The Sunday Times has had its sneak preview of David Halpern's forthcoming book on social capital - thanks to Will Davies at i-society for the link. We get some challenging throw-away ideas like doctors introducing their patients to one another, or “national deliberation days;” alongside more established initiatives like school mentoring; the reintroduction of park keepers (ours was known as 'Grumpy-Guts' in the neighbourhood where I grew up); and more culs-de sac, hurrah. If the book resembles the flurried rush of this article, you can be sure that some of the ideas will get some flak, but maybe what matters is that they get aired and discussed. People will be saying some are silly and others have been around for a while, which may be true but it's not the point. We need to get at how some of these ideas and the principles behind them inter-relate. What's the real impact of having more park-keepers and more alleygating and more cafes and better parenting and business mentoring, and so on, all in one locality? In all localities?
What also needs to be thought about is the role of policy in all this. We're used to people pointing out that social capital is in itself neither good nor bad, it's value-free and it just is. Is there a risk of a government taking a moralistic stance in promoting 'good' social capital? And how far do we go with efforts to measure it? I've been thinking about neighbourhood relations, as a form of social capital, and the notion of developing indicators of neighbourliness raises interesting questions. It may seem extreme, but it is quite realistic to ask to what extent it would be socially acceptable, say, to publish ‘league tables’ of neighbourly behaviour across a city? Stopping short of that, could we promote neighbourliness without measuring it? It is as well to have thought-through what it is we are getting into here. As Jane Jacobs cautions, writing about public contact at local level – “Its cultivation cannot be institutionalized.”
David Halpern is at the government Strategy Unit and his book is due from Polity Press in June.