This post first appeared on the Local Government Association blog.

What do you say to someone who wants to be a councillor?

After agreeing to meet someone through the LGA’s ‘Be a councillor’ campaign, I needed an answer.

There are, of course, the platitudes: you can make a difference, improve your area, maybe get that parking problem sorted. Or the time commitments: the town hall, the ward, being horsewhipped by your local party to deliver another newsletter. And the perks: though no examples spring to mind.

But I’m probably going through some sort of electoral mid-life crisis and found myself asking a more fundamental question: what is the point of a council?

I found it hard to answer.

We could use the same platitudes writ large, but that understates the historical importance of local government. For centuries any social progress worth shouting about was the result of local boards and corporations making the lives of citizens healthier and happier. National government defended our borders (and occasionally attacked other people’s) but for everything else there was the town hall.

The result may not have been consistent, but what is now derided as a postcode lottery set the rapid pace of social improvement in the 19th century. Councils and their forerunners identified service needs and innovated, their neighbours copied and improved, and the country benefited. Even those services we blithely assume could only be national had local roots. Before the NHS was a beloved institution if you needed a hospital bed the odds were your local council would provide.

Yet in the space of a single lifetime (extended, I should point out, thanks to local authority work in public health) these dynamic councils were brought low. Their sovereignty raided, powers taken and freedoms shackled.

Even the current suggestion of a ‘Magna Carta for local government’ seems more about central government returning appropriated powers and rights than recognising the potential of a dynamic and free tier of local government. It is still about things being done to us, not with or by us.

So what would I say to a potential councillor now? Well, the platitudes remain, after all, casework is a modern councillor’s bread and butter and we know change isn’t just around the corner.

But the conversation wouldn’t be complete without reference to local government’s proud history, and the suggestion that maybe, with determination, vision and the correct permission from the Department for Communities and Local Government, they could be part of a new era of innovative and independent local government.

NW is so successful in Wandsworth, we've used up the budget for putting signs up!

It’s received precious little coverage but we are coming towards the end of Neighbourhood Watch week. Most of the coverage there has been seems to have centred on the “tweeting not twitching” soundbite (probably more because of the reference to Twitter than Neighbourhood Watch), indeed, if you are listening to the radio this afternoon you might catch me doing a little spot on it.

I’m in a council limbo at the moment, between jobs (de facto, but not de jure until the council meeting formalises it next month) but it was pleasing to still, technically, be around for conference in Battersea Park the Wandsworth Community Safety Trust funded part of Neighbourhood Watch week, not least because it was the venue Baroness Browning, minister for crime reduction and anti-social behaviour, chose to formally launch the Our Watch website.

Neighbourhood Watch has never been a sexy topic. Perhaps it never will be. But I’m incredibly proud of what we’ve done in Wandsworth, where the council have been responsible for its management (it’s usually a police responsibility) since 1994.

I’m proud with good reason. Wandsworth has a disproportionate share of London’s Watches, of the 8,000 in London, 470 are in Wandsworth – and I’ve no doubt that plays a role in keeping Wandsworth inner London’s safest borough.

We are well ahead of the game on developing Neighbourhood Watch, recognising long ago that it’s about far more than curtain twitching and developing training schemes for members so in the event of disaster or terrorist attack they know what to do to help themselves, their neighbours and keep pressure off the emergency services.

And all this is recognised outside, so when London Fire Brigade were looking for a pilot area for a scheme in which volunteers are available to offer help and support to the victims of fire they chose Wandsworth purely because it had such a well-established base of Neighbourhood Watches that already went beyond the curtain-twitching stereotype.

If you want to find out more you might be interested in the council’s Neighbourhood Watch pages.

In a bid to check whether there really are no new ideas I’ve started re-reading David Osborne and Ted Gaebler’s Reinventing Government.

It’s probably not that well-known a book today, but it was the first ‘fad’ book I remember – and having seen other titles like Nudge come to prominence (only to hear it dismissed recently in favour of Connected) along with my recollection that there’s a lot in it that is relevant to the Big Society agenda it has pushed itself back to the top of my ‘to read’ list.

