprise and new community organisations
  4. Facilitating co-production of responses to community crises/issues, where communities take an active and sustaining role to change behaviours

The potential benefits of doing this are substantial and multi-dimensional. We would summarise these as follows:

Improved trust and satisfaction of citizens because

  • They feel that the person they are dealing with is on their side and is actively seeking to help them
  • Their issues are being dealt with more effectively
  • They understand more about what they themselves can do to resolve their issues

Increased levels of active citizenship within communities by

  • Understanding that most people tend to get involved in their communities because they are asked to
  • Knowing that motivation is greatest when people have an issue that needs resolving
  • Creating the opportunity through the relationship developed to say ‘this is what we can do as an authority; this is what you can do as a citizen’

Reducing costs by

  • Improved Efficiency – using fine grain intelligence to get the service right first time by taking a citizen centric viewpoint and designing service pathways to better meet need
  • Behaviour Change – use the new relationship to encourage people to change the way they, or their peers, behave including around the consumption of services
  • Demand management – redefining the respective role of the state and the citizen whereby the citizen does more

The Research

bulb2Mobilise understands that public sector institutions have a vital role to play in stimulating citizen activity in the community and can encourage citizens to contribute more to society (Hardin 1968; Sally 1995; Ostrom 1996, 1998).  The Institute of Third Sector research suggests that only 6% of people volunteer through volunteer bureaus and that 67% do so because someone asks them.  However, our experience suggests that Local Authorities, our schools, hospitals and other major public institutions not only need to get better at asking, but also need to make sure their own house is in order so they can justifiably ask!

Changing behaviour and reducing demand are now recognised as offering new and significant opportunities for saving money in the public sector, however, a critical barrier to changing behaviour is the dysfunctional relationship between public institutions and citizens.  A recent survey of 100 local authority executives suggested only a fifth (22%) describe community trust in their authority as high (compared to 40% a year ago).  In June 2011, an Ipsos Mori survey revealed that in a list of 21 roles, managers in local government came 4th from the bottom in terms of trust.  This position is a weak one to manage down the costs of local services with the support of the public.  Distrust locks in waste and inefficiency at a service level.

A feedback effect on civic participation & mobilisation has been described and attributed to poor institutional responsiveness, a lack of institutional openness, and weak political opportunity structures (Lowndes, Pratchett and Stoker 2001; Morales 2009; Christensen 2011).  Improving the relationship between public services and their citizens can be achieved through improving responsiveness with a ‘citizen centric front line’ that advocates on behalf of citizens across public services.  This requires a re-balancing of emphasis towards the front line, whereby citizen-facing staff are able to advocate on behalf of a citizen when CRM and business processes are not able to resolve an issue. This advocacy role should extend beyond service and even organisational boundaries and be undertaken as a single point of contact, whereby one member of staff seeks to resolve the issue on behalf of that customer.

The benefits of this approach are many-fold:

  • Resolving the issue on behalf of the citizen is likely to lead to a drop in the multiple calls and queries initiated for the same problem because it didn’t get resolved satisfactorily the first time
  • The knowledge and intelligence created as the staff member becomes more empowered, experiences the problem and becomes an ‘internal expert’ can be utilised as a feedback loop to ensure continuous improvements in service delivery can be achieved
  • Most importantly, the improved satisfaction of the customer or citizen through the improved experience of service delivery creates, over time, good will between the citizen and the public service provider and an improved relationship which offers the provider new opportunities to ask Citizens to get more involved in their communities.
  • Armed with more and improved opportunities to involve citizens and a mechanism to capture involvement preferences, the person on the front line can use every opportunity to ask the person at the counter or on the phone to get more involved.


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