Can local government lead Britain in civic history?

On March 14, 2020 – almost two weeks before Britain’s first lockdown was imposed – a postcard came through my door. It read ‘Hello! If you are isolating yourself, I can help you.

He gave the name, address and cell phone number of someone who lived around the corner. A second identical card fell later in the day, and another the next day. In the bottom corner was the hashtag #ViralKindness.

I went online and found the story of the designer who created the deliverables, then posted the design online for others to use. In the online article, I discovered that a network of self-help groups had begun to grow across the country, if not the world. I found my local group among them and signed up.

Within days, this group had proliferated in numbers and had self-organized into hyper-local subgroups. At the same time, a neighbor on our street sent a WhatsApp message, forming a street support group. I watched the trades for food, chores, and puzzles. Local stores reinvented themselves as food collection and delivery stations and connected to the local food bank to support their distribution as well.

In, and often behind all of this, I later discovered, the role of my local council was crucial.

Local officers supported the stores as they changed roles. They set up a fast address confirmation system that allowed them to issue volunteer badges to self-help group participants. A payment mechanism allowed funds to be transferred easily and securely. When locals started making face masks, they helped distribute them to nursing homes. And they knew where those most at risk of the disease were and, if necessary, ensured that they were directly supported.

Was it unique to my local community? No. This was happening everywhere, in all demographic groups. Food banks, grocery shopping, making face masks – and the local government that enables it all.

In May 2020, best practices were spreading. The councils were reorganized into local centres. This support structure was taking shape and officers were talking to each other across board boundaries to figure out what was working. As a result, the nation was doing well. And not only that, but by coming together.

Between February and May that year, the proportion of people who agreed that ‘Britain is a place where people care about each other’ tripled, to more than 60% .

Then, on May 10, everything changed. This is the day the government’s message changed from ‘Stay home’. Protect the NHS. Save lives.’ to ‘Stay alert. Control the virus. Save lives.’

Considering the rising energy, it was a pivotal and utterly destructive moment. To understand why and how local government can rediscover the vital role it began to play, we need to see this moment through the prism of three stories, and in a much larger time frame and context.

For the past 80 years, the dominant story in Britain – and indeed most of the world – has been the consumer story. It goes like this: each of us is for himself, and that’s how it should be. We are narrowly defined individuals independent of each other. Human nature is lazy and selfish, but this can be overcome if we think about it and work hard. Our task is to earn money, spend it and compete to climb the ladder of society. Along the way, our choices represent our power, our creativity, our identity; They made us who we are.

Every organization and institution, from business to government at all levels, exists to provide these choices. We compete for their bounty; they compete to serve us, sell us, and reinforce our prime status. Twin competitions increase the range and elevate the level of choices available.

When each of us doggedly pursues our own self-interest, it yields the best results for society as a whole. Everyone wins, or at least everyone who deserves it.

Before the history of consumption, there was another: the subject, as in “subjects of the king”. In this story, the great man knows best. The rest of us are innocent people, ignorant of important issues. We must rely on him to chart the way forward and declare our duties. Our role is to obey and accept what is given to us. In return, he will protect us and maintain order, a market all the more interesting as the danger is great. The governments and organizations that arise from the subject’s history are paternalistic and hierarchical, with the few intrinsically superior people at the top of the pyramid.

The third story is the citizen story. As citizens, we claim our agency not just to choose between the options, but to shape what the options are. We are proudly individual, but we know that it is only when we come together that we truly realize our potential.

The guiding logic of the Citizen Story is that we are all smarter than any of us: we recognize that talent, intellect and contribution are universal, even if opportunities are not. It is a state of commitment, more verb than noun. We look around, identify areas where we have some influence, roll up our sleeves and make things happen. Critically, citizen history organizations seek to enable us, not do things for us or for us.

What was happening across Britain in March and April 2020 was that citizen history was taking shape and taking hold, despite central attempts to impose subject history.

Government messages presented COVID as an intentional attacker, with metaphors of war and even a comparison to “an unexpected and invisible aggressor”. We, the public, were the weak, unfortunate victims who had to be told what to do, and the central government the strong, all-knowing heroes who would save us. But of course we weren’t, and we weren’t.

And so, with ‘Stay Alert’, the consumer story has returned. Each of us now had to take personal responsibility to deal with COVID and get back to normal as best we could.

Stores should start selling again. People should go back to work and pay taxes. Councils should start providing services again. The energy that was invested in creating these new structures and modes had to be withdrawn.

I don’t know or don’t care if it was deliberate or accidental. What I do know is that he suppressed an energy that could have been supported.

Imagine if local government had been given funding to understand and harness the best of what was being achieved, and if self-help groups had been given the training and resources to support them.

So much for what could have been. What matters now is the deep truth that we have all lived – that the civic story is within us as individuals and as local government. It came naturally in our moment of crisis, and although it was removed, the portal did not close. The task now is to build it from where we are.

In this work, the most important thing any member of local government can do is cling to this truth, taught to us by COVID, that citizen history is within us: remembering one’s ascension, the recognize and believe in it. But belief must also be translated into action.

Drawing on the work I have been directly involved with at Kirklees MBC and with the Government of Jersey, case studies I have found around the world and work I have admired from organizations such as New Local, the Center for Public Impact, Collaborate, TPX Impact, and more, here are some starting points for what councils could do to build this new reality.

First, celebrate civic activity when it happens. In New York City, the People’s Bus project recently saw a renovated prison bus travel through neighborhoods where mutual aid had been most active, celebrating and therefore validating and encouraging this type of activity.

In Kirklees, the Our Stories Our Places project provides a simple online space where people can share their stories of when they’ve been part of something they live in, to similar effect. There are many ways to do this, but this type of validation creates a solid foundation for more.

Second, open yourself up to input. Don’t just consult on outings. Moving on to civic history means involving people upstream in the elaboration of options, not just commenting on them or choosing between them.

Better Reykjavik, a simple, open-source platform that has been used in the Icelandic capital for almost a decade, offers any citizen the opportunity to come up with ideas to improve the city. Ideas are voted on top to bottom (but not commented on, removing the potential for trolling), with the best ideas being debated in a regular special session of the board, followed by a public response.

This not only gives people a chance to lead the conversation, but also filters out the “ocracy flip” that results from only the usual suspects participating.

One of the simplest elements of the Taiwanese government’s leading COVID response was a similarly functioning hotline, inviting ideas for improving that response.

Third, think carefully about what you are measuring. It has become the center of Kirklees.

Building on the stories we’ve heard and inviting direct participation – even to the point of formulating the goal and the statements by which it will be measured – from people across the borough, Kirklees MBC has created a new measure result called Shaped By People.

This will measure and report on the extent to which borough residents feel able to shape the conditions that shape their lives.

Measurement is extremely important as a storyteller: when boards only measure service delivery, they are telling themselves that they are service providers and people are service users. This is the consumer’s story. As long as that’s what we measure, that’s what we do and who we are.

What we have seen in the crisis of the first months of the pandemic is that people can and want to work together to improve the places where they live, and that councils can play a vital role.

As we know, there are many more crises to come. Entering the civic story will build our resilience in the face of the challenges ahead and offer the promise that we truly could overcome them stronger, as individuals, as communities and as a nation – and that councils truly could and really get us to do it. .

It all starts with a simple commitment that is difficult to keep in the times in which we live, but which is fundamental: a commitment to believe in ourselves and each other.

Jon Alexander is author of Citizens: Why the Key to Fixing Everything is All of Us, activist and strategist, and Fellow of the Young Foundation and RSA

@jonjalex