Wednesday, 07 July 2010

Local sites and civic involvement Last Friday Hugh Flouch and I organised a Networked Neighbourhoods roundtable discussion on civic involvement and local online in London. We took advantage of the presence in town of US e-democracy pioneer Steven Clift to bring a few interesting people together for some easy-going discussion and share some early findings from our London study. Unaware that I was about to be knocked back by a short bout of flu (as I type this, coincidentally and characteristically, here's the Next-Door-Neighbour at the back-door asking am I better) there was even less chance that I might come up with any particular insights at the time; but it was at least a moment to try and relate local websites to the community organising and civic involvement expectations of Big Society. Among the points I hope I managed to put across were these: The transformations to co-production of local quality of life and to a more conversational democracy are not trivial, but they are both within the legitimate aspirations of neighbourhood online networks. When we look at these sites and the effects they appear to be having, I don’t think we should be looking necessarily for effects that shore up the old ways of doing representative democracy. Nor should we be looking for the strengthening of strong ties and the creation of close-knit communities: local sites support fluid, overlapping networks of weak ties that incorporate sufficient trust to get things done. Those ways of getting things done might extend to Alinsky-style community organising, but you wouldn’t conclude from our material that the link is strong. I think it’s fairer to say that we can see a latent demand for informal, controlled-commitment involvement in local issues – people are creating as well as responding to local opportunities, online. These sites are places that accommodate the unclubbable alongside the clubbable. We’ve yet to appreciate the benefit of that. Essentially, these sites change the acoustics of the public realm: the voices of local people are increasingly audible, not because a few people shout louder but because conversations are generated, accumulate, and are transparent. The pic of myself and Steve Clift was taken by Hugh and I rather like the reflected cycles round our heads. There's a short report on the session on the Networked Neighbourhoods site here.
Why neighbouring matters I just opened the Facebook pages for '50 Ways to Meet Your Neighbour' and I'm looking forward to seeing people's ideas and suggestions, whether or not they are lyrically consistent. I'm keen to see whether anyone can improve on Nick Buckley's 'Just take in a parcel, Marcel'... Meanwhile, here's the wordy justification bit in the background: Not everyone lives in a neighbourhood, but everyone has the right to try to improve their locality by improving relations with those around them. This principle is seldom acknowledged in policy. Yet mutually-supportive connections that generate trust between residents can make an enormous difference for a wide range of social policy measures. Neighbouring is already subject to policy influence. Decisions affecting planning, local transport, local trade, schools, welfare, safety, parks and so on, all have an affect on whether or not people encounter their neighbours and have something in common which they feel able to talk about. Of course, individual choices also have an affect. If you only ever get into a car when you leave your home, you’re less likely to recognise your neighbours and have a supportive relationship with them. If you don’t have – or don’t use – a local park, café, pub, post office or community centre, you’re less likely to meet other local people in a safe, neutral space. You’re also less likely to know the young people who share your neighbourhood – who almost certainly occupy it more than you do. One way to persuade policy makers that neighbouring is worth taking seriously is to focus in on the sort of actions that make it easier to meet other neighbours. The idea behind ’50 Ways’ is to make a loud statement about why neighbouring matters and what can be done to stimulate it.

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