Neoliberalism has two complementary dynamics – ‘roll-back’ neoliberalism and ‘roll-out’ neoliberalism. Roll-back neoliberalism entails the systematic shrinking of the welfare state. It includes the massive cuts in the budgets and powers of local councils.
Roll-out neoliberalism entails the construction of new policies, some of them in response to the problems created by roll-back neoliberalism. This is a crucial issue for local councils, which are now in the process of trying to develop a new political project for local government.
There are three elements of this new roll-out project. The first is a new council model of neighbourhood governance. The second element is a new model of social provision by councils. Local councils throughout England are implementing both of these in similar though locally specific ways. Birmingham provides a striking example. The third element, which applies mostly to the big cities outside London, concerns the local economy and urban development, exemplified again by Birmingham but not dealt with here.
How the government has driven the roll-out neoliberal agenda for local government
In 2014 the government sent Sir Bob Kerslake, Permanent Secretary at the Department for Communities and Local Government, to Birmingham to review the city’s governance because of the failure of the Labour Council to carry out the transformational policies needed to deliver the neoliberal agenda efficiently. The review was published in December 2014. It contains three key requirements which have driven the council up till today:
- More efficient central corporate leadership and management of the Council. This includes the ongoing cuts in services and the management of the workforce, including drastic cuts in numbers.
- External partners – private and third sector – not only as external providers of services but as partners in the governance of the city. As the report says, the council ‘needs to work much harder to align its priorities with its partners’.
- A new relationship with the community. The report says ‘By working together with local communities relatively modest steps can help pressure on resources by reducing the consumption of services and supporting local communities to help themselves…’.
In 2018 Locality, a government-funded body, published People Power. The Foreword is by Lord Kerslake, Chair of the Commission on the Future of Localism. He says:
‘Power doesn’t belong to decision-makers to ‘give away’: we need a localism agenda which makes the case that power starts with people. It lies in our communities. The task of the political system and our local leaders is to harness this power through ongoing relationships, engagement and co-creation.’
This is the rhetoric of roll-out neoliberal localism, and the concept at its centre is co-production.
Co-production as the remedy for austerity
It is summed up by the title of a 2013 publication by the Institute of Local Government Studies (which provides consultancy to Birmingham Council) at Birmingham University: We’re all in this together: harnessing user and community co-production of public outcomes. It says ‘we argue that the movement towards co‐production can be conceptualized as a shift from ‘public services for the public’ towards ‘public services by the public’.’ In December 2018 Birmingham Council published a powerpoint, What do we mean by co-production? , which defined it as follows:
‘Co-production is a way of working where everybody works together on an equal basis to create a service or come to a decision which works for them all. Co-production is a process which involves citizens in the design and delivery of services.’
There is a history of policies and experiments by both Labour and Conservative-led governments in local community co-production in England, including in Birmingham. (To give just one example, the Coalition government’s unsuccessful Neighbourhood Community Budgets programme was trialled in Balsall Heath, Castle Vale and Shard End).
The co-production agenda takes two related forms. One is the promotion of local governance structures such as neighbourhood assemblies, Ward Forums and urban parish councils. In Birmingham this is the policy of the new Council White Paper Working Together in Birmingham’s Neighbourhoods, published in January 2019.
The second form is the co-production of council services, in particular social care, by far the largest area of council spending. In 2013 a report by the Social Care Institute for Excellence commended Birmingham as an example:
‘The Adults and Communities Directorate at Birmingham City Council has made a commitment to working with people who use services, carers and citizens through co-production. It sees this as a way of working in partnership to understand and agree the things that need to improve and work together to change things for the better.
The council recognises that many people, communities and organisations have valuable skills, knowledge and views that they can contribute.
The directorate has set up two citizen-led quality boards – one covering the work of assessment and support planning services and one for commissioning.
People who use services and carers on these boards work with staff to provide quality assurance based on their experiences and views.
This is usually through task and finish groups with wider representation from other people who use services and organisations.’ 
Co-production is today the basis of the council’s Adult Social Care Draft Day Opportunities Strategy (April 2019) : ‘At every opportunity, Birmingham City Council will use co-production to design services with service users, carers, and service providers within day opportunities.’
