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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.


How local authorities are using data to solve problems like homelessness

With enough investment and ambition, local councils can use data to help solve some of society’s most intractable problems.

By Rachel Carter and Lucy Makinson
The devolution agenda is likely here to stay. Local councils are closer to their communities and are often better-placed than central government to grapple with their most complex challenges.

To better understand the data challenges faced by local government, and to surface the opportunities that exist through devolution, Nesta’s UK 2040 Options hosted a panel event in late November 2023. Chaired by Nesta’s James Plunkett, panel members were Stephen Aldridge (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities), Cate McLaurin (Public Digital), Gavin Freeguard (freelance consultant and host of the Data Bites event series), Wajid Shafiq (Xantura), and Natalia Merritt (Maidstone Borough Council).

This is what we learnt.

Preventing homelessness through harnessing the power of locally held data

Data is both a strength and a weakness when it comes to local delivery. Everything, from the provision of social care for vulnerable children to collection of council tax, produces a huge quantity of data. This data could have huge benefits for councils; helping them better understand their citizens’ needs and behaviours, targeting services more effectively, stopping what isn’t working, and allocating resources to where they have the biggest impact. But in practice, it can be challenging for councils to use this data effectively. It can sit in siloes, and local authorities can lack the capability, time, or investment to draw out what the data means and to utilise it as effectively as possible to improve public service outcomes.

But it quickly became clear that effective use of data by a local council can be transformative. Natalia Merritt spoke about Maidstone Borough Council’s partnership with Xantura to create Oneview: a multi-agency identification system that enables Maidstone to understand which households may be imminently at risk of homelessness. It uses data and predictive analytics to understand the risk factors that contribute to homelessness and alerts the council to households that are at risk, who can then receive targeted early intervention and support. An initial assessment of the programme found that it is accurate in identifying imminent homelessness in 84% of cases.

Often, councils only become aware of an issue when people tell them they have become homeless, which is too late for any preventative intervention and increases reliance on expensive temporary accommodation. Maidstone can only prevent homelessness for a third of the people who walk through their door. However, the preventative approach facilitated by Oneview – of targeted early intervention and support – has already paid dividends. Of the first cohort flagged through the system, only 2% became homeless after early intervention action was taken. This preventive approach has resulted in huge cost and time savings for the council.

Laying the foundations for policy success: it’s about more than just data

Maidstone was able to execute its vision of preventing homelessness in the borough through two key enabling factors. Firstly, it had senior leadership with an ambitious but clear vision of what it wanted to achieve, who gave permission and encouragement to tackle this problem head on. Secondly, it had an initial investment that enabled it to establish Oneview.

Our panel members highlighted the factors they saw as critical to creating an enabling environment for local authorities to use data effectively.

  • Focus on the use cases, not the data. As one expert put it, “if you want to have a conversation about data, don’t talk about the data”. Data infrastructure and capabilities might be important, but they are not the end goal. Showing people what they can do, and the outcomes they can achieve, through the use of data is far more effective for creating buy-in. This is particularly important for busy frontline staff.
  • Senior leadership needs to be on board. We heard that when senior leaders ask the right questions – like in the Maidstone example – they can create a permission space that enhances and accelerates innovation.
  • Starting small can pay off in the long run. Getting a small grant, kicking off a programme and working with a first cohort can enable you to test and see if a programme will work. That pilot can then be used to test, evaluate and adapt.
  • It’s about more than the data itself. All experts agreed that impact doesn’t just come about with better data, or even improved data capability at the local level. They called for a continued focus on robust policy evaluation, evidence and insight, including tracking impact over time, to deeply understand what works and reallocate resources at pace to what works best.


Large structural challenges can hamper councils’ ability to use data

Panel members were conscious that local councils are currently operating in a challenging context. And while data use can drive some very visible and positive change, the barriers to reaching this for much of local government were repeatedly raised. To harness the potentials at the local level, any next government will need to grapple with several challenges.

  • The lack of investment in councils. This is preventing councils’ ability to fix legacy systems – many of which make it very difficult to bring data together around a household, or a citizen.
  • The variation in performance between service providers. Even allowing for differences in local costs and the characteristics of the population served, this remains a problem. Reducing this variation by raising the performance of those lagging behind could have valuable impacts on outcomes achieved. And, our experts told us, the newly established Office for Local Government could have an important role in supporting this.
  • A monopoly on services. Some panel members spoke about the need for reform in the market for local authority systems and processes. Currently dominated by three of four big suppliers, it is often difficult to get data in or out of these systems, hindering the ability to effectively use the data.
  • Barriers exist that prevent data sharing and enhance legal concerns. A lack of legal gateways for accessing and linking administrative data across central and local government, and even within local government itself, was repeatedly raised as a challenge. There is work underway in this space. ONS for example is developing an integrated data service, which – if it works – could overcome the need to put in place legal gateways. At the same time, legislation has often not caught up with technological advancement in this area and is often out of date.
  • A lack of “patient capital”. Most interventions are not going to turn problems around quickly – we know that many interventions take time to bed in and to come up with findings, whether they are positive or negative. “Patient capital”, or long-term investment, means that public services can invest in working out what’s working and what’s not, over multiple partners and through different terms.


A way forward?

Maidstone showed us that with investment and ambition, local councils can use data to build the evidence base and draw out invaluable insight, forging a path to solve some of society’s most intractable problems.

