Friday, 8 April 2011

the rural information network

Briefing 1258
Future rural services

It is now up to local areas - will services be tailored to local priorities or will standards sometimes slip? Quality services can be delivered imaginatively eg through local personal assistants, multi-functionality of people and buildings, out-posting public sector staff, volunteers and IT but there is a need for cultural change in government towards a ‘we can do this together’ attitude. Ideas suggested include time banks for volunteers, virtual libraries using e-books, schools run by teaching assistants with lessons from the best teachers via TV and video-conferencing and local ‘community housing’ so older people can stay in their home area.

This paper is taken from a report by Carnegie UK Trust ‘A shareholders’ guide-to rural services’ which can be accessed at:

There is a growing awareness that rural communities have an important role to play in determining what else can be provided. We have started to think about residents less as passive recipients of services but more as shareholders, with public sector leaders as ‘the Board’.

Carnegie believes that rural areas will provide a test bed for innovative solutions to deliver services.

The squeeze is forcing a rapid assessment by councils and other bodies of the services that can be afforded. There has scarcely been time to simultaneously consider how services can cost less but be even better from the perspective of the residents, but this is what is required.

Better shape up: how prepared is your public sector?
During the past few years, the public sector in has undergone reforms that should mean residents are better informed about service delivery. Many improvements have centred on a more joined-up approach, with different parts working together in partnership.

Spotting a successful partnership? How well is your area doing?

o The average man or woman in the street will know of the partnership’s existence
o Community leaders will have been actively involved in determining the priorities of the partnership
o The partnership has a clear vision for the work which is widely available
o Publishes an implementation plan with SMART goals (S – specific M – measurable A – achievable R – realistic T – time-based)
o Reports back to the general public on the achievements
o Achieves the active participation of the private sector, who feel integral to the success of the strategy
o Achieves the active participation of third sector representatives and through them the wider community

Public bodies are getting better and better at community engagement. We are not talking about ‘consultation’ (I’ve got a problem, here is my solution, what do you think about my solution?) but a genuine exercise in collecting the views of residents.
Who pulls the strings of local partnership?

During the last decade the ‘target culture’ has required partnerships to measure their performance against a wide range of criteria. Were the public at large aware of these targets? Were these targets helpful in securing better outcomes for citizens? If parents looked at children’s test results and noted their school was under-performing, was there anything that they could do about it when, especially in rural areas, there is a monopoly provider?

It is now up to local areas to determine priorities but will services be tailored to local priorities or will standards slip in a postcode lottery?

Where does all the money go?

Partnership working provides an opportunity for the public sector to assess the total investment in an area and to gauge the benefits of this expenditure for residents. But:

o What outcomes were achieved for the money? Was there a measurable improvement in GDP? Were more businesses or jobs created? Did people live healthier lives?

o Could the money be spent in a way that achieved better results? Are these options ever considered?

o How much say do people have over the public money spent in their county?

o Are the needs of particular groups – for example, young people – well recognised in the way the money is spent?

o Where many organisations serve a particular purpose, are their separate administrative overheads justified?

o How strong is the link between expenditure in an area and the capacity to initiate meaningful change?

A good starting point for any re-engineering of service delivery is a whole system analysis:

o What financial resources are currently available from national, regional and local sources?

o Who determines how this resource can be applied?

o What services are being delivered and by whom? Is there any overlap or convergence?

o What do residents expect of service delivery?

o Where there are many calls upon limited resources, what are the priorities (as far as residents are concerned) for expenditure locally?

Services of the future

Communities can get involved in delivering effective quality services in a number of ways including:

o Locally based Personal Assistants can cut the time and expense of travel and spend quality time with the person who needs care

o The multiple use of a building such as a community hall for a range of services can cut overheads, provide a good environment for interdisciplinary working and provide a steady income stream through rents.

o The out-posting of public sector staff can provide a better quality of life for workers by reducing commuting times and help put the organisation in touch with the interests and needs of local people.

o The use of volunteers alongside employees means that running costs are reduced whilst providing meaningful and satisfying opportunities for local people to contribute to their community.

o Multi-functional, area-based teams from the council, health service and police can work alongside residents to ensure local priorities are met.

o The internet can provide savings in transaction costs, reduced travel times and win time for professionals to spend time online or on the phone with those who need the most attention.

However, there is an urgent need for innovation in the way that services are designed, funded and delivered in ways that are cost effective and meet the expectations of users.

Also there is a need for a cultural change in government and its institutions if innovation is to flourish. There needs to be a willingness to embrace new thinking – a ‘we can do this together’ attitude rather than a culture that imposes an inappropriately rigorous regulatory framework. Pioneers need to be encouraged and supported, with new investment vehicles and greater collaboration between the various bodies that look after the interests of service users.
This is all just the beginning of a revolution in service delivery; what are the future possibilities? There is a need for the human touch; for people within communities to build a network of family, friends and neighbours and to enjoy social interaction. It is this that people miss when a village post office shuts, when care workers can only spend ten minutes with an older person and it is the ingredient that makes a young person choose to stay. The link between social isolation and mental health is very strong: a 1987 report in Science concluded, ‘isolation is as significant to mortality rates as smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity and lack of physical exercise.’

We imagine four different scenarios in the not too distant future:

1. We know that there are ageing populations in rural communities representing increased demand at a time when there are fewer public resources. There is also an army of newly retired and very active people that have moved to live in those communities. Might their regular volunteering be acknowledged through a Time Bank? At its most basic level, Time Banking is simply about spending an hour doing something for somebody in your community. That hour goes into the Time Bank as a credit. Then you have a Time credits to spend on having someone doing something for you, maybe in many years’ time when the volunteer needs assistance. It’s a simple idea, but it has powerful ripple effects in building community connections. Time Banking UK is the national umbrella charity linking and supporting time banks - here are already 93 time banks in existence and 100 more in the pipeline:

2. Libraries are coming under threat because of the cuts. Some libraries have demonstrated how it is possible to attract many users (for example, by including coffee shops and crèches) but the library of the future might look very different: the county council could have a virtual ‘library in the cloud’, where readers using Kindles (or similar products) can access books. This need not be a solitary occupation: book clubs could meet at the local pub to discuss the merits of the latest bestseller over a pint; the writing group could publish their work on-line, volunteers could read it at the local day centre and school children could publish local news online.

3. What of the future for small rural schools? Why should a school always be a separate building? Might lessons be held in the local community centre supervised by a teaching assistant and with flat screen TV, interactive white board and videoconferencing allowing access to the most exciting teachers and experts from anywhere in the world? Might more time be spent in the outdoors so that children fully appreciate the environment that will provide them with future employment, food and water and energy? Imagine the fun when neighbouring schools meet up for regular camping expeditions, community celebrations and displays of work.

4. For older residents imagine a Swedish style ‘community house’, owned and run by the community, where older people can move when they can no longer live independently; where they can access as much or as little care as they need without having to move away to a distant town. Imagine the restaurant serving excellent meals (whilst catering for visitors and producing ready meals for busy families) and the hairdressers and treatment rooms for visiting clinicians and therapists.

Alan Spedding, 05 April 2011

RuSource briefings provide concise information on current farming and rural issues for rural professionals. They are circulated weekly by email and produced by Alan Spedding in association with the Arthur Rank Centre, the national focus for the rural church. Previous briefings can be accessed on the Arthur Rank Centre website at
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