Issue 5


By Jennifer Wallace, Policy Manager, Carnegie UK Trust

We are at a time of extensive debate about government and the services it provides us as citizens, our concept of community and society, and the relationship between the two.  Brought on by the ‘perfect storm’ of the economic crisis and an ageing population there is a growing recognition, in Scotland as well as elsewhere, that public services are only part of the solution to these challenges.

Variously referred to as localism, community empowerment, mutualism, coproduction and the now virtually toxic phrase coined by David Cameron  -  ‘Big Society’ – politicians are keen to try to lock down and name this shift.  They may be leading the public debate but they are also responding to a change in how society thinks and behaves. 

In Scotland, we have been on a quiet journey on community ownership of land and assets which started in 1997 when the islanders on Eigg successfully purchased the land that they lived and worked on.  More recently, the Scottish Government have been consulting on what legislation for community empowerment would look like.

In Scotland, we have been on a quiet journey on community ownership of land and assets …. the Scottish Government have been consulting on what legislation for community empowerment would look like.

The Carnegie UK Trust has a particular interest in these debates, with a strong history in both community assets and democratic participation. In 2012 we embarked on a programme of work called ‘The Enabling State’ led by Carnegie Fellow Sir John Elvidge, former Permanent Secretary of the Scottish Government. Through a series of roundtables across the UK and in the Republic of Ireland we have been exploring what a radically different relationship between individuals, communities and the State would mean for future public services across the UK and Ireland, looking for common themes and opportunities for shared learning.

The core of our argument is set out in two propositions. Firstly, that while the welfare state has served many of us well for 70 years – and led to significant improvements in health and wellbeing – it appears to suffer from the law of diminishing returns.  In some areas of public services, for example looked after children, it has always struggled to make headway.  In others, such as health, our systems seem ill-equipped to deal effectively with widening health inequalities or new social problems such as anxiety or loneliness.

Secondly, that the solution is not about doing more of the same but rather developing a different relationship between the public services and the people they serve. Our Enabling State discussion paper talks about the difference between ‘technical’ and ‘adaptive’ solutions, where technical solutions would be to do more of the same and adaptive solutions focus on finding new ways of doing things.  We are convinced that in responding to the challenges of modern societies, we need to do something fundamentally different and empower individuals and local communities to provide mutual support and build on their own capacities and assets.

In our Carnegie UK roundtable discussions, to date, we have found a broad agreement with these two propositions.  We have also been able to identify six emerging characteristics of an ‘enabling state’:

1.    Shared responsibilities: All parts of society are seen as having a role in improving our collective and individual wellbeing.
2.    Stepping in where the state has struggled: Communities and individuals are seen as holding the key to improving wellbeing in areas where the state has been less successful.
3.    Empowered citizens and communities:  Communities and individuals are empowered to use their own capacity to improve their community wellbeing. 
4.    A level playing field: An enabling state responds to inequality in capacity to ensure that communities and individuals are not left behind.
5.    A co-production model for public services: Citizens are able to both shape local services provision (through community engagement or other democratic processes) and have influence over their own experience of receiving a service (through co-production).
6.    A holistic approach to public service delivery: A joined up and preventative approach to service delivery seems to be a key feature of an enabling state.

But while there is agreement about the importance of changing the relationship between public services and the people they serve, there is less agreement about how to do this effectively. Three key challenges to an Enabling State were raised across the counties and regions that we visited:

1.    There was a concern, most prevalent in England, that the agenda could be used as a rhetorical smoke-screen for government cuts.  The experience of the Big Society, where government support for community and voluntary sector was coupled with significant cuts in funding, has reduced the appetite for debate on a new relationship between public services and communities.
2.    In most of the roundtables we found concerns about how best to help people living in deprived communities access the opportunities provided by a more enabling state. There is a clear risk that a more enabling state simply allows well-resourced communities to access more resources.  A number of participants urged us to focus our conclusions on helping ‘low capacity’ communities and building their indigenous capacity.
3.    An enabling state is based on a different set of relationships between public servants and communities.  There were queries raised about the extent to which this approach was filtering down to a local level and whether local public services had the skills and culture to truly enable communities. 

Each of these challenges are relevant in a Scottish context, and there are similarities here with current debates around the proposed Community Empowerment and Renewal Bill.  But our discussions outside Scotland confirmed what we had suspected, that stakeholders in other jurisdictions would start the process of moving to an Enabling State in the same place that Scotland has.

An enabling state is based on a different set of relationships between public servants and communities.

The Enabling State discussion paper describes the ‘Scottish model of government’ as encompassing both an outcomes-based approach to public service management and a horizontally joined-up government.  Both developments were instigated by the SNP Government in 2007, with the establishment of the National Performance Framework which set out a new outcomes based approach to performance which would focus and the abolition of government departments within the Scottish Government to break down horizontal government silos.

It is clear from our discussions around the UK and Ireland, that while the ‘Scottish model of government’ has a lot to offer in terms of developing an enabling state, it is not sufficient, on its own, to fundamentally alter the relationship between individuals, communities and the state. The next stage of our Enabling State work will therefore involve identifying relevant examples of existing practice that embody our concept of the ‘Enabling State’ to showcase how the model may be able to transform public services and improve outcomes for individuals and communities.

For further information on the Enabling State please visit

Jennifer Wallace, is the Policy Manager, Carnegie UK Trust


By Jennifer Wallace, Policy Manager, Carnegie UK Trust

Issue 5


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