As fads go it has come and gone and is now largely unremarked. Perhaps because as a species we are always looking for new and shiny (quite rightly, we don’t develop if we meekly accept what already exists and don’t ask if there could be more). Perhaps part of the reason is that it was published in 1992 before the widespread use of the internet that would later propagate ideas and new thinking. Instead, it would be referenced in the pages of newspapers, particularly after the inauguration of Bill Clinton as US President in 1993 when it was deemed to inform his and Al Gore’s thinking. Indeed, the dust jacket has a quote from Clinton, although then as a mere presidential candidate and state governor.

But re-reading I’m discovering why it created such a buzz in 90s America. It’s a genuinely exciting book and while the ideas may now be tried and tested (and perhaps found wanting) seeing them all together in one place leaves one the feeling that with an open mind and willingness to innovate anything is possible. Of course, when I first read it I did so with only curiosity, not with any ability to do anything with the contents (and I’m not in that much a different position when re-reading it), but now I read it seeing how some of its contents could work in the UK.

The basic premise of the book was that across America arms of government were discovering new ways of doing things that were more effective; improving quality, reducing cost or both. Some were fundamental re-thinks of culture and organisation, some where small tricks. In fact just a few chapters in you see things that have been echoed in books and ideas that have come since and been hailed as new and innovative, except they’d already been trailed in a book written nearly 20 years ago using examples from the 80s.

Throughout there are examples that would have been at home in the pages of Nudge, Connected or The Wisdom of Crowds. Indeed, reading it you find ideas that subsequently made the pages of Ken Livingstone’s first mayoral manifesto (it basically describes Safer Neighbourhood Teams) or the 2010 Conservative manifesto (I realised while reading it that the introduction I was reading about one of inspirations for free schools).

But what has really struck me is that the book could so easily be re-titled with a reference to the Big Society. The very first chapter “Steering, rather than rowing” establishes a principle that the role of government is not necessary there to provide every service, but to provide the leadership and support to ensure that it is provided. A recurrent theme is that where governments of any level have given up control and instead empowered communities everyone has benefited, through better services, feelings of empowerment, reduced crime or just lower taxes.

Not all the experiments succeeded – that goes without saying – I followed up on a story contained in there about what was, effectively, a housing estate taken over by residents to discover it ‘failed’ eight years after the book’s publication. But the failure came after it had trebled rates of rent collection, dramatically cut unemployment and teenage pregnancy and successfully tackled a drug problem that the police had been unable to permanently deter: all because they were empowered to work as a community to tackle their own problems, rather than existing as clients of their city government. Given the huge savings that such changes would bring (and continue to bring) it’s arguable that it wasn’t a failure at all.

But, of course, innovation is not about guaranteed success, but about daring to think that things could be better. Sadly when this was published in the 90s UK local government had hardly any flexibility to innovate. But now things are different, I wonder if it’s time for some innovative councils to dig out some copies of Reinventing Government, remind themselves of the ideas that have been forgotten and, instead of seeing residents as clients, think about how they can be put in charge again.

In an email the other day I commented that the two big pillars of the Big Society were re-branding and permission. I don’t think this is anything particularly profound (if it is, I’m probably unknowingly plagiarising something I’ve read somewhere) and have even remarked on the re-branding aspect myself.

The fact is that Big Society is just a new name, perhaps emphasis, on something that already happens all over. I first pointed to this in relation to the Battersea High Street Big Lunch – something you can analysis almost endlessly through a Big Society lens. First there were the businesses, then the various community groups who attended the event, then the people who went along and enjoyed the day. But even further you can argue that the Big Lunch itself is a Big Society project, seeking to encourage and help neighbours strengthen their communities. It’s welcome the government is looking at promoting society over itself, but society has always been able to look after itself when it needed.

But permission is a different matter entirely, and works on different levels.

The obvious one is for permission to actually do things, whether its setting up a school, running a service or organising a street party – it’s crucial that people are allowed to do this (and remarkably unhealthy that we’ve developed a society in which we often feel the state has to give that permission).

But it goes further. We need to develop a cultural permission to try new things, and I’m not so sure that’s there yet.

To take one example, in the existing Big Society ordinary people help run schools. Parents are elected as school governors, the education authority appoint some more and the governing body itself appoints members from the community. This is totally unremarkable – no-one questions whether these laypeople should have a role in running a school of (hopefully) professional staff, and have ultimate responsibility children’s education. So why is there controversy over the idea these very same people should have the right to establish their own schools?

