Towards sustainable service involvement When a bit of home decorating has to be done, old workshop flip chart sheets come in handy. I just discovered this one on the floor under a pot of paint. I don't know where it came from but it’s definitely pre-recession, probably at least five years old, and would have been from a workshop in which I was helping participants to reflect on the relation between participation and governance. The sheet, with a quotation pasted in the centre, would have been passed round a few tables to get an accumulation of views. Here’s the quotation, does anyone recognise it? I don’t know where it comes from, perhaps a recognised academic source or policy paper, or an online forum of some kind - ‘Community involvement costs public services significant time and money. Communities volunteer their scarce time and limited resources, taking away their energies from other activities in their community. If neither providers nor communities are clear about the objectives nor perceive any impact on decisions, on service quality or on citizen satisfaction, the policy is not sustainable in the face of tightening finances and difficult decisions about resource allocation.’ Allowing for the challenge being made, quite rightly, to the use of the word ‘communities’ rather than reference made to individuals, what struck me was that all the comments were negative, and some completely dismissive, about the sentiments expressed. ‘Wrong assumptions’, someone has scrawled. Does that imply blind faith in the ability of people in communities to bring about change? FWIW, my own take on it would be that if community involvement proves not to be sustainable on these terms (which do not seem unreasonable in themselves) maybe it’s just not being handled properly. Or maybe, given the current trajectory, it is subject to a gradual cultural change which is already well underway and which in time will render phrases like ‘community involvement’ meaningless: maybe we'll be talking about trying to stimulate ‘sustainable service involvement’ in what local people are doing. So here’s a rewrite for a future workshop exercise: ‘Service involvement costs local communities significant time and energy. Officers commit scarce time and limited resources, taking away their energies from other duties in their area. If neither they nor residents are clear about the objectives nor perceive any impact on decisions, on quality of life or on citizen satisfaction, the policy is not sustainable in the face of tightening finances and difficult decisions about resource allocation.’
Antisocial societies cause antisocial behaviour There's been a surprising amount of recent commentary on the disturbances that took place in England a year ago. The fact that the social system is taking so long to heal illustrates clearly how sick it is. Meanwhile the government bumbles on, not just generating inequality as fast as it can but also celebrating it. Witness the silly (and disproven) claims that state education does not produce Olympic winners because those on what are called 'the left' (apparently that term is regarded by people with expensive educations as a way of distinguishing something that is publicly funded) do not approve of competition. Reflecting on this tradition of misrepresentation I draw your attention to the way the rich and powerful historically commandeered phrases like 'fair play' while resolutely refusing to distinguish between fair and unfair competition. It's an imperialist thing, you have to invade and conquer a few countries over the centuries to know how to do it convincingly. As if to prove the point about the disturbances, no sooner do Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson publish a straightforward article in Comment is Free than the trolls plunge in. If you have the stomach, try reading the first dozen or so responses. If you have the abs of an Olympian (irrespective of education) try going deeper. About a year ago I suggested that those who were confounding explanation and excuse were best ignored until they’ve worked it out. It seems to be taking a while. Blaming youthful criminality and inadequate parenting doesn't get us very far. What's socially significant and really worthy of attention is the apparently high proportion of people who see that as the end of debate, 'pure and simple'. For these people, there is no need to ask, or no point in seeking to understand, why levels of criminality and perceptions of poor parenting are so high in this country. In taking that stance, they appear to be at the same time condoning inequality and ignoring the evidence of its destructive effects. How many of them are climate change sceptics, I wonder?