Sunday, 30 March 2008

Citizen participation is not community engagement I've been advising a few public library authorities on their community engagement plans under the Community Libraries Programme, and been struck in one example by the way citizen participation can come to disguise a lack of community engagement. The proposal involves engaging a number of volunteers who will serve, with officers, on 'community management groups' (note the term) and in other activities; and the groups will take decisions throughout the life of the project. Because it's possible to point to the participation of local residents in decision-making processes, it seems to be legitimate under the conditions of the scheme for the authority to describe this as community engagement. But the decisions to be made are in this case part of the library service agenda, not an agenda decided by local people. There seems to have been no attempt to engage with the interests of community groups and explore how the library service can support and contribute to those. What's interesting here is that the funding system appears to allow this kind of blurring. (The library authority is aware of my misgivings and sought to reassure me that they will crack on with genuine CE once they've got the oppressive bureaucracy out of the way). Beyond all this there is a troubling sense of flakiness around community engagement generally. With the track record of the regeneration industry on CE increasingly under question, it's unfair to pick on the library sector. If there is a little lack of clarity about what the community libraries programme is trying to achieve, I think it's definitely tweakable. Ben Taylor notes in a recent MLA baseline report for the programme: 'there is a lack of fully shared agreement about what community engagement entails – a critical part of the vision. This includes a few respondents who still believe that community engagement is simply based on library use and issue numbers, rather than changing the relationship with libraries and empowering communities and individuals. While many have a more developed approach, the question remains unanswered: Are we trying to get people involved in libraries, or in their community?' To put it another way: is this about local people being involved in library services; or about libraries playing a role, along with others, in promoting community cohesion and empowering people to get involved in local life on their own terms? Things are not critical here, not least because one can envisage a progression: lots of libraries already work with local reps and volunteers to manage, deliver and perhaps develop their existing services. This gets them into a position where they play a supportive role in whatever local groups decide they want to do; and hopefully into being consistently a proactive, deliberate stimulus for local social interaction. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately, we'll see) it comes at a time when the practice of community engagement is under critical examination. A JRF report on Communities First in Wales notes that: 'There was little evidence of community influence over statutory members of Communities...

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