Let’s make ‘local’ the default for solving national problems
Updated: Feb 3
If central government wants to tackle the biggest problems facing the country, it needs a much deeper understanding of how local areas operate and should make place-based solutions the default, says Morgan Finlayson.
When it comes to solving big problems, the saying goes: “The path of a thousand miles begins with one step.”
In my experience, that saying is incomplete. As well as needing to take things step-by-step, you need to look where you are going. So how about instead: “The path of a thousand miles begins with one step, but you’ll trip if you don’t see what’s under your feet”?
Solving big problems is arguably the underlying raison d'être of the civil service. I can confidently say that during my time in government, there was a consistent drive and enthusiasm to see things change positively for the public.
But if government does want to solve big problems, then it needs to understand the path beneath its feet. Put plainly, solving big problems must be done by understanding local issues, and using local expertise to solve them.
In a previous role, I saw a great example of where this had been done successfully – and, by contrast, another that was an opportunity missed.
In the first example a London borough was tasked to meeting the national priority to reduce reoffending. The strategy they chose was to commission a group of local organisations within the area as a partnership, providing support to women who were in (or leaving) parts of the criminal justice system. Some organisations had similar approaches, others offered specialist needs-based support, but – crucially – nearly all the organisations had either worked together before or had existing relationships.
Drawing on those existing links meant the organisations could easily pick up and refer individuals to the right support, reducing the time spent being moved between services and meaning they could get help quickly, which reduced their likelihood of reoffending. It also meant there was a diverse base of support within the local area, so the people relying on the services didn’t need to travel big distances. By solving the problem with a local solution, the national issue could make genuine progress.
The second example, by contrast, was led by a central government department trying to support victims of trafficking but without much knowledge of local networks. Its approach was to commission a single supplier, which used subcontractors, to deliver support services across the whole country.
Unfortunately, the services were widely geographically spread out, meaning that individuals who needed to be referred for support were often referred to organisations that were sometimes hundreds of miles apart, as what they needed wasn’t available in their local area.
As a result, the contract didn’t solve the big problem that the department wanted it to solve and, after the contract was signed, the sole supplier needed to request additional funding where it realised it had gaps, adding millions in cost. Could this not have been avoided if the department had sought to tackle the problem with a more place-based approach?
If the government wants to realise its ambitions and solve some of the biggest problems facing the country, I think it needs a much deeper understanding how different local areas operate, and to factor in local place-based approaches by default.
Without ‘local’ knowledge, and without making good use of new and existing networks to solve big issues, it will keep tripping over on its thousand-mile path.
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