Thursday, 13 October 2005

Indicators of strong communities The Neighbourhood Renewal Unit has published guidance on ‘Indicators of strong communities,’ as one side of the ‘safer and stronger communities’ agenda. The notion of strength of community is less clear and hence less immediately susceptible to measures perhaps, than the notion of safety. One can question even the desirability of talking about ‘strong’ communities, and believe me I have, but this is the language with which we are expected to work, and this attempt to pin things down conceptually and in relation to practice is very much to be welcomed. There are five core indicators, which are presented as if carrying equal weight (although personally I favour the first two and am less concerned to see weight given to the last) – § Governance - percentage of residents who feel that they can influence decisions affecting their local area § Cohesion and inclusion - percentage of residents who feel that their local area is a place where people from different backgrounds can get on well together § Volunteering - percentage of residents who affirm that they carried out voluntary work in an organisation once a month or more in the past year § Voluntary and community sector - percentage of VCS groups and organisations affirming growth in activity over the past year in terms of (i) financial turnover and (ii) volunteering § Services - Proportion of services in selected public service areas delivered by VCS organisations on behalf of the local authority. Each has additional recommended indicators, an explanation, example, and actions associated with them. Quite a lot of work has also been done on methods and questions for collecting the data, with a case study included. The section on cohesion and inclusion has an additional suggested indicator on ‘percentage of residents who feel involved in the local community.’ I’d like to see some re-wording along the lines of 'able to participate in local community life if they wish to.' This section highlights the need to cover both 'feeling involved in local community' and 'not feeling alienated'. A ‘strong’ community should not be just an active one, but one that is hospitable to incomers and visitors, and to all residents at different points in the lifecycle, so that for example when someone drops out of local activity for several years, perhaps in busy working life and parenthood, it ought to be easy to get back into it subsequently. And as we know, lots of folk live in 'strong communities' and suffer massive stress and mental disorder as a consequence. And does it have to be 'volunteering' and 'voluntary work'? What about ‘community activity’ (or even community involvement)? Turning up on a cold wet evening and sitting in a committee meeting, maybe without saying anything to anyone, is probably community activity to most people but not voluntary work. As for ‘growth of the sector,’ I think I’d be more concerned about its stability and sustainability. Increasingly I’m finding that the refreshment of community activity, the passing of the baton, is...
Local governance structures In discussion about local governance structures, use of the word 'proliferation' has, well, multiplied. There is much to be celebrated about new initiatives that offer local involvement and accountability. But is the sometimes bewildering array of initiatives, partnerships and forums to be found below the local government level going to result in more responsive services, more meaningful involvement in decision-making, a greater sense of democratic validity? JRF have just published a collection of studies of local governance in the four nations, called Mapping governance at the local level, which assesses the range and type of initiatives for various policy sectors such as health, public safety, education, area regeneration, children’s services, local housing strategies, Agenda 21 and others. At the risk of seeming anglo-centric, I've so far only read the report for England (well, it's where I live and work) written by Kirsten Bound and Paul Skidmore of Demos, and it's very enlightening. As a case study, they tried to map local governance arrangements in Bradford, and the variety is daunting. They note that it can seem quite opaque to citizens trying to navigate their way around it. "With public trust and legitimacy in governing institutions of most kinds at a low ebb at both national and local level ... there is a risk that the complexity of the new local governance landscape simply becomes a source of confusion, misunderstanding and distrust." Stepping back from the Bradford case study, the authors go on to reflect on the wider policy context: "What we are seeing at present seems to be something of a gamble about how public legitimacy can be restored. On the one hand, it is possible that new distributed structures will give people a growing range of opportunities to shape service delivery, clarify understanding of the issues and trade-offs involved, and result in decisions backed by a broader base of public support. On the other hand, there is a real danger that the gap between the simple mental models and heuristics that ordinary citizens use in thinking about local governance and the increasing complexity of the situation on the ground becomes ever wider." I've wittered on before about what I think are some of the requirements: (a) some concerted work on bringing about a participative culture, stimulating citizens' lifelong expectations of participation in the decision-making processes that affect them; and (b), as I put it here, moving on from the present policy preoccupation with formal organisations as if they wholly represent community life.

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