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Why the public sector would benefit from asking for help

Ralph Cook

Whatever your views on the social contract and the balance of responsibility for looking after citizens, it is clear that with diminishing local authority budgets, simply deciding to keep up with increasing demand for public services is not an option. The easiest savings from efficiencies have also largely been exhausted.

IMPOWER’s solution is to use our EDGEWORK approach to reframe the problem of public services, to focus less on cuts and savings, and more on delivering better outcomes that cost you less.

What do we mean by that? For example, in adult social care, better outcomes for service users are often those that maximise independence. And maximising independence enhances quality of life and builds resilience, which are ultimately both likely to reduce the scale or number of services that someone requires – therefore saving money.

That is why demand management, prevention and maximising independence are now the foundation of a large majority of public services reform programmes across the country. Part of these efforts involves enabling individuals and communities who do want to do more for themselves, to do more. What can be done to encourage them?

The default response to this is often twofold:

1.       Money – invest funds at a micro level within communities to try and foster greater community engagement and resilience.

2.      Behaviour – encourage engagement and volunteering at a local level to support community initiatives.

In reality of course, communities often come together to support each other without either funding or a behavioural nudge. Many community members harbour a willingness to get more involved in the lives of those around them – it just needs to be encouraged and assisted. One challenge is how to encourage this willingness in everyday life; there can be a tendency to view community support as only necessary as a reaction to a local crisis or where the public sector has been too slow to respond to need. In fact, it can be ongoing. The Somerset floods of 2014 provide a great example of how people came together at a time of crisis and built a legacy that continues to support communities today.

Behavioural science also provides some valuable insights:

  1. People who need help underestimate the likelihood that another person will help them if they ask – by about half. (This is because requesters focus on the cost to the other person in terms of time, effort, or money – and give less consideration than they should to the “social costs“ associated with saying no.)
  2. People who are willing to help overestimate the likelihood that a person will ask for help if they need it.

This presents us with a double whammy. Those who need help don’t ask, while those who can help don’t offer. They wrongly assume their help isn’t needed simply because it wasn’t asked for. In relation to public services, this leaves us with some interesting questions:

  • Is the public sector reluctant to ask for help from the community?
  • Are there many local people who would like to do more but are unlikely to take the first step in offering their support?
  • Can the public sector tap into the willingness of people to do more?
  • Does the public sector ask for help in times which are not crises? Or only at crisis time?
  • Does the public sector make it easy to volunteer and work with them, if you’re motivated to do so?
  • If public sector organisations had an ask of the community, do they even know what it would be?

Being able to answer these questions might help the public sector to start to take a proactive approach and try to shift the relationship with the community and individuals. There have already been some successes, for example the Wigan Deal. But as with all cultural change, such shifts are not easy and take time to embed – unlike the response to a crisis, which is often instant and spontaneous.

Cornwall council have recently followed in the footsteps of Westminster council, and consulted with local residents to see if they would be prepared to pay more council tax to help local community support groups. While this is certainly a clear ask, they missed a trick by only focussing on the finances and not tapping into people’s underlying motivations. People want to belong to strong communities where people support each other. The public sector could use that to everyone’s advantage.

Written by

Ralph Cook



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