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Localism/Centralism and Individualism/Collectivism

By Elena Douglas - posted Friday, 8 July 2011

One way to consider the design, delivery and ownership of community and social services is looking at localism versus centralism and individualism versus collectivism. Let's look at the world through this lens for a moment.

Looking across the whole nfp landscape, at present in Australia most of our service delivery is done on a State-directed centralised basis. In some states, Western Australia for example, the State Government is in the process of realigning its relationship and funding and contracting processes and intents with the not-for-profit sector. One of the several guiding principles in this plan is increasing the range of services that are defined and delivered based on the needs of individuals – "self-directed-services". In this model clients (and sometimes their families) are given funding and empowered to spend that on the precise range of services they see will best improve their quality of life. This is an increase in the individualism – capacity of the system to respond to the definition of need defined by the individual.

Localism and centralism are on either ends of a spectrum. Localism de-centralises the identification of need, management planning of resources and the ownership of community assets. Localism is not the opposite of individualism, but engages a group of individuals who come from the same place – neighbourhoods or communities. It is about engaging and activating individuals in local communities to determine their needs, lead change, and run their own community enterprises, housing cooperatives and generally build the capacity to solve their problems locally rather than having overly large central bureaucracies (whether Governments or NFPs) to do it for them.


Where do we position 'place-based' or hub based 'one stop shops'? I would argue that these solutions are not really localism in action. They are more often than not, a centralist's answer to the problem of providing centrally defined solutions to local areas. There are many other points and combinations on the spectrum, and we don't have time to go into all the permutations here. What is interesting, is that the rest of the English speaking world, and in particular the UK and the US, the benefits and possibilities of localism are at the centre of debate about the next wave of design and delivery of social services.

At the heart of David Cameron's 'Big Society'agenda in the UK for example, is a renewed push for localism: devolution of decision making, local responsibility, and locally meaningful innovation. The concept papers and reports celebrate local and community driven enterprise. (See a variety of reports for example including: The Civil Effect; Incredible-economics-localism-and-illusion-scale;Self-help-housing-localism-action; Economy-flow-not-scale)

Obama's Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation in the US lists many best practice projects which all rely on the energy of people in a particular local area and neighbourhood driving their own change, supported by a host of external partners. (See Promise Neighbourhoods as an example as well as the collective impact case studies ).

Where is the localism discussion in Australia? There are a few papers about, like this one which discusses centralism and localism in the context of schools and hospitals for example, but it doesn't appear to be a dominant theme at present. (Feel free to refer to other good examples of papers on the subject in your comments)

Is there room in Australia for a drive to localism? This thinking has antecedents from both left and right of the ideological landscape: Edmund Burke's "little Platoons" and Hayek's decentralised information gathering, come to mind, as do progressive theories and practices, local collectivist activity like Trade Union educational programmes to agricultural cooperatives. Opponents of localism cite the different levels of social capital in different communities as a problem, and fear the entrenchment of these inequalities in the absence of centralised design, delivery and responsibility for quality control of services. Clearly there will always be a role for central policy, planning and benchmarking, no matter how successful a localism agenda becomes. But what long-term, sustainable energy, drive and capacity for impact are we missing out on by failing to build the social networks and infrastructure to provide meaningful community level leadership and engagement? Given the increasing social need of an aging population, are expensive centralised solutions sustainable in the long-term?

We need a raft of great Australian pilot studies, an accumulation of evidence comparing the performance of programme and service design, delivery and ownership in the various approaches. We need to understand which sectors and services are not achieving results they could without the localism component. In the meantime, my tip to innovative NFPs and leadership teams is to be quietly building up the now sadly diminished capacity to undertake real community development.


Overseas experience suggests that the case for localism has been strengthened by the work going on around the world on impact and in particular in collective impact. When people move to measuring impact (rather than throughputs) they discover that many of the programmes that work best are relational, contextual and local – designed by real communities with unique needs and strengths. As has been the experience in the international development context, once you're serious about making a sustainable impact, rather than delivering a service, the switch to individualism and localism and a mix of the two happens naturally.

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About the Author

Elena Douglas is the CEO of Advance Australian Professionals in America.

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