Sunday, 29 June 2008

Not engaging but docking Over on Podnosh Nick Booth has come up with a thought-provoking metaphor about council and government officials - Officers are sincerely trying to picture interesting ways to approach the community, connect with it, create an airlock where they and the community can talk and then [get] back into their own orbiters, reseal the doors, flush out the airlocks and return to business. Well right enough, I've encountered a few flushed-out airlocks in community meetings before now. Guess I just never realised their significance. I'm with you so far Nick. And yes, I too worry that the conversation is so often based on the assumption that ‘services’ are separate from the people they serve. But being separate from is not the same as being irrelevant to. Nick worries that this view is perpetuated 'because services are rarely delivered by the community they are intended to serve.' Well of course they're not, because services are the provision of something from beyond that which is immediately available. The rhetoric of 'community' (local people, interest group or category of people with a common need) providing services is often questionable in all sorts of ways. 'With local people'? - yes. 'By local people'? - not necessarily. Maybe my feeble title allusion to Stevie Smith could come in handy. How do you know if someone with difficulties in their life is not waving but drowning? You need to know something about them, have some common bond, and/or be close enough to be able to make a judgement. You may also need to have the resources to take action, which helps explain how services come to be organised on an extra-local basis. Part of the reason why services become detached has to do with the professionalising ethos, which tends to make it harder and harder for even the best-intentioned official to integrate what they're doing into everyday life at local level. Still, Nick is definitely onto something, and I think it's the on-off, 9-5 nature of the connection between service provider and resident. (I'm resisting the temptation to explore the AC/DC metaphor here. Go ahead, if you think you're tough enough). The docking image resonates because it suggests an obscure imperialist power, with connotations of imposed dependency - a potentially colonising force landing to see what it can make of things, where the essential inequality of transactions is likely to be deepened, not re-negotiated and evened. As an afterthought, I wonder about the effects of car-mentality. In my time I've undoubtedly covered more miles on foot and on two wheels than at the wheel of a car, and I'm often struck by the way that being cocooned in a moving metal box transforms people's attitudes towards others. I think we might be surprised at how the boxed separateness of modern mobility has come to influence relations by creating an on-off, inside/outside, connected/disconnected mindset. 'Docking' sums it up neatly. Where relations between service provider and residents are engaged and functional, what is it that's different? How would we...

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