Friday, 29 February 2008

Post offices, informality, and participation And so the threatened closure of too many post offices brews a storm, and the issues seem to get more complex. Today I was at an Involve workshop about community cohesion and participation, which might have had nothing to do with post offices had not another participant mentioned them to make a point, sparking a clarification for me. It seems that everybody (presumably including MPs who voted for the closures but want to defend those in their constituencies) believes that post offices play a social role - variously described as being 'at the heart of' or constituting 'the hub of their communities' and a 'lifeline' especially for older residents. There's no reason why there should necessarily be only one such heart or hub - indeed a mix of third places (broadly defined) is surely desirable. Pubs, cafes, libraries, parks, community centres and other venues claim this status from time to time. But when the threat is made to post offices on economic grounds, as I've noted before, we don't have the methodology to defend them because we don't know how to quantify their value in terms that The Accountants Who Run Things would understand or accept. (Incidentally, the threat to post offices is commonly described as a rural issue, but closures in urban areas could also be devastating and there's a lot of concern in London). My point is this: the reason we don't have the methodology to demonstrate the social value of such amenities is because no political value is placed on human processes that are informal and organic. Which also presumably partly explains why we don't get much research on social networks (eg on home zones). To return to the Involve workshop, which was thoroughly absorbing, not least because I met some very experienced and articulate folk. I found myself banging the drum for informality because of the tendency (better expressed by others who, under Chatham House rules, I may not name) to discuss participation within a context of formal structures and strategic (service delivery) processes. The point was made painstakingly by other participants that this is an unsatisfactory approach. We need to prize, stimulate and protect the values and knowledge that local people bring to their shared experiences in their neighbourhoods, for its own sake. To do that we need to ensure that there are more occasions for encounters, more conversations between different groups of people, more recognition - before oganised participation can be expected to have a role to play in promoting cohesion. To put it another way: we need a healthy ecology of conversations and encounters and recognition and relationships, and places to bump into people or to sit and gaze or go for a natter or just hang out, before we can have meaningful 'participation' that in turn serves to strengthen cohesion. I guess you could say that this blurs into some forms of civil participation - being part of stuff that goes on in the neighbourhood. So maybe the question, both for understanding...

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