Tuesday, 08 December 2009

Creating greater value: participation in Milton Keynes Back in the summer I worked with Bev Carter reviewing levels of social and civic participation in Milton Keynes. The report has just been published by Citizens:MK - click on the research tab here. For a small study it's quite a lengthy report, because a lot of stuff came up. We based our work on the belief that social participation and informal involvement with others in everyday life underpins and is critical for civic participation. Here are some of the main points: Cohesion and stability among existing groups has to precede participative integration into broader civic structures. If young people feel despised and unwanted, or Somalis feel unsupported and victimised, those claims have to be addressed before we can raise expectations about integrated participation. Perhaps partly because of the town's geography, people seem to be lacking association with a defined, distinctive neighbourhood which offers them something to be proud of, to defend and develop. We noted a shift in the areas where young people can or cannot exercise autonomy; and an apparent general decline in their experience of organisation. We think that most young people have no difficulty understanding the nuances of democracy and the value of participation. The problem is more about policy-makers appreciating the importance of social participation in everyday life at local level. It doesn't help that participation principles are not reinforced consistently in the adult world, and loyalty of any kind appears not to be valued. Popular participation does not just create connections, it also depends on connections - between citizens, agencies and representatives. A healthy variety of connections is of massive, barely-noticed social significance. Without them we cannot develop a participative politics that resolves social problems by involving all kinds of people collectively in addressing them. Previously: Found difficult and left untried? Invisible mutual support at the margins You'd hope they'd be angry
Up the wrong tree? Social exclusion in the network society Yesterday, absorbed in that well-known activity of looking for something else, I happened across a book chapter on 'income inequality and the information society'. It argues that poor people stand to be excluded from the information society by being priced out of commercial information services, 'and left with an impoverished and over-stretched system of public provision which is increasingly unable to meet their needs.' The second bit resonates at least, and it's a curious little discovery just after a colleague and I had a meeting in a borough which has challenging levels of poverty and low levels of technology use. The author was the much-respected Graham Murdock and the chapter appeared in Excluding the poor, published in 1986 by the Child Poverty Action Group (still listed on their publications page). It's a good example of the thinking at the time around what was called 'information poverty' and concerns over the levels of exclusion that would result from these things called computers, telecomms and databases. I was involved in a lot of the debates at the time and we thought the threats were very real. But they did not really emerge. It's hard to say how much of that is down to the refreshing initiatives taken by the incoming Labour government in 1997. Perhaps it was even down to the influence on those policies of people like Graham Murdock. Or were we all just wrong about information use and poverty? Britain did indeed become information-intensive, but we stopped hearing arguments about the widespread denial of access to information for people in poverty. Then we started to see adverts on the London tube with the mysterious letters 'www'. Around 1999-2000 I served on a government task group tasked to consider 'access to IT'. Suddenly the issue was about people on low incomes getting their hands on the technology which provided access to the information they weren't otherwise being denied. Then came an insistence in some quarters that people on low incomes weren't participating in this tech-binge because the diet wasn't to their taste, ie there wasn't enough content of the right kind. This was accompanied and then succeeded by efforts to promote a more empowering, less philanthropical approach, which would necessarily mean stimulating self-publishing. Oh and then something called web 2.0 came along, and behold, before long people did publish stuff themselves. (See, in this respect, my thoughts about where local websites fit into this history). So where are people on low-incomes in all this now? Sorted? If it wasn't about access to information sources; and it's clearly not about appropriate content if it ever was; and for all the rhetoric about 'digital divide' it's no longer significantly about access to the kit or connections; is there still a sense in which people who experience exclusion are constrained in their use of information and communication technology to address their own circumstances? Yes there is, as I and my colleague heard clearly while we sat in a town hall the other day learning...

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