The Day Opportunities policy is related to the ‘Neighbourhood Network Schemes’ policy, which was agreed by Cabinet in November 2017 in a document called Putting Prevention First – Supporting the Implementation of the Vision for Adult Social Care and Health and is now being put into practice, managed on behalf of the Council by the Birmingham Voluntary Service Council:
‘Neighbourhood Network Schemes are locality and constituency based networks which enable the engagement with and investment in community assets.
This is for the purposes of supporting older people to connect with individuals, groups, organisations, activities, services and places in their local neighbourhood.
This approach is integral to a new community social work model…’. (BVSC 2019) 
How should we respond to the co-production agenda?
The question is, how should we respond to the co-production agenda, both in local governance and in local service provision? There are benefits, very limited in the case of Ward Forums, which give citizens only very limited influence in policy delivery at the neighbourhood level. Much more significant are the benefits of co-production of social services jointly between users, professionals and communities. There it can certainly lead to better provision and improved outcomes.
Co-production as a rationale for cuts in spending
But there are also two major problems. The first is that co-production provides a rationale for cuts in spending. The Institute of Local Government Studies publication referred to above lists the ‘Potential benefits from increased user and community co‐production of public services’. For politicians they comprise ‘More votes through more satisfied service users. Less need for public funding and therefore lower taxes.’ At a public presentation this year of Birmingham’s Neighbourhood Network Schemes by a senior officer his first argument for it was that it would reduce costs. The context is the imperative of yet more Council cuts. As the March 2019 report by Birmingham Council’s auditors on this year’s Council budget says, ‘medium-scale savings’ aren’t enough: ‘hard decisions’ for ‘transformational savings’ are required. The Council’s response is more spending cuts coupled with the project of ‘new ways of working’ based on ‘co-production’.
No popular participation in strategic decision-making at the top
The second fundamental problem with how co-production is used by local councils, and by third sector and private social service providers, is that popular participation is largely confined to the lowest levels of the policy process and structure. Co-production gives a false impression of citizen and community power while actually legitimating top-down managerialism.
In the case of local governance, co-production, in the form of citizen participation in Ward Forums and similar neighbourhood bodies, tends to be limited to a narrow ‘clean, green, safe’ agenda and often to voluntary action – Streetwatch, litter-picking etc – to attempt to compensate for cuts in services. But there is no citizen participation in the bodies where the strategic discussions take place and strategic decisions are made – the Cabinet and the Scrutiny Committees – beyond occasional public consultation exercises, mainly online. These bodies are exclusively the domain of elected councillors and senior officers.
This antipathy to public participation at any but the neighbourhood level is typical of local Councils. Last year the Local Government Association Labour Group, representing all Labour councillors, published a document, On Day One: Labour in local government’s priorities for the next Labour Government. How a Jeremy Corbyn-led administration could work with local government to deliver for the many, not the few. In its 72 pages there is only a single brief passing reference to participation by citizens at any level.
Co-production in social services is much more significant both because of the potential for saving money and the potential positive benefits for service users. But it is limited to the level of interpersonal professional-client relations or community-provider relations: there is little or no co-production at the strategic level of the design, commissioning and democratic accountability of services apart from occasional consultation exercises.
For example, Birmingham’s new Neighbourhood Network Scheme is organised on a constituency basis, each with a charity as ‘Delivery partner’ with a contract and a budget. There has been no participation by users and the local communities – no co-production – in the design of the contracts and which partnership bodies get them, nor in how they will be held publicly accountable by the local community. That is all the property of the Cabinet and senior officers.
A triple response to co-production
We should respond to co-production by welcoming what is positive in collaboration in service provision, opposing its use as a strategy for cuts and an ideology to disguise them, and using the case for co-production as a lever to open up popular participation in top-level strategic decision-making.
- Welcome co-production in service provision in terms of collaboration between service users, local communities and service providers which gives power to citizens to shape the services they need.
- Oppose the use of co-production as a political strategy to reduce spending on social services by transferring responsibility to service users and communities under the ideological guise of claiming to be empowering them.
- Mobilise local community and trade union pressure for participation by service users and workers in the policy process at the strategic level, which would enable a popular democratic challenge at the top to unjust policies and power structures.
