Unlocking the potential of mass localism

The UK’s major political parties have all pointed to the importance of encouraging and supporting more local responses to addressing big social challenges.

Our guest writer is Laura Bunt, from the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts

The UK’s major political parties have all pointed to the importance of encouraging and supporting more local responses to addressing big social challenges.

The urgent and increasingly expensive nature of many such issues as climate change, mental and physical health and anti-social behaviour are characterised by their complexity and uncertainty as to what works best on the ground.

Though vitally important, government action alone isn’t enough: impact depends on the knowledge, commitment and action of citizens.

Though it is commonly assumed that delivering centralised solutions can be cheaper, the nature of these more behavioural and social challenges means that one-track solutions will inevitably be high risk.

Solutions that are designed, developed and delivered locally are often better placed than central initiatives to understand local conditions and needs and to engage citizens in taking action to tackle challenges more cheaply and effectively.

Earlier this week, we launched Mass Localism – a report that explores the potential of local solutions and outlines an approach to supporting more of them.

Drawing on the experiences of the finalists of NESTA’s Big Green Challenge (a programme I’ve written about before on this blog), we’ve looked in more detail at what makes local solutions so effective, and suggest how government might overcome some of the tensions in achieving them.

As the insights from the finalists indicate, local solutions rely on their specificity, local ownership and the ability of groups to tailor solutions to local contexts.

Local groups are also best placed to encourage community engagement on a social issue, through access to local networks and existing relationships.

But despite localism’s attraction, policymakers struggle to square localism with the need to achieve national impact and scale – local solutions can seem marginal in contrast to the size of current challenges, and as greater local agency inevitably leads to greater diversity, more localism tends to raise concerns about a ‘postcode lottery’.

To avoid these issues, government’s impulse is to identify what works locally and try to ‘scale-up’ the approach to other communities.

This, we argue, is the wrong approach as it undermines the ownership and applicability that makes local solutions effective in the first place. Rather than stretching particular solutions, mass localism means supporting mass innovation.

Scale is achieved by having lots of local solutions that collectively have a big impact on social challenges, and allowing communities to learn from each other.

The most cost-effective impact will not be achieved by pushing a single “one-size-fits all” solution or a limited number of models of best practice.

A greater variety of approaches is necessary where specific social contexts, behaviours and networks have a demonstrable impact on people’s action and attitudes. Areas differ in the prevalence of certain environmental, health and re-offending issues.

For this reason, we already have postcode lotteries – not because public services are insufficiently standardised, but in part because they are too standardised.

This is not about scaling back the state, or assuming that by removing government bureaucracy and control it will allow more local innovation to flourish.

Mass localism demands a different role for the state in supporting and sustaining localism. It means creating more opportunities for communities to develop and deliver their own solutions and to learn from each other.

• NESTA’s “Mass Localism” report was published earlier this week.

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