It doesn’t seem like a week can go by these days without at least one headline centred around our public services being at breaking point. The NHS and our social services are creaking under the strain of omnipresent budget cuts which are causing existing provision to be stripped back to the metal. This is leading to a rise in communities devising their own ways to plug the gaps. Often, these grassroots initiatives born out of necessity are a far cry from the trendy ‘start-ups’ which occupy the other end of the disruptive innovation spectrum; there are no bean bags, bare-brick walls and foosball tables here. These are true grassroots community-driven services which address a real need but are often not following a formal protocol. This frugal innovation is initiated and implemented by local people who have simply got on and done something using the resources that they had available to them. Scratch the surface and you will find that our communities are full of hidden innovators who are making a real impact on the lives of people around them.
In the summer of 2017, having been inspired by the Whidbey Island Facebook Community, a Shropshire mum started a Facebook group called Shropshire Rocks. The group founder hoped to encourage people to paint rocks and stones and then hide them across the county for other people to find. Within days, photos of hundreds of colourful rocks were posted in the Shropshire Rocks Facebook group and just one month after it was set up, the Shropshire painted rock community boasted over 21k members. Over the past two years, thousands of children have continued to enjoy decorating and hiding rocks with their parents and the idea has spread to other locations all over the UK. Parents have posted messages of support on the Facebook page, typically commenting that the activity had motivated their children to leave the house and get out into the sunshine.
For a cash strapped public sector, community initiatives such as these would surely seem to be good news? We talk a lot about encouraging communities to do more for themselves at Bromford. Local Authorities up and down the UK are also doing the same. But when it comes to the crunch, how welcome is this to public sector organisations who are often left feeling out of control.
Katie recently took a trip to our Bromford offices in Cirencester in preparation for the Homelessness Hackathon we ran last Tuesday. We’ve been doing some discovery work over the past few weeks to learn more about the homeless services being offered in the area. During her trip, Katie took the opportunity to visit one such service. The Big Yellow Bus Project is a great example of community lead frugal innovation. The founder decided to start the project after he heard about a homeless man's tent being set on fire. Gerry Watkins set up a crowd-funder to purchase and convert the double-decker bus which is now run by a set of volunteers. Katie was told that residents are often brought to them by the police or social services. When she visited, there were 5 people living on the bus, the youngest being 21 and the oldest 60. The bus is governed by a self-imposed and self-regulated policy which includes a set of house rules and a three-strikes clause; the first two strikes are verbal warnings and the third is a written warning. If residents behave badly following their third strike they are banned from the bus for one night (up to a maximum of six nights). Katie was told that whilst it was very rare they had to impose a ban, doing so can ‘give people time to think and appreciate the help they are being given’. People are only asked to leave the bus if someone more vulnerable requires the bed, but volunteers do work hard to link with other local organisations to find longer-term accommodation for those residents who are ready to move on. During their stay residents are also given tickets which allow them to access showers at a local council-run leisure centre and can also have their washing done by another set of community volunteers known as ‘the laundry angels’.
The reality is that whilst the bus is arguably offering an alternative to rough sleeping which is better than sleeping on the streets, it‘s disrupting public services in a way that means it’s not always a smooth ride for those involved with the service on all sides. But, whether you think the bus is a brilliant idea or an unregulated eyesore, Gerry and his team of volunteers are doing something that many formal bodies struggle to do. Rather than arguing over what to do, the best way to do it, and who should do it, they are actually getting on and doing it.
Movements such as the London #RiotCleanup and more recently the #HelpGrenfell campaign prove that citizens are able to mobilise themselves without the paternalistic influence of the public sector and are doing so more frequently and more effectively than ever before. Often, the causes they support and champion improve social outcomes and health outcomes and are undoubtedly beneficial to society as a whole. But by operating outside of the formal structure of local and central government, it’s often argued that it’s difficult to measure their impact or ensure participant safety, which means that it’s hard for these unregulated services to be given formal funding.
It’s perhaps understandable that the public sector want the community to work within a framework they feel comfortable with - What if people get injured? What if people die? What if people paint the rocks with the wrong type of paint and leave them in the wrong place? What if? What if? Ultimately, this is the reality of community-driven initiatives; they are disruptive and disruption is messy and hard to regulate and administer. There is perhaps a fine line between how much to attempt to regulate and how much to let the community simply get on with it. Whilst leaving people alone might not always be the best thing to do, over-regulation also takes away the thing that makes community lead initiatives what they are and may prevent them from happening in the first place. Arguably it’s the red tape encountered by those working hard within the public sector that leads to the gap emerging in the first place. Over the coming decade, we will undoubtedly see more community lead frugal innovation springing up. It will be interesting to see how the public sector and those organisations sitting on the edge of it respond. Perhaps there is something we can all learn. After all, if the public sector had all the answers, there wouldn't be a problem in the first place.