Wednesday, 03 March 2010

Street reps: an everday story of trust and power The other day I was running some workshops with street reps in Shipley with my daughter, three years since the first set of workshops I ran with them. On the surface, the initiative has gone well, with a good sprinkling of residents taking up the role and ready to talk about it. And their contribution seems to have had an impact. For example, the proportion of people in East Shipley who say that rubbish and litter lying around is a problem has decreased from 50% to 36% in three years. Anecdotally, the drugs presence has diminished significantly as people have at last felt supported in raising concerns. But there is disquiet. This is a predominantly white low income area, part of which comes within the 2% most deprived in the country. One report notes that a lot of people feel that all the ‘big’ regeneration money goes into areas of central Bradford dominated by black and minority ethnic groups, and that ‘white Shipley’ misses out. Well, I don't know the central areas of the city, but there's no evidence of any kind of regeneration money going into the two neighbourhoods of Shipley where I've been working. So it doesn't feel wrong to sympathise if these people feel a sense of marginalisation and abandonment. What do we expect from the community cohesion indicator? The percentage of residents who believe that people from different backgrounds get on well together declined a disconcerting 10% (from 66% to 56%) between 2007 and 2009. The national average is 76%. So it was not totally unsurprising, if unnerving, to overhear one of the street reps delighting in the prospect that a BNP candidate is likely to get voted in to a local ward. This could be a nasty, dingy corner of local politics. The second group we spoke to insisted that their role is not political, by which they mean, it's not characterised by party politics. But it's profoundly, inescapably political: these are unpaid volunteers living among people whose neighbourhood they 'represent' - often anonymously because of fears of reprisals - without democratic process or accountability but with the essential task of standing at the interface of citizen-as-subject and state-as-provider. Every call they make to environment or housing services, every conversation they are having with the police support officer, perhaps every time they step outside and have a word with a neighbour, they're trying to reassert the citizen's influence over what happens, and juggling the fizzing firesticks of responsibility, responsiveness, interference, surveillance, vigilantism, identity, collective interest and so on. They do this from a base of controlled influence and minimal power. We'll be going back for several more sessions, but (partly because they've not had much press for a long time) I'm already concerned that the street reps movement may not be in blooming good health. I see it as an important experiment, as much about new forms of engaged democracy as about making services locally responsive; as much about co-delivery as about efficiency. But it's...
Hands up, who wants to take responsibility for co-delivery? I've been reading a recent, welcome but slightly underwhelming paper on co-production from ippr, Capable communities. It includes this statistic: eighty-two per cent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed with the following statement: 'Individuals and communities should do more to help the police cut anti-social behaviour and crime.' I can't be expected to resist making a comment about the wording of the survey question, because it reflects the language used throughout the report: what can it mean, 'communities should do more to help the police'? This is new Labour reification of 'community,' implying incontestable agency to batches of local people who may have no grounds whatsoever for reaching consensus on local issues. I was quoting the excellent Jeremy Brent on this just a few weeks ago. It is when you see such uses of the C word to imply policy knowledge put forward by a think-tink that you realise how ineffectual the community development field has been in challenging shallow communitarian rhetoric. Anyway, I was struck by the question because in presentations for several years I've been referring to policing as an early example of the co-production (or co-delivery) principle - an example which probably dates back to the 1980s in the UK. Someone somewhere pointed out that the police do not have sole responsibility for producing safety on our streets; and that single insight probably gave rise to a significant transformation in the delivery of local policing. The fact that the process required public investment in several new branches in 'the family of policing' - community support officers, neighbourhood wardens and so on - is often conveniently overlooked. So successfully have the police and media combined in building up this theme that while the police are more heavily funded than ever before, 82% of us agree that we should all be playing more of a role in reducing anti-social behaviour and crime. I'm surprised at the figure, with only 3% disagreeing. A couple of concluding thoughts - (i) Until people in policy-land stop implying that there are things called communities which can be called on to voice an opinion and take uncontested collective action that will be acceptable to the state, we're going to see neither genuine empowerment nor meaningful co-delivery. (ii) The survey asked four questions about attitudes to responsibility for services. As the paper acknowledges, a substantial proportion of people responded 'neither agree nor disagree' or 'don't know' (between 14% and 39%). This suggests that many people may not have thought about any model of delivery of public services other than the one they currently pay for, if that. And yet still we have an education system from which many people emerge with no idea how public services are funded or on what basis they are provided. Policy wonks either can't grasp this, or they're comfortable with it as a form of systematised disempowerment from the processes of democracy.

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