Monday, 09 April 2012

Building a sense of agency: community engagement in the age of consent Last week Julian Dobson reported that the government “has been having a series of conversations about how to, in its words, 'mobilise neighbourhoods'”. I don’t know who these conversations are with but it sounds like they might have a bit of catching up to do. Julian reminds us that government seems to want a form of community action that gets people growing and picking apples for motherhood pie but doesn’t upset the cart. I sense that a new phase of community engagement is emerging and I want to try and clarify what that might mean. First, four little insights from the past week or so. I heard how a Chinese restaurant had been inspected by the fire services, whose officers found several dangerous transgressions (not just out-of-date extinguishers) for which they could have been closed down. Rather than do that, the fire officers contacted the chair of the town’s Chinese Association, who intervened to help establish some quick fixes followed by managed upgrading, so that the business was able to keep going. I’ve been in conversations to facilitate a process of community engagement in an area of west London that is anticipating extensive regeneration. Our approach will be to help ensure that residents recognise that it is legitimate to have ideas and aspirations for their area; and that local agencies should provide a responsive environment in which such ideas can be tested and opportunities provided. I heard some trading standards officers talking about moving from a triggered prosecution approach, when a business transgresses (for example in under-age selling), to an advice and training model, encouraging traders to learn, appreciate and abide by the law. They call it ‘community protection’. I ran a workshop with young people who experience exclusion, who were part of a young inspectors’ scheme, whereby they gain confidence, acceptance and employability skills in return for helping local services (like libraries, surgeries, activity centres) through systematic evaluation. The young people’s role was welcomed by the receiving agencies and they could only tell me of one throw-away remark that might on a bad day have been construed as patronising. Examples like this confirm to me that we are moving into an age in which governance is far more about permissions and consent – in both directions - than about top-down decree. This may be consistent with what has been called ‘permission-based policy-making.’ You can’t do that without genuine engagement. Most politicians haven’t spotted this, because politicians don’t tend to notice change that they haven’t brought about themselves. All four of the above examples were instigated by some of those hugely innovative, under-rated, committed people in modest-ranking roles in local public services. This change in the relation between local people and service providers is profoundly related to the nature of the network society, which is characterised by the erosion of hierarchies and the emergence of powerful horizontal communication systems. That’s been going on for at least 20 years and is nothing whatever to do with political direction from the centre....
Local people defending the public realm? Deny them access to toilets! Here’s a torrid story told by Adam Langleben of how one council – the infamous Barnet council in north London – chose to behave corporately in the face of a few residents seeking to defend their local library against a devious closure tactic. The officials’ sense of exclusive ownership over the property, including toilets, water and electricity supplies, shows a remarkably weak grasp of the notion of a public building. Further, the council’s poor handling of the entire process is shown up, surprise surprise, by the use of social media. As Adam writes: ‘you cannot simply push around residents, lie to residents and expect them to simpl[y] take this.’ Part of the problem seems to be that Barnet council have signed up to some religious mumbo-jumbo which claims that the private sector runs things more efficiently than the public sector, de facto. Even if this were true – and there’s enough evidence (e.g.) to have discredited it long ago, if everyday experience were not sufficient – there’s a small question of the meaning and value of a public realm. What matters now is for some of us to start thinking about how we restore services as public services - not products that people who can afford them, buy, or that are subject to the big society model of a miserable suspended animation, kept breathing artificially and fitfully through inadequate and unpredictable resources and expertise.

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