Thursday, 11 June 2009

Found difficult and left untried? Perspectives on participation and engagement For me, one of the recurring puzzles in participation and community engagement is how little attention is paid to the benefits experienced by those who participate. I wonder if the widespread uncritical use of the C word has something to do with this: if you go round assuming that 'community=consensus' I suppose you expect the benefits to the individual to be somehow self-evident. But they ain't. We've found that people do have views on the 'wifms' (what's in it for me), you just have to ask them. Bev Carter and I asked young people in Milton Keynes what sort of benefits might ensue to those who were active on the local issues. Among the responses: Power Diserplin Make friends Be popular Have fun Showing off Right decisions Achievements New things Get more respect Feeling happy Helping people Express talent... Among the perceived barriers to participation for these young people: Getting into trubble Age diffrence Bitchieness Bullying Parents get worried Racism... If we are to understand the difficulties in establishing a sustainable culture of participation and involvement, surely we need to have a serious appreciation of the identifiable benefits at the individual level? Over a year ago I noted that community engagement was starting to get some negative press, suggesting a need to distinguish its principles from managerialist practices in the public sector. If nothing else, that might mean that when we speak about engagement, we don't always adopt the service-centric view. I'm revisiting these thoughts because JRF have just published a 'round-up paper' reviewing the evidence on citizen involvement in local governance. It's a clear and useful summary of JRF's work in this area, but guess what, it considers involvement from the perspective of service provision and decision-making. If we always do that, then this kind of conclusion is what we're going to get: 'Community involvement costs public services significant time and money. Communities volunteer their scarce time and limited resources, taking away their energies from other activities in their community. If neither providers nor communities are clear about the objectives nor perceive any impact on decisions, on service quality or on citizen satisfaction, the policy is not sustainable in the face of tightening finances and difficult decisions about resource allocation.' This suggests, to paraphrase G K Chesterton, not that it has been tried and found wanting, but that it will have been found difficult and left untried. I can't help wondering if a different perspective might find community involvement economically, socially and morally indispensable.

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