What is the policy of the Labour leadership?
The Labour leadership has said little about the crucial issue of local government and how it should be both fully funded and democratised. However, a recent Labour Party Consultation Paper, Democratic Public Ownership, commissioned by John McDonnell and published in September 2018, establishes some principles and arguments which have fundamental implications not only for Council public services but also for Councils’ governance regimes. The report says:
‘Statements by Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and other Labour frontbenchers, have not only made the case for public ownership, but suggested more diverse and democratic forms of ownership that involve users, workers, and other stakeholders in governance structures.’
The core argument of the report is that:
‘An organisation, and indeed sector, should be run by the people who have the experience, skills, knowledge, and competence to do this. However, this is … done best where the considerable diverse knowledges of the workforce and citizenry are brought together to inform the decision-making process.’
This has fundamental implications for how councils should work. Real co-production means effective participation by service users and service workers – by citizens – in strategic policy-making – ‘the decision-making process’ – at Council House and Town Hall level, not just in service delivery at neighbourhood level: a combination of representative and participatory democracy.
Opening up local government to participatory democracy
How could this be put into practice? The current model in the vast majority of councils is the Cabinet and Scrutiny model, introduced by Tony Blair in 2000. This imported into local councils a highly-centralised business model of governance by a small group of Cabinet members. They are supposed to be held to account by the Scrutiny Committees, but, as House of Commons reports have recognised, Scrutiny is too weak to be effective.
The alternative we should be arguing for is a combination of representative and participatory democracy in every Council House and Town Hall, through three reforms:
- For Council Committees with participation by the users and providers of services
Each Cabinet Portfolio sector should establish an advisory committee comprising a group of Councillors together with representatives of service users and the workers providing the service. Sub-committees could be set up if and when needed.
Alternatively, Councils could scrap the Cabinet model altogether and return to a Committee system, which they are legally allowed to do, again with representatives of service users and workers.
- For participation by the users and providers of services in each Scrutiny Committee
Scrutiny Committees are allowed to co-opt members and therefore there should also be representatives of service users and the workers providing the service on each Committee. Again, with sub-committees as needed.
- For Citizen Forums
It should be a basic civic right that the Council facilitates meetings of citizens with common concerns and interests that extend beyond the boundaries of individual Wards. At present in Birmingham we have 69 Ward Forums and no connection between them. It is literally a system of divide and rule.
Citizen Forums, both authority-wide and more local as needed, would enable a vital horizontal connection between service users, workers who provide them, communities and councillors, creating a rich fabric of shared experiences, knowledge and ideas for improvement. In Birmingham the Council’s recent launch of a monthly open ‘Citizen Engagement Forum’ on Adult Social Care sets a positive precedent, however limited.
In addition Councils should set up a digital network to enable online participatory democracy in policy-making, like Decidim – We Decide – in Barcelona, the city council’s free open-source system.
A Council could put all these policy reforms into practice tomorrow, even under the present government. It’s just a matter of political will.
Richard Hatcher 8 May 2019
All comments welcome.
Draft model resolution for Birmingham
Please feel free to amend.
This Labour Party branch/CLP welcomes the Labour Party Consultation Paper, Democratic Public Ownership, published in September 2018, which argues that
‘There is … considerable evidence to suggest that greater “co-production” of public services – the involvement of citizens in how public services are produced – does produce beneficial effects in terms of performance, as well as making public services more accountable to citizens and enhancing people’s sense of ownership and support.’
It also notes Birmingham City Council’s White Paper ‘Working Together with Birmingham’s Neighbourhoods’, published in January 2019, which advocates ‘People Power’, ‘Relational Localism – removing hierarchies, embracing risk, co-production and communities in the lead’.
This Labour Party branch/CLP believes, in line with Democratic Public Ownership, that real ‘co-production’ means service users and service workers contributing their knowledge, experience and professional expertise to the policy-making process at the Council House level, not just to service delivery at ward level. It notes that issues at neighbourhood level are largely affected by, if not the result of, strategic decisions by the Cabinet, but that there is currently no opportunity for participation by citizens, alongside councillors, in the Council’s strategic policy-making.
