Over the course of our four-year programme the importance of ‘place’ has emerged as a central element of successful public service reform.

Group of different colorful houses cut out of paperThis is a post-Christie development and place has become the fifth pillar of the Scottish Approach to public service reform. As this has evolved with an emphasis on increased community participation, partnership asset-based working, and a focus on neighbourhoods, it has led, inexorably, to a call for a return to place as a focus for public service reform.

Research insights

Benefits of place-based approaches

A place-based approach makes it easier for services to be controlled and owned by, and delivered through, the local community. They can ensure that reform reflects the needs of the community and that they are better able to respond to a community’s complex needs and priorities. It offers opportunities to devolve power from the centre and the potential to build on and develop successful initiatives for future developments. It facilitates learning across, and between, services.

Services located within the community are more likely to be engaged with by the community and they encourage community participation. Place-based approaches both rely on and help to develop, long term, sustained relationships. These enable the development of trust.

Place offers a more meaningful focus around which people can become involved. Our work on developing health statistics for local communities demonstrated how place enables not only practical, problem-based, tangible involvement but also allows people to see the outcomes they are interested in.

A place-based approach enables learning to be shared and spread across, and between, systems. This is currently an area where services are weak. In our work on integration we were able to show how place provides an opportunity for shared learning to be spread across, and between, different services and sectors.

It offers the opportunity to devolve power away from the centre to the communities. In our work with Glasgow and West Dunbartonshire community planning partnerships we were able to demonstrate how using place gave the communities the potential to steer and direct projects moulding them to fit their interests.

A place-based approach allows a focus on both prevention and performance in an efficient and strategic manner that takes account of the local characteristics. We have been able to demonstrate the importance of working in place in economic regeneration and argue that regeneration must adopt tailored approaches, designed to take account of local contexts and to meet the needs of local communities.  Place is also key to prevention, where contextual knowledge enables the development of an efficient and appropriate service.

Enabling place-based approaches

Community-led anchor organisations play a key role in the development of place-based approaches. These are organisations that enable local community development, represent community interests, and work in partnership with the public sector. Working through anchor organisations can ensure that services are connected with the community, are community led, and build on success for future developments. Whilst there is no ‘one size fits all’ description of a community anchor, to be successful they require: a sustainable, independent income stream, time to establish, a shift in working practice, and a flexible approach to working.

Place-based approaches also require stability. They are dependent on the establishment of trust and this grows out of long-term relationships.

Building partnerships between services and developing services that share the same physical space encourages frontline staff to interact with one another, produces services that are more joined up and means that they are more likely to encourage those they work with to make full use of the services.

Whilst a place-based approach is key, this does not mean that national organisations do not have an important role to play. Community engagement by national agencies is crucial to place-based approaches. Organisations such as the Scottish Government, Scottish Enterprise and Skills Development Scotland, health and social care partnerships, and local agencies (i.e. local authorities, community, third sector and community planning partners) play a key part in the successful delivery of place-based approaches.

Challenges to place-based approaches

Giving power to a community demands the ceding of power by those who hold it. This can sometimes be challenging and agreeing to let go can be difficult.

Institutional restructuration, organisational restructuring and high staff turnover impedes the capacity to develop and sustain place-based approaches. This is particularly important at a time of institutional flux and austerity. Stability is required to sustain place-based approaches.

There is a danger that place can easily become a catch-all for a range of potentially inconsistent policy agendas. The downside of a place-based approach is the risk that it becomes weakly-specified, poorly-evidenced and ‘a receptacle for odds and ends’.

Implications for policy and practice

The evidence from our work supports the value of place as a focus for public service reform and continued efforts to take a place-based approach, provided there is careful consideration of location, history and people and it is responsive and sensitive to local areas. This could be promoted/ensured by:

Cover of the report Key Messages About Public Service Reform in Scotland with What Works Scotland logo

What Works Scotland: Key messages about Public Service Reform in Scotland

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