It might be politics, those who oppose the idea tend (as far as I’ve seen) to be on the left, with unions particularly objecting to the idea. It might just be conservatism, a resistance to change and feeling of comfort with the status quo. It might be fear, what if they don’t work out or, perhaps worse, what if they do? And I occasionally worry that it’s down to a belief that only the state can fulfil certain functions without really questioning if that’s true.

And maybe there is something deeper in our national and institutional psyche that doesn’t like change and is suspicious of the new and the novel: a feeling that we do just fine, thank-you very much, there’s nothing we need to change or learn.

In fact the permission is not so much about what we are allowed to do, but what we are allowed to try. It’s the difference between being part of what’s already there, and being part of something new. While it would attract the ire of the Taxpayers Alliance we should be getting back to a stage in which improvement and innovation (which will always carry the risk of failure) should be celebrated. It has almost become cliché (through my overuse alone) that dealing with the deficit is a huge opportunity because it can drive innovation. But it can only do that if we as a society give ourselves permission.

On Wednesday I attended a Local Government Leadership debate on ‘the next big thing’. After a thought provoking morning session on the problems caused by the deficit the afternoon’s cross-party panel discussion proved disappointing.

It is, perhaps, a sign that somethings never change and the panel seemed more intent on talking about the past and having digs at other parties. If there was any conclusion on what the next big thing should be it was that it was localism. Of course, that was also the last big thing. And the current big thing. So it isn’t a particularly novel answer.

Now it always easy to criticise. Which set me wondering what my contribution would be. The easy get out is to say that, actually, it is localism. Or if it isn’t, it’s something that will be a result of localism. Someone, somewhere, will by design or accident stumble on the next big thing and it will be like council house sales were to the 80s. But that’s too easy a get out. So I’m going to say the next big thing should be failure, or at least permission to fail.

Failure is seen as negative, something to be avoided and while I wouldn’t suggest councils should deliberately set out to fail. I believe that we need a culture change which accepts that failures are a necessary part of progress and improvement rather than buying into a Daily Mail or Taxpayers’ Alliance style agenda of knee jerk condemnation of local authorities that might not always achieve what they set out to do.

There are two aspects to this.

First is that localism will inevitably result in some failures. Not every group of parents can run a school, not every neighbourhood group will keep a community centre going. Part of giving up control of an asset or service means that you also give up the ability to stop failure. But this is not a reason to abandon principles like localism. Giving people the right to run their own services also means giving them the right to fail to run their own services; if the government or councils can’t fully let go of control then it isn’t localism, but just another form of contracting out services.

Second is the innovation has always been accompanied by failure. A quick Google will bring up lots of examples, from champagne (failure to make ordinary wine) to Post-It notes (failure to make a strong glue). One of my favourite stories is of new Coke – an episode I just about remember from childhood – when the recipe was changed to a ‘new and improved formula’. That I have vague memories of it, despite the recipe not being changed in the UK and that it happened when I was young indicates the perceived enormity of the episode.

In the 80s Coke, as ever battling with Pepsi for soft drink dominance, introduced a new, sweeter version of the drink. Despite having won taste tests during development it was a disaster for the company and the public demanded, and after a few months, got the multi-national company to back-track and restore the old version.

However, despite being seen as a costly mistake Coca-Cola are today more of a market leader than they ever were and not a single person lost their job over the debacle.

This seems incredible. Development of the drink alone cost millions, before you even consider the costs of twice changing the manufacturing techniques and publicity surrounding the changes. But the company’s view was that to be a market leader they had to be prepared to innovate and take risks. Firing people because one of those risky innovations didn’t work (despite all the prior evidence and research that said it would) would only encourage stagnation as future executives played it safe.

I’ve repeatedly stated that I can see the positives from the deficit because it will result in new and innovative ways of providing services and involving residents. But that will also mean that some new things will be tried that won’t work. Edison’s famous quote was that he had never failed, he just found 10,000 ways that didn’t work. Of course, he didn’t try any of those 10,000 failures because he wanted them to fail, he tried them because it was worth the effort to get to the 10,001st one that did work.

Just the same as technology, local government will have to try new ways of working. And while we can do all we can to ensure success and manage risks we mustn’t allow a fear of failure to stifle innovation.