The Rise of the Social Citizen

The relationship between citizen and state is changing, this we know. State provision of services is in retreat, crumbling under the pressure of relentless austerity. This has led the State – particularly Local Authorities – into tougher and tougher choices into how that State provision is rationed.

Yet it is worth noting who is making those tough choices – the State. This is a continuation of a longstanding model where public services are frequently done to people and not with them. The State gives, creating dependency and the State takes away, causing hardship. Information, expertise and resources, all moving in one direction – from the top down – in diminishing amounts.

The very nature of the debate on ‘how things work’ is framed by the State - and too frequently by the interest of giant private contractors. Each has a stake in the status quo – in managed decline.

What might this situation look like if it was mediated by the public themselves – ‘Social Citizens’ engaging with each other and the State in their localities to drive change – shaping services directly?

We are already seeing the rise of the Social Citizen in different arenas. Markets in services and products that are vital for a well-functioning society are increasingly challenged by people who need these services and products. The failure of the banking system and the lack of trust in banks has contributed to the rise in crowdfunding, for example.

I suspect that we would have seen the rise of crowdfunding in any case as citizens take control and responsibility for more of their actions – people are forming more fluid associations on the issues important to them. The Social Citizen is emerging anyway and institutions of all types must consider how to respond.

If the Social Citizen is an emerging phenomenon, then what are the implications for public services? What structures and methods are needed to provide scope for the Social Citizen not only to interact but to take a level of control and responsibility for public services? Do we need to do anything or will the power of change happen anyhow?

The idea of the Social Citizen should not rely on a tech-utopian view of web-enabled engagement – technology can help, but the digital divide still excludes the most vulnerable. Nor is it a model of enabling people to vote down funding for the media’s latest ‘single-mother-of-the-week’. It is rather a way of putting the citizen at the centre, changing the direction of information so that it comes from communities and service-users.

In a practical sense, the toolkit for enabling the Social Citizen starts with service user-led design – but based on outcomes, rather than the purely functional. We have used this approach for transport services in the past and have always been taken aback by the fresh thinking of our service users.

Purposeful, binding consultation that directs services is also essential – this is very different from ‘consultation’ exercises where decisions already made seek ratification. It also makes consultation different – as associations are looser and more fluid there is not an easy club or group to consult with. It misses out the community leaders and everyone has a day, it is more democratic but not in the conventional way.

When people actually have a legitimate stake in shaping services, we create an environment that also encourages volunteering and active citizenship, making resources go further. This kind of thinking also creates environments for much more novel approaches like community ownership and community investment.

To allow the Social Citizen to emerge, Local Authorities – and social enterprises too – must first release their stranglehold on ‘the answer’, relinquishing control. We must realise that experts do not have all the solutions and be open with data and transparent with information, especially financial information.

The first thing I think we would see is more cost effective services commissioned on the basis of Place – people in their communities have no vested interest in the silos and power centres of current commissioning. I think we would see more instinctive commissioning for social value – to many, gaining more local impact for your council tax just seems obvious.

This, if it is implemented, will give the Social Citizen rewards as well as responsibility, will bring more resilient communities and most importantly will change public service for the better for the people who use it.

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