Skip to main content
Guest blog

How the citizen incubator model could reimagine the way we tackle our most pressing social problems

James Green, founder and CEO of Public Life

The threads of power and place run through everything we are exploring in UK 2040 Options. Understanding how power and place interact, and how they impact people and communities, is critical to understanding how we might make the UK a fairer place to live. This is the first in a series of essays that will explore ideas about how we might use power and place to do just that.

What will life be like in the UK when today’s children reach adulthood? The question Nesta has posed through UK 2040 Options is the same one that is being discussed with growing pessimism at school gates and dinner tables across the country. It is no surprise: hope is in short supply and trust is at a record low.

However, there is reason for optimism. As trust in traditional institutions has fallen into sharp decline, new models of public-led activism, innovation and ownership are on the rise, catalysed by technology. Yet, despite this, the way we design solutions to our biggest public problems has barely changed for centuries, with decisions made by a small number of people in an even smaller number of institutions. This creates an opportunity. If we can get this right, we can inspire a new generation of citizens to lead the way in helping tackle some of our most pressing social issues. If we can’t, there is a risk that declining trust in institutions turns into a loss of the public consent on which their power resides.

The citizen incubator model

For the last twenty years, I have worked in and around public life. I have seen it from the inside, heading up the offices of MPs, and have influenced it from the outside, leading national lobbying teams and creating UK-wide campaigns.

These experiences have led me to conclude that there is a fundamental flaw at the heart of UK public life – it doesn’t actually involve the public. From Whitehall to town halls, the people creating solutions to our biggest social issues are almost never the ones facing them on the ground. This has left the public on the sidelines, disempowered by a system that often sees them as a problem to be solved rather than an asset to be unlocked.

The evidence is clear that public trust and citizen engagement are mutually reinforcing. Yet, as the Institute for Government point out in their in-depth review of the UK constitution, there are “limited opportunities for citizens to shape the decisions that affect their lives in a meaningful sense.” This has contributed to growing scepticism amongst the public in the institutions that represent them. Recent YouGov polling found that 56% of people believe parliament does a bad job of representing their interests, with only 11% saying it did a good or fairly good job. Hansard Society research reinforces this, finding that 50% believe the main parties don’t care about “people like me.”

Creating a new approach that puts citizens in the driving seat has been my obsessive focus over the last seven years. I wanted to rebuild trust and agency, so designed the ‘citizen incubator’ model to both support those facing social issues to invent the solutions they need, and inspire citizens to recognise their own power to lead change. That’s why the approach is not just about ideas. Equally as important are the opportunities thousands get to play their part as active citizens and their impact on the hundreds of thousands reached through their work. In this way the model is as much about incubating citizenship as it is new solutions.

I have designed and delivered multiple programmes using the model, with thousands of citizens and hundreds of organisations involved, and a range of new community-led businesses are now in the world as a result. An independent university evaluation of the last programme using the model found that in its first year alone, it generated a social return of £6.26 for every £1 invested.

The citizen incubator model has three key elements:

  • Citizen facilitation. A unique approach that identifies and recruits active citizens facing social issues as citizen entrepreneurs and pays them a living wage.
  • Community innovation. A five-phase process that supports citizens to spend a year inventing impactful solutions with thousands locally.
  • Funder collaboration. A model that involves funder organisations throughout, with them ready to invest in credible citizen solutions.

This is the story of the most recent citizen incubator programme.

A mission-led approach

Eastlight Community Homes wanted to be bold and invest in a different way in its North Essex communities. As the biggest community-led housing organisation in the country, its board was passionate about putting power firmly in the hands of local people. The citizen incubator model gave them a chance to support them in a radical new way.

The programme I designed involved recruiting 20 Essex residents and paying them a full-time living wage salary to dedicate a year to going from a blank sheet of paper to inventing new solutions with thousands locally. Based in teams in the Essex towns in which they lived, these citizen entrepreneurs took on four community missions. These focussed on the social issues facing them and their communities, informed by polling we had commissioned locally. We wanted to understand how the model worked in different settings so focussed on a range of geographies, from Halstead, a town with a population of 12,000, to Colchester, a city with a population of 130,000.