But while effective use of data can help, it is only as good as the ability or capacity to do something useful with it out in the real world. And while many local authorities are well placed to gather and use the data they hold to solve problems, there remain significant hurdles to them doing so. This is the case whether it’s about solving homelessness in Maidstone, grappling with methodological challenges to get to grips with what works, or using data to better target services to improve the first years of a child’s life.

At Nesta, our aim is to innovate for social good. And in doing so, we want to give local decision-makers and policymakers the right tools to drive positive change. Nesta’s fairer start mission is working at the local level to explore methods to eliminate the school readiness gap. As part of this, it is hosting an event to help local authorities come together and share ideas on how data can improve services for children and families. Visit the event page to learn more.

Guest blog

A new ‘Neighbourhoods Unit’ could shift the dial for UK inequality

Matt Leach, Local Trust

Global challenges will provide a backdrop to many of the big decisions that will face us through the 2020s and 2030s – most notably regional conflict, growing climate instability and faltering economic growth. But the UK faces equally pressing questions at a local level.

Quality of life, design and delivery of public services, the shape and limits of the state and how all of this links to issues of identity and connection are critical to how we experience our lives, collectively and individually.

Brought together under the themes of “power and place”, they were the subject of a fascinating workshop hosted by UK 2040 Options and chaired by Demos’ director Polly Curtis, and a subsequent report.

With politics increasingly polarised and both nation and the wider global community facing an endless succession of intractable challenges, attempts to build consensus on the key issues facing us and cross political lines in a search for solutions are both rare and valuable. The UK 2040 Options project falls into the category of initiatives that are both incredibly timely and hugely important.

Rebuilding communities

Seeking to explore two important areas of policy thinking – how we are governed and people’s experiences of life at a neighbourhood level – the workshop examined the case for devolution of power and its limits. It also looked at the growing evidence base highlighting the need for new policy initiatives focused on rebuilding community institutions at a hyperlocal level.

As was noted at the workshop, one of the biggest challenges in developing policy in this space is the extent to which debates around what is often labelled “community power” conflate a number of very different strands of thinking.

On the one hand, there is a very developed debate around issues of devolution, seeking to shake out the best place for state-focused decision-making to sit. This tends to focus on tussles between Whitehall and local government, with the primary argument often being that this would establish conditions for better (or more balanced) economic growth. Alongside this runs a debate over the form of local government, and in particular, the benefits of mayors and combined authorities as both more effective and more accountable models of local governance.

A separate debate focuses on the extent to which local authorities should involve local people in service design and decision-making. Advocates either claim this as a good in itself, or point to ways in which this can improve delivery. Much of this builds on the excellent work of organisations like New Local and its Community Paradigm model.

A final strand of thinking has, until recently, been less well-represented in national policy debates, but is arguably more important to the everyday experiences of people. This is the need to address challenges and inequality at a neighbourhood level, highlighting that these are often as profound as regional differences in outcome.

Neighbourhood-level inequality

Drawing on extensive evidence from evaluations of the hugely successful New Deal for Communities programme, and more recent initiatives such as Local Trust’s own Big Local programme, this line of thinking focuses on the need to rebuild and strengthen local community organisations and institutions as a means of driving better outcomes.

One of the primary drivers of outcomes at a local level, even after accounting for relative levels of deprivation, is the strength of neighbourhood-level social fabric, as we have seen in reports such as Demos’ Preventative State. And that – often – the challenges faced by the state are driven by the need to address the social costs arising from the breakdown of these social structures.

The rise of the ‘social communitarians’?

To help make sense of all of this at the workshop, Demos proposed the existence of three broad policy “tribes” seeking to define the policy landscape in this space. The federalists, focused almost exclusively on issues of devolution of power; the mayoralists, largely focused on the transfer of power to individually accountable local leaders at a city level; and the communitarians, largely focused on building/rebuilding grassroots-level civic institutions and perhaps more agnostic about constitutional reform.

This classification of different approaches feels helpful, not least as a means of ensuring that crucial parts of the policy jigsaw are not lost as a result of shared terminology inadvertently concealing very different policy priorities. But there may be value in seeking to distinguish between two distinct strands of thinking within the communitarian camp.

There are those who see community power within the context of further devolution of power from the state – we can call these ‘democratic communitarians’, who in many ways simply reflect a logical extension of the agendas of federalists and mayoralists. There are also the ‘social communitarians’, who would argue that equal priority should be given to building or rebuilding social and civic institutions at a local level as a good in itself.

While the federalist, mayoralist and democratic communitarian camps have been well-represented in recent policy debates, we have seen little focus on neighbourhood-level policy in recent years. Since the Social Exclusion Unit’s report on a national strategy for neighbourhood renewal 25 years ago, we have had little in the way of new initiatives or engagement with neighbourhood-level, community-focused policy interventions since.

With an election likely in 2024, there seems little time left for either party to initiate new debates or come forward with major new initiatives focused on delivering neighbourhood-level change. But the establishment, post-election, of a new Neighbourhoods Unit, which could build on the example of the Social Exclusion Unit and focus on collating evidence and developing policy on rebuilding the social fabric of local communities, would be a major step forward in addressing a significant gap in our policy landscape. Is it time for a return of the social communitarians?