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17 March 2015

Politicians have to stop pretending they have the answers – and start helping people find their own

Devolution of power is Labour's next great mission.

By Liz Kendall

Right across the country Labour councils, local communities and grassroots organisations are showing how they can do better with less while remaining true to their values. In our publication, Let It Go, we interview six public service innovators to learn the lessons their experience offers more widely. 

Oldham Council leader Jim McMahon has set up an ethical care company.  Shunning the race to the bottom seen in the private homecare market, Oldham’s new social enterprise listens to what its clients want then shapes services to deliver it.  Users now receive longer visits at times they choose and satisfaction, he says, is ‘very high’ both among service users and workers.  They key to Jim’s success is to stop pretending the politicians have all the answers and ‘just listen’ to the people on the frontline. 

On the other side of the country Jayne Moules runs Newcastle City Council’s families programme.  The project supports families with high levels of anti-social behaviour or criminality and low levels of achievement to do better.  Instead of dozens of different and uncoordinated interventions by different teams of professionals, Jayne’s team first wins the family’s consent to seek to change then works with them to coordinate support.     

It’s a dramatically more successful approach that, says Jayne, has led to a radically different way of looking at public services.  She explains that it’s “not about delivering a percentage increase in this, that or the other, but it was actually individual families that needed to improve outcomes.” 

What Jim, Jayne and other innovators like them understand is that involving the people you are trying to help allows you to do better even with less money around.  The one resource that’s still in plentiful supply is people’s own insights into the services they use and knowledge of the problems in their own lives.  It’s a resource we don’t tap into enough, and it has the power to transform services from housing to health to home care. 

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This is the new politics of empowerment, but for politicians it means learning to listen and let go.  Instead of pretending we have all the answers, our job is to help people and communities find their own answers.  Giving people more power helps repair our broken politics because it by-passes politicians and puts citizens in the driving seat.  Giving people – especially the most vulnerable and socially excluded – more control over their own life helps them become more self-reliant and uncaps their aspirations. 

Labour will share power out, not hoard it at the centre, and do things with people not to them. This new approach is not the old-style state control but moves beyond New Labour’s choice agenda too.

The choice between two bad options is no choice at all.  What people need is the power to insist on services that meet their real needs, to prevent problems instead of trying to fix them afterwards; to do what actually works. 

Britain suffers from an inequality of power.  The rich have always had the power to choose the services they want to use.  Now we have to reshape public services to give that power to everyone else too.  It’s the way to make public services more efficient and effective, make our communities stronger, and fix our broken politics.