The citizen entrepreneurs went through a 12 month innovation process. This involved leading ethnographic research to get under the skin of their problem, running workshops across their communities to generate ideas, designing experiments to test the best of those with local people, and finally delivering their solutions on the ground with a six-week pilot. My team provided the support they needed, but they took every decision. The big question was – through this mission-led approach, could citizens with no experience of social innovation invent impactful new solutions to the issues facing them?

To answer that question we commissioned the University of Essex to independently evaluate the programme. They found the model created impactful citizen solutions to complex social problems, strengthened communities by building trust and engagement, and delivered life-changing experiences for the citizen entrepreneurs.

Impactful citizen solutions

The teams created genuinely impactful solutions to the problems important to them. Each was piloted on the programme with measurable impact. The university calculated a collective social return on these pilots of £668,000. The citizen entrepreneurs went on to use this evidence for their funding proposals, with every one going on to win funding and spin out as its own community-led organisation. Crucially, every aspect of the solutions creation, development and implementation were informed by direct life experience of the social issues they were working on.

A great example was Karen and her Colchester team (which included her daughter Jessica), who had taken on the community mission of the cost of living. Their insight was that those who have the least money are often the best budgeters. And they knew that because that had been them. That insight became Trusted, an innovative peer-to-peer money confidence programme, the first of its kind in the UK. The team piloted Trusted on the programme and its impact blew them away. In the space of just six weeks, the ten pilot participants collectively saved nearly £45,000. Trusted went on to secure funding and become its own community-led organisation with Karen and Jessica at the helm. They have run a number of programmes since, all with similar results, and are busily working to scale the model.

Stronger communities

The University found that “the programme created genuine trust and engagement and fostered community in multiple directions and levels.” Over 5,000 local people engaged with the citizen entrepreneurs over the 12 month period, half of them in person. This was a collective endeavour with the community getting involved because it was their friends and neighbours taking the lead and working on issues that were affecting their lives too.

The reach of the programme was also significant. We estimate their work reached over 100,000 people locally. This was important to us as it demonstrated to local people, with tangible relevant examples from their communities, the power they had as active citizens.

The community incubator model has reached over 100,000 people in North Essex

Life-changing experiences

By offering a full-time living wage salary and recruiting without asking for a single CV, we managed to reach people who would never have previously seen themselves doing this sort of work. This included people in low-paid precarious work as well as those who had been out of work for years. We had 100% retention of participants, 67% of the paid community participants went on to better jobs in the months immediately following the programme (defined as either better-paid work or leading the solutions they had invented), and there was a 60% average increase in networks for participants as a result of the programme. 

We measured a range of self-reported outcomes at the beginning and end of the programme covering dimensions including mental health and wellbeing, enhanced employability, confidence, skills, and social isolation. Questions were based on the Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Wellbeing Scales, a widely used methodology for measuring wellbeing that has been validated in a range of settings. As a cohort, there was a positive and statistically significant shift across almost all self-reported outcomes, demonstrating the direct impact of the programme on different aspects of the participants’ lives.

Taking into account all of these impacts the university calculated that in its first year alone the programme generated a social return of £7.5 million. And this “conservative figure” only takes into account its impact during the year it was active. It does not include the programme’s longer-term impact on the participants, communities or of the solutions they created. “This means”, the university concluded, “that for every future year the social impact of the programme is likely to increase considerably.”

A new vision of public life

Imagine if citizens in communities up and down the UK were supported in this way to invent new solutions to the social issues facing them. Not only would we have a wide range of new community-led solutions to some of our most intractable social problems, we would also have hundreds of thousands of citizens involved in the process of creating change. The scale of impact could be transformational.

At the local level, new social businesses would be making a tangible difference at the grassroots, created by citizens for citizens. And at a national level, a different relationship would begin to emerge between citizens and the institutions that shape their lives, rooted in meaningful partnership. With hundreds of thousands of citizens involved and millions reached, public life would feel very different. All of us would gain a deeper understanding of how problems are experienced on the ground, benefit from the insights and solutions that can only come from life experience, and see citizen-led change catalysed in ways we would never have predicted. This would be a different type of public life – one boldly led by the public.