The Our Place programme was launched by the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) in 2013, and delivered by Locality.  The programme offered grants of around £20,000 over 12 months as a stimulus for change in public service delivery. The stated aim of the programme was to encourage the ‘re-wiring’ of local public budgets and spending.  This was to be brought about as a result of public agencies engaging more closely with service users and community organisations.

Between 2015 and 2016 Shared Intelligence evaluated the first cohort of Our Place local projects for Locality and DCLG. Our evaluation used mixed methods to explore the effects of Our Place in stimulating new forms of local public service delivery involving more than 140 organisations across England. We used data from the online surveys and a set of in-depth case studies to identify factors that contributed to success and which might potentially be replicated in other settings.  At the start of our work we constructed (retrospectively) a theory of change representing DCLG’s original intention as it was when the programme began, and then from our research we created a real-world theory of change representing how the programme had operated in practice.

We found Our Place led to change and innovation, but importantly it did so quite differently from the way DCLG expected.  Rather than ‘re-wiring’ public spending, the programme stimulated innovative new approaches to public service challenges – typically delivered by community-led organisations who tended to be very outcome and delivery focused.

Methods and approach

The main methods we used were:

  • Desk review including analysis of a sample of local plans submitted by Our Place areas, and centrally held administrative data
  • Telephone and face-to-face interviews with national stakeholders
  • Online surveys of 71 contacts in lead organisations and 65 partner organisations
  • Eleven in-depth case studies each based on a combination of desk research and a full-day of on-site research and interviews
  • Two Sounding Board workshops with an expert group of policy-makers, local organisations, academics, and community development specialists

A key objective of the evaluation was to assess ‘What worked, for whom, why – and in what circumstances?’.

To address this central question we adopted a realist evaluation approach working with a theory of change (ToC) framework to show connections between processes, outputs, and different levels of outcomes.  We used the framework to develop research questions and inform the direction of the surveys, site visits and interviews.  We developed a ‘pre-programme’ (hypothetical) version and a real-world (evidence-based) version of a theory of change[1].

Results and outcomes

One of the most direct results of our research is that key lessons identified in our research have now been incorporated into DCLG’s successor programme to Our Place which is known as the Communities Fund and was launched in December 2016.  This new programme actively encourages projects focused on the service areas we found made the most progress under Our Place (e.g. social prescribing), allows for flexible timescales (reflecting our findings about the different speeds of projects), has larger grants, and continues to use cost-benefit-analysis to quantify impact.

More broadly our findings have contributed valuable lessons for the future of local public service delivery.   Most notably we found Our Place was seized upon by well-established, often ambitious, service-orientated, and community-led organisations as a route to change.  These community-based organisations often focused on two sets of issues: health and well-being; and employment and skills.    Typically these were organisations with just a dozen staff, a sphere of influence no more than a few miles wide, strong and ambitious leadership, and a clear focus on goals and actions.

We found these organisations seized upon Our Place to fund the design of new ways to meet community needs as alternatives or enhancements to services delivered by statutory organisations.  Often their aim was to create services which are co-designed jointly with users, community governed, highly attuned to community needs, high in quality but low in cost, and often with volunteering playing a major role.

Yet, almost all these small, inventive, and frugal community organisations, still found themselves operating in parallel with services run by – as they saw it – much bigger, less inventive, and better-resourced incumbent service providers.

The key message from our research is, therefore, that while Our Place led only to modest change in the spending (or ‘wiring’) of statutory agencies, it created significant opportunities for local authorities and other agencies to commission community-led services which:

  • are more user-focused through having more localised governance and less formal relationships with users
  • ratchet-down local public service delivery costs per unit of output – because the community organisations of the kind involved in Our Place, are by their very nature, lower in their cost-base

The challenge however, is for statutory agencies to embrace these organisations as opportunities to invest existing budgets in order to deliver cheaper alternatives to their current provision.

You can read more in our blog about Our Place here.

[1] We used the Kumu application to produce an interactive representation of our theory of changeLocality

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