Finding new ways of engaging citizens in the delivery of local public services may become increasingly important in the years ahead. At a launch event today, we presented the initial findings from a small scale, but robustly evaluated scheme within the London borough of Lambeth. Through this scheme we have shown that carefully designed interventions can have positive effects, engaging local communities in improving the environments in which they live. We believe this provides a strong signal for what might be possible more generally and would encourage local authorities to work with us and other researchers to design and evaluate other interventions aimed to engaging local residents.
In collaboration with Lambeth Council , we trialled a scheme that asked residents to volunteer to become a ‘Street Champion’ and coordinate efforts to improve the cleanliness and attractiveness of their local environment, with the council offering providing advice and support along the way. 170 residential streets were split into five different groups. One group were the control group, where nothing changed. In a second group of streets, residents received an invitation to become a ‘Street Champion.’ In the remaining three groups, residents received different forms of incentives to test their impact on people’s willingness to get involved. The different incentives were individual rewards (e.g. free garden waste collection), incentives that would benefit the community as a whole (e.g. graffiti removal services) and rewards that emphasised individuals’ identity as Street Champions (e.g. hi-vis vests, polo shirts). We then collected data about the actual activities of Street Champions, the cleanliness of streets and residents’ overall perceptions of their local area.
There were four main findings from this evaluation.
First, citizens are keen to get involved in the delivery of local services, but they’re more likely to act as a complement rather than replacement for existing services. In streets where people received an invite and/or incentive to become a Street Champion, around 3 people per street expressed an interest in becoming a Street Champion. In around half of these cases actual activities followed (e.g. clean-up events, street meetings, Facebook groups). There was, however, no evidence of any impact on levels of litter or other aspects of street cleanliness. Where there was a significant impact was in terms of ‘beautification’ (e.g. installing planters). Streets in the ‘identity incentives’ group were 17 percentage points more likely to show evidence of beautification than the control streets. This is a big impact considering that only 11% of all streets in the experiment showed evidence of beautification. This suggests citizens are very keen to provide services and amenities that are complementary to existing service provision. The big unanswered question, however, is the extent to which citizens are willing to step in were there to be falls in service provision.
Second, (some types of) incentives can increase the number of people coming forward and their level activity. The identity incentives had the biggest impact on actual activity levels. They doubled the number of people willing to come forward and the average number of activities per street as compared with a simple invite. For example, providing identity incentives increased the number of clean-up events by 15% percentage points, a very substantial change considering that only 6% of streets in the experiment did one of these. The community-wide incentives also increased the number of people willing to come forward and the activity relative to a simple invite, just not by as much as the identity incentives. The individual level rewards increased expressions of interest, but had a negligible impact on activity levels compared with a simple invitation.
Third, getting citizens involved in the delivery of local services can have valuable spill-over effects. We found good evidence that beyond immediate effects, these schemes increased satisfaction and levels of social interaction. In the identity incentives streets, residents were more likely to express satisfaction with their local area. In the community-wide incentives group residents reported increased levels of social interaction on their street. These types of impacts are very valuable to observe. Academic research has recognised the value of social capital in communities, but there have been few examples of methods that can shift it. Getting citizens more involved in the delivery of local services may be one way of stimulating social interactions and connectedness.
Finally, we think we have shown the value of partnerships between academic researchers and local councils to determine “what works.” We have worked closely with Lambeth Council over the last two years to develop the design of the experiment and to analyse the policy implications of the data coming out of it. The scheme eventually rolled-out was very much informed by the results of the experiment. We as academic researchers have also gained a much greater understanding of how local government works and the challenges facing policymakers. We hope that more councils and academics will follow this example.
Our launch event and some of the foundation work required for the pilot with Lambeth has been funded by the Economic and Social Research Council under the IFS Impact Acceleration Account. We are grateful for their support.