This Labour Party branch/CLP believes that genuine co-production means participatory democracy in the Council House as well as at neighbourhood level, complementing the representative democracy of elected councillors. It therefore proposes the following three policies that the Council could introduce to make real democratic co-production a reality
- For Council Committees with participation by the users and providers of services
Each Cabinet Portfolio service sector should establish an advisory committee comprising a group of Councillors together with representatives of service users and the workers providing the service. Sub-committees could be set up if and when needed.
- For participation by the users and providers of services on each Scrutiny Committee
All Scrutiny Committees are allowed to co-opt members and therefore there should also be representatives of service users and the workers providing the service on at least each of the seven Overview and Scrutiny Committees: Children’s Social Care; Economy and Skills; Health and Social Care; Housing and Neighbourhoods; Learning, Culture and Physical Activity; Resources; and Sustainability and Transport. Again, sub-committees could be set up if needed.
- For issue-based Forums
It should be a basic civic right that the Council facilitates meetings of citizens across the city with common concerns and interests that extend beyond the boundaries of individual Ward Forums. These city-wide issue-based Forums, based on Cabinet Portfolio remits or parts thereof, would enable a vital horizontal connection between all the areas of the city, bringing users, workers, communities and councillors together, creating a rich fabric of shared experiences, knowledge and ideas for improvement and helping to enhance social cohesion. (The Council’s recent launch of a monthly open ‘People for Public Services: Citizen Engagement Forum’ on Adult Social Care sets a positive precedent.)
Representatives from the Forums would then be able to feed their discussions and ideas into the Council advisory committees and the extended Scrutiny committees. Organisational matters such as how often Forums would meet should be left to the Forum participants themselves. There could also be more local Forums as needed.
This Labour Party branch/CLP believes that together these three innovations in participation and co-production would counter the widespread cynicism among citizens, reflected in the low voting turnout, and spread the belief across the city that their views do matter to the Labour Council and they do have a voice in its policy-making process. Of course increasing active citizen involvement is a process over time, but engagement would grow as people and communities gain positive collective experiences of having an influence on Council policies and thus the policies that affect their lives.
- The way forward: an independent review of the governance and organisational capabilities of Birmingham City Council https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/384732/The_way_forward_-_an_independent_review_of_the_governance_and_organisational_capabilities_of_Birmingham_City_Council.pdf
- People Power. https://locality.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/LOCALITY-LOCALISM-REPORT-1.pdf
- We’re all in this together: harnessing user and community co-production of public outcomes. https://www.birmingham.ac.uk/Documents/college-social-sciences/government-society/inlogov/publications/2013/chapter-4-bovaird-loeffler.pdf
- What do we mean by co-production? https://www.birmingham.gov.uk/downloads/file/11841/definition_coproduction
- See Jane Wills, Locating Localism, 2016.
- Working Together in Birmingham’s Neighbourhoods https://www.birmingham.gov.uk/downloads/file/11839/working_together_in_birminghams_neighbourhoods_white_paper
- Co-production in social care: What it is and how to do it, Social Care Institute for Excellence, 2013. Practice example: Birmingham City Council’s Adults and Communities Directorate, pp49-53. https://www.ndti.org.uk/uploads/files/Coproduction_Guide51Fin.pdf
- Adult Social Care Draft Day Opportunities Strategy https://www.birminghambeheard.org.uk/people-1/adult-social-care-draft-day-opportunities-strategy/supporting_documents/Proposed%20Strategy%20for%20Day%20Opportunities%20010419.pdf
- Neighbourhood Network Schemes https://www.ageingbetterinbirmingham.co.uk/neighbourhood-networking-schemes
- See the Birmingham Live report at https://www.birminghammail.co.uk/news/midlands-news/five-risky-birmingham-projects-could-16032284
- On Day One: Labour in local government’s priorities for the next Labour Government. How a Jeremy Corbyn-led administration could work with local government to deliver for the many, not the few. https://www.local.gov.uk/sites/default/files/documents/On%20Day%20One%20SR%20190318.pdf
- Democratic Public Ownership. https://labour.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/Democratic-public-ownership-consulation.pdf
- See for example https://decidim.org/