Guardian Local Government Network (April 2013)
In tough times, it’s tempting for government to focus on financial issues – James Carvill’s notable advice to Bill Clinton in 1992 was “It’s the economy, stupid”. Perhaps in consequence, the “wellbeing” and “happiness” agendas are often seen as secondary priorities better left to more prosperous times.
Certainly that broader sense of mission behind “wellbeing” can have ambitious aims – too ambitious, I expect, for those of a sceptical frame of mind. Kevin Gulliver’s recent Guardian blog got me looking at his Human City Institute’s “Signs of a human city”. Opposed to pessimism, it includes the call for “a place alive with the energy of hope, which enables imagination and creativity to flourish and looks for the revitalization of every aspect of its corporate life.”
Although wealthy places retain such aspirations, it might seem hard to believe that many others can join them. Even making much incremental progress could be thought too hard to achieve, not least because the practical steps towards such a goal are hard to discern. Some useful insights into applied action are, however, available from research on psychology. In his 2011 book “Flourish”, Martin Seligman emphasises that strong and lasting wellbeing for individuals goes beyond a temporary upbeat mood. It requires positive social relationships, a sense of meaning to life, a sense of accomplishment, and the ability to engage deeply with tasks. In other words, wellbeing is not a luxury; nor is hope.
The key question is whether local authorities have any options, in affordable but high value ways, to bolster those attributes among their populations. My answer, on the basis of various innovations that have been tried out in the UK and elsewhere over the past decade, would be yes - though there is no one simple route to success.
Fundamental to any strengthening of effort has to be more listening and engaging with the public. According to a survey by the Hansard Society, less than two in five can name their local MP – and I suspect even that’s rather more than can name the leader of their local authority. There’s no panacea to better local connections, but the Local 2.0 programme found that designated local social media networks can “underpin existing activity, strengthen and broaden it”; and where participatory budgeting has been tried, it has had promising results in improving trust between citizens, councillors and officials.
Then there are the opportunities that open up by encouraging new approaches to the use of physical assets - more support for a social entrepreneurial spirit can make a huge difference. For example, in 2009 the Space Makers Agency worked with Lambeth Council and landlords to rejuvenate the “Brixton Village” market space. Instead of threatened demolition, active partnership between the local community and private and public sectors has – at low financial cost - created a buzzy atmosphere, with creative ventures drawn in by the offer of temporary rent-free leases, and a continued collective effort to generate weekly events and sense of sociability.
A further under-tapped resource is the scope to harness efforts at corporate social responsibility (CSR). The introduction of ‘social value’ into procurement decisions is a key way to recognise the wider benefits that some organisations provide for local communities. But local authorities can nudge improvements in other ways. Simple encouragement and recognition can be highly effective. And so, just as the European Commission has launched a showcase CSR award scheme for Europe this year, there is a case for councils to showcase outstanding efforts by private companies, social entrepreneurs and social businesses to promote social good within their area.
Lastly, local authorities can do more to use influence on children’s services and schools to promote experiential learning. Research shows that active learning – pupils tackling problems with guided support and personalised feedback – is much better than traditional chalk and talk routes at enabling students to prosper. I’ve seen practical projects, such as those facilitated by the Enabling Enterprise programme for schools, do this superbly well, enabling children to grasp key skills for life. An understanding of why continual learning is useful; a better ability to draw on the resources of creativity and mutual support; a determination not to give up – these are not niceties for education; they are essential.