FEATURE1 December 2010

Power to the people


Discovery’s research director Matt Dobbin on how the agency helped Norfolk County Council set its spending priorities by asking residents to carve up the local authority budget for themselves.


The challenge
Norfolk County Council has an annual budget of £556m to serve the county’s 853,000 inhabitants. Providing value for money for taxpayers is a key objective and in 2010 the council faces an even greater challenge – to dramatically reduce costs over the next three years while maintaining the standard of services local people have come to expect. With a budget deficit of £155 million, the council needs to cut costs urgently in order to balance its books.

Setting financial priorities for a large and diverse community generally involves some consultation with residents, feeding into spending reviews and a top-down approach to budgeting and implementing cuts. But Norfolk County Council wanted to involve local people more closely in the tough choices ahead.

The brief
Discovery was commissioned to facilitate a consultation with the aim of getting residents to help set financial priorities. The idea was to get beyond gut reactions to allow local residents to take ownership of real financial dilemmas facing their local communities and come up with pragmatic solutions in partnership with the council.

In addition to helping the council make decisions about their budget in the short term, the research was to be used to help develop its thinking about the kind of organisation it should aim to become by 2013.

“We enabled respondents to look beyond what services they themselves use and see the bigger picture… respondents were empowered by contextual knowledge to make meaningful decisions, rather than just relying on their personal experience”

The approach
Asking the public about how services should be delivered, and how to make cost savings, is fraught with challenges. Often people don’t know what they want, or their views lack context, so they end up trading off services against each other according to what they use themselves. There is also a danger of decisions being made on an emotional basis – so fire engines tend to trump libraries.
We set out to reveal the values that shape the way residents think about council services. Through a variety of techniques, we encouraged respondents to look beyond what services they themselves use and understand the bigger picture. This was critical in enabling people to define the role of the council and put its relationship with citizens in a real context.

Discovery and Norfolk County Council jointly developed a research approach that would turn residents into councillors. First, we gave respondents a pre-task to raise their awareness of the breadth and depth of services the council delivers.

This was a questionnaire detailing all current council services and asking which ones people were aware of and how they rated their importance.

We then held a series of extended group discussions across the county with the aim of getting respondents to think as residents rather than as individual council taxpayers, and to consider different levels of service. We did this by likening services to insurance – a service we all pay for, but hope we will never need to use.

Respondents were then divided into eight groups of ten, segmented by location and lifestage, and given a set of playing cards. These were colour-coded by service area and detailed the nature of all the council’s services and their benefits for the community.

Participants were asked to use these cards to build a new county council from scratch, with the option of scrapping services, charging more for them, partnering with other providers or handing the service over to private or voluntary sector providers. The effect was transformative: respondents made decisions not just for themselves but for the community, and changed their perspective from ‘what they (the council) should do’ to ‘what we (the people of Norfolk) should do’.

The discussion about where and how to place the cards revealed the values that drive the way people think. These values have now been put at the heart of the council’s decision-making as they work to re-structure, cut costs and change the way services are delivered. The contextual knowledge given to respondents meant they were able to make meaningful decisions, rather than just relying on their own personal experience.

The exercise has now been replicated with groups of town and parish councillors to explore which of the county council’s services they could take on. Further projects are also planned with local businesses, voluntary organisations, healthcare agencies and young people.

The findings
At a basic level, the research showed that there was low awareness among residents about what local government provides. The research triggered a very positive feeling towards the council and surprise at the amount of services it offers. Respondents engaged in complex debates and suggested more radical solutions than expected, with a strong appetite for local control of services. Residents showed support for joining up with other groups and sharing resources, with a realisation of the roles played by district councils, the NHS, voluntary organisations and so on, and how the county council could work with them.

Elected council members witnessed the groups and heard first-hand how open residents were to change, which gave them the freedom to re-think who delivers services and how.

When it came to the crunch of stopping services altogether, people were far keener to envisage them being delivered in a different way, and these options are now being explored. A great deal of trust of charities (such as Age UK and the Ramblers Association) was evident as people considered whether community and voluntary groups could deliver more.

There was a general feeling that it was right to move away from the ‘nanny state’ and that communities could do more, particularly in the area of adult care.

Council leader Daniel Cox said: “We have an opportunity to seize the initiative and become an enabler that helps citizens play a more active role. People told us to free up red tape and reinvigorate neighbourhoods in the process. These core messages, clearly heard by my Cabinet and me, will help shape our budget planning as we respond to the massive financial challenges which lie ahead.”

The outcome
The findings have had a profound effect and are proving to be instrumental in determining the way Norfolk County Council will be cost-cutting, budgeting and delivering services in the future. The results have provided a compelling case for the council to adopt a new approach to restructuring and reshaping the authority.

The council is now consulting with the business community, voluntary sector, different tiers of local government and NHS partners to look at which services they are able to deliver, and test the findings from this stage of consultation. This work has had a huge impact on the council’s spending priorities and how it engages the public in spending decisions, and is now being replicated in other areas.

The council is developing a website to allow a broader conversation with residents using a similar technique online, and a debating pack to allow community groups to run their own discussions using the technique. Other local authorities in the same position have approached Norfolk County Council with an interest in using the technique among their residents.

As well as informing how Norfolk County Council uses its budget and serves its residents, the research is now being used as a blueprint for a new operating model. Working in partnership with residents to agree priorities will be a central principle to the council’s ongoing service provision.