Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Having a structure for civic involvement matters The Civic Trust was precisely the kind of organisation of which it might have been said, if it didn't exist they'd have to reinvent it. And so they have. The Trust closed in April this year leaving local civic societies in a haze of uncertainty. The Civic Society Initiative has just published the report on their consultation which I mentioned in the summer. Among the main findings: Civic societies want to be less reactive, work more in partnership and be more campaigning in their outlook. There is a refreshing openness within civic societies about their shortcomings and their mixed reputation – ageing, negative and out of touch but also locally knowledgeable, actively concerned about the future and wanting to connect more with their community. The movement lacks confidence in itself and others can appear to value it more than civic societies themselves. Civic societies seek a unifying mission and purpose for the movement. This is likely to be based around issues of place, pride, identity and community. The analysis reveals a wish to move from being: Separate voices to being a collective movement Hierarchical to being more networked Dependent to being more independent (especially financially) Organised top-down to being more federal. Three main roles have been identified for the national body: Providing information, support and advice to civic societies Facilitating civic societies to network and cluster together Being a national lead and voice for the movement which provides inspiration and direction; lobbies and campaigns on its behalf; and raises its profile and influence. The organisation is now seeking feedback on the report by Friday 20 November.
For a robust and open democracy The other day I gave a presentation and ran a mini-workshop on social justice and community development for the Policy Forum at CILIP (formerly the Library Association). One illustration of community development I referred to was the recent television series about the 'Unsung Town', which describes some of the process of using singing to stimulate connections, collective involvement and a sense of achievement in South Oxhey, an area I know well. We know that what happenened there is community development because a committee for the choir has been formed and last week appears to have taken an independent political decision: it was offered a £1,000 grant by a county councillor and declined it: “We’ve worked really hard as a group to be inclusive of everybody and promote an ethnically diverse choir. We don’t feel the BNP shares those values so, as a group, we decided to turn the money down.” It's an example of the leaky lamplight of community development falling for a moment on big shadowy issues of social justice. For a new and probably inexperienced group it may well have been a challenge and they dealt with it, and will be the stronger. All round the country today there will have been people in homes, workplaces, colleges, online and elsewhere, discussing the appearance of the leader of the British National Party on BBC television last night. That discussion will be based around the man's tawdry opinions of other members of the species, and people will be airing thoughts on spikey political issues of racism, homophobia and blunt prejudice, which politics generally discourages them from exploring. So perhaps that's a good thing. Sound points about the representativeness of the audience from Philip Norton here. The event has reminded us that we have a version of public service broadcasting which is intimately related to open democracy (even if it doesn't always do it very well). It's been surprising the number of commentators who seem ready to overlook the inconvenience of the formal elected status of BNP representatives (including in South Oxhey). This is only good insofar as it highlights how unsatisfactory the electoral system is to more and more people. I suppose it also illustrates how we still struggle with the tension between the right to freedom of speech - for a party with a given level of representation, in public debate - and the right to be protected from racism and homophobia. We still get confusions, like the hapless example of Yale University Press, who decided to cut the images when publishing Jytte Klausen's book on those Danish cartoons. But hey, what are centuries of debate and insight into the nature of democracy and freedom of speech to a committee at a university press? (Among the various explorations, see eg here). Many years ago I wrote an essay on 'Freedom of access to information' (published in this volume: can't find electronic version) in which I made a point about how freedom of speech does not necessarily trump other freedoms...

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