I’m sure we’ll be hearing a lot more from Government in coming months about localism and the expectation that people will do more in their communities – not just as volunteers, but in running services. Big Society may be out of the news as a phrase, but the policies are working their way through to implementation.
Last week a report by Liz Coll for Consumer Focus addressed the key issue of whether people are ready to commit more time and effort: Hands up and hands on – Understanding the new opportunities for localism and community empowerment.
The report was launched at a small seminar run with Involve, and afterwards I asked deputy director Edward Andersson for his summary. He said:
This is one of the few pieces of work that looks at how well does the rhetoric of localism actually marry with reality – we have the community right to bid and community right to build. We have all these new rights for community members to take some quite serious action in their community.
But to what degree are people ready to do that? That’s what this report looks at. It shows that there are some quite profound challenges.
There are quite a large group of people who want to be involved and influence, but fewer people who are currently ready and willing to actually go in and deliver services themselves.
Edward emphasises that there are unlikely to be any short term solutions, because it takes time to build confidence and capability among local groups: a lesson familar to anyone involved in community action. This is not a short term game. It takes time to build confidence and capacity. Nor is “community” synonymous with collaboration: there may be many conflicts of views and priorities in any neighbourhood.
The report starts by giving a clear overview of the different ways in which people participate: by having influence, becoming more actively involved, or actually taking control. That’s rather on the lines of the ladder of participation model that has served fairly well for some time.
The report goes on to examine how far people will commit at the different levels. Conclusion – not as much as government might hope.
The assumption made during the latest drive towards localism is that that there are significant numbers of people ready and willing to participate in decision making and control of local services. While this may be the case in particular communities, our research has uncovered a more mixed reality on the ground which needs to be acknowledged.
While 82 per cent of those surveyed agree people should have more say, and 69 per cent support the notion that local people should be more actively involved, when it comes to actually doing something personally the figure drops to 28 per cent.
The report says that about a third of people are already involved in various ways – and there is the potential for greater involvement if we have a good understanding of people’s motivations (personal commitment, social connections, current circumstances) and recognise possible barriers.
The barriers include lack of information, lack of time, lack of faith in local authorities, a core group of activists putting people off, and lack of return on investment (why bother).
The recommendations include focussing on the right people – the 28 per cent; being insightful about motivations and barriers; developing opportunities; and being open and realistic.
The report doesn’t break any new ground, but it is admirably concise and provides a sound reality check on what’s possible if we carry on aiming for more engagement in the same old ways, with the same old attitudes from agencies.
It’s too early to judge whether new methods of community organising and community building that I touch on here will make a big difference: but there probably aren’t likely to be any quick gains.
In a street-level view from Southwark, Mark Parker reports that it is tough on the doorstep, as a group of community organisers reach the mid-point of their training:
The experience on the ground has been hard going. Some of the trainee organisers have said how difficult they have found it to move people from a vague sense of engagement at the door to actually taking action a few days later. I found myself repeatedly listening to residents, having a successful conversation with them leading to a clear commitment to action and then being disappointed when they did not follow through. When I tried to contact them again, they just seemed to go to ground. This experience has been widely shared across the network.
On the other hand, some trainees have been able to persevere and come through to a place where they are joined by volunteers in their listening and find people willing to draw some friends together for a chat about the area. These ‘voluntary community organisers’ in waiting are key people to help make the local network of citizens come to life. The focus has turned – as it has for me in the last few weeks – to helping these individuals to pursue their project idea or to get out listening to friends and family. The time for the foundational listening has been limited by these other demands.
It sounds as if the lesson is similar to that in the Consumer Focus report: look for the willing. The problem is you have to knock on a lot of doors to find them.
- Hands up and hands on
- A Plain English Guide to Localism from Communities and Local Government
- Localism Act Briefing – from Urban Forum
- Big Society: Cabinet Office
- Joining up community building, organising and social reporting – earlier post here