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July 11, 2023

A home for public sector rebels

When Senscot (Social Entrepreneur Network SCOTland) began its work, the term ‘social entrepreneur’ had a certain cachet. These were the social pioneers setting up new social businesses that would change the world for the better. At the time, many who worked in the public sector felt that they were on a similar mission albeit from a different starting point. Someone coined the phrase, ‘social intrapreneurs’ to describe those wanting to effect change from within. A proposed social intrapreneur network never took off but these folk must still exist. If so, they might find a new home in the ‘Rebel Alliance’.

Adam Lent, New Local

‘The Rebel Alliance’. More than any other, this was the phrase that caught the imagination of the Stronger Things crowd two weeks ago when New Local’s chair, Donna Hall, used it to describe the 850 public sector innovators squeezed into the City of London’s Guildhall. The term was enthusiastically cheered at the event itself and on social media. But why did it create such a buzz?

The phrase proved resonant because it speaks of the cross-sector emergence of a movement seeking transformation of public services by empowering communities. But clearly the term was also embraced because it neatly captured an important truth: those striving for innovation do indeed feel like rebels.

I have spoken to hundreds of radical public sector innovators in my role and every one tempers their hopeful, ambitious story of change with a tale of their fight against inertia, self-interest and outdated ideas at every level of their organisation.

The uphill battle faced by the Rebel Alliance should worry us far more than it does. Their support for community power is a response to the very serious challenges facing councils: primarily, spiralling demand. Community power aims to mobilise every single asset in an area to meet the underlying causes of that demand crisis: health inequality, family breakdown, poverty, isolation.

But whenever the system makes community-powered innovators feel like marginal rebels, it is essentially saying that the status quo is sustainable and the old ways are good enough. In short, every time an innovator is stymied, the public sector is one step closer to its ultimate demise in the face of an unaddressed demand crisis.

It would be easy to say that the secret to changing this situation is to liberate the rebels; to empower those driving change rather than marginalising them. In my experience, this is not what the community power rebels want – to be given some special status as ‘innovators-in-chief’. This is not a movement with a simplistic, Silicon Valley mentality that values all innovation and disruption for its own sake or thinks that innovators are some special breed.

Instead, their wish is for public sector leaders to recognise that community-powered change has to be everyone’s business. Those leaders need to set out a clear vision of public sector transformation and then do the long, hard work of making that transformation a reality across the whole system – for everyone who works in or relies on it.

In large part, that also means a profound rethinking of their roles as leaders – shifting away from a monitor-and-control mentality towards an inspire-and-mobilise mindset that mimics the spirit at the heart of the community power movement itself.

Many leaders are indeed already thinking and acting this way, but too many are not. Apart from some inspiring exceptions, it is notable that the leaders who sit at the very top of the system in Whitehall and Westminster have a particularly stagnant approach, remaining largely oblivious to the radical change happening on the ground, and immune to the self-reflection required to ensure their leadership style is a motor of rather than a brake on change.

At the very start of Stronger Things, Ian Thomas – the chief executive of the City of London Corporation – pointed out that talk about a systemic shift in public services has been going on for years but that it is action not talk that generates change. Like Donna’s comments, Ian’s words resonated because the Rebel Alliance is made up of doers who are tired of fine words that go nowhere.

The time is more than ripe for public sector leaders to follow that example by working with this new movement to dismantle resistance and take action to generate the meaningful change that will keep public services healthy for current and future generations.