Wednesday, 14 March 2007

A future of participation? Seems you can't move these days for articles pondering how erstwhile Labour voters feel seduced by the commonsense emanating from Tories, contrasted with the miserable folly of some of our leader's all-too-lasting policies. And so to an Involve participation seminar this evening, which included a speech from Oliver Letwin on 'a conservative vision of citizenship,' buttressed by Bill Wiggin MP, with some apparently harmless waves of reality from Mary Ann Sieghart allowed to lap gently some way below their lofty outlook. They were all preceded by Mori's Ben Page who neatly and unceremoniously packed all the real issues into about five minutes, only to find they too were mostly overlooked by the subsequent speakers. Oliver Letwin offered a vision of citizenship as 'citizens taking responsibility for what goes on around them, not commenting on or responding to what goes on around them' (I think I jotted that down correctly...) His key message was that a Conservative government would press the participation button just as firmly as the current government does, but (mercifully) without the ridiculous over-emphasis on managerialism which has so thoroughly spoiled the best intentions of the past ten years. Sadly, there was too much to be said and too many people trying to say it - just like real-time participation - for anyone to grab the issues and try to list them. FWIW, with the benefit of a train ride home, here's my personal two euro's-worth for starters: consultation without engagement is damaging and always has been. So - start community engagement at the most local level and take the lessons up a level at a time, cautiously (Ben Page made some potent points about scale) do not use the C word to imply consensus try to create a culture of genuine participation in all arenas of social life, including the family, school, and work environments: the habit of participation is precious and a society that neglects it is vulnerable understand that at the present rate, politicians will be following, not leading, this debate (possibly trailed only by the established broadcast media) try and celebrate the hits for participation that are independent of the availability of resources: there are still too many people baying for funding even though we have an unenviable tradition of wasting it because we don't know how to work collaboratively.
Collective behaviour and climate change: why would anybody bother? Twice recently at events, I've raised the possibility that responses to climate change represent a potential sea-change in collectively-oriented behaviour. More and more people, I suspect, are taking everyday life and lifestyle decisions less on the totally individualistic basis of our Thatcherite inheritance, and more in recognition that there are others around us and to follow, who might be affected by those decisions. And now I'm just catching up with a recent study by CDX and the Centre for Sustainable Energy on Mobilising individual behavioural change through community initiatives. The study investigated 'what kinds of local and community initiatives are most effective at influencing changes in behaviour and at what levels, and whether any lessons learned from these are transferable to the issue of climate change.' The report provokes thinking about important issues. The key message seems to be that what is lacking is 'a realistic sense of agency,' and this is the problem to be solved. Part of the argument is that people are not motivated to take action (jointly or individually) on an issue which is not local, where their action has no immediate impact (or indeed any significant impact), and where the scale of any action taken is dwarfed by the impact of the inaction of others. And yet, and yet. We know there is evidence of changes of attitude, and local councils have had relatively little difficulty imposing regimes of recycling which have transfomed attitudes. The media too have played a hugely significant role in the subtle shifting of attitudes. I suspect that because this is an (apparently hurried) report to government, the assessment remains implacably hard-nosed (indeed, in an odd sentence towards the foot of p7 the authors suggest that, in the absence of evidence that community-based environmental initiatives influence behaviour, the challenge for policy-makers and funders is to justify supporting them - the report thereby seems to defy its own existence). There have been numerous local projects over the years that have engaged people in reducing their negative impact on the environment and changed people's attitudes to the ways in which it is managed. Surely it's time for better evaluation, not time to abandon evaluation and pass the buck back to policy-makers? I think this is an issue where the notion that there is no such thing as altruism has become a blinding presumption, to the extent that we do not recognise the possibility that people will change their behaviour for any reason other than immediate personal interest. But some people will do, have done so, are doing so, and, crucially, are now living in a social context which encourages them more than it did in the past to engage with others and persuade others to do so. Perhaps the notion of a renaissance of collective behaviour is not so far-fetched. Where my naive optimism springs from I'm afraid I cannot say, since earlier this evening I felt physically sick at the televised image from our House of Commons, where elected members had committed...

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