Getting back to Government Is Us

We’ll hear a lot of high-level policy discussion about Big Society versus Big Government in the run up to the general election – due to be rekindled by the Tories next Wednesday, I hear – but amidst wonky talk of localism it’s easy to lose touch with what that can mean in reality. A meeting last night with Jim Diers, from Seattle, brought some down-to-earth optimism.

It’s easy to be sceptical. Julian Dobson reminded us last week that hopes for greater civic pride and stronger local institutions may come to nothing unless there is real devolution of spending and decision-making in the fields of employment, housing and education. Political commentators like Michael White argue that people lose enthusiasm once it becomes apparent there will be post-code differences in services.

But at the really local level of neighbourhoods it is evident that much can be done. NESTA’s report on Mass Localism provided some inspiring examples, and community action on climate change in Transition Towns shows what’s possible around a topic that can unite us all. Well, some of us. Their new website demonstrates how to network ideas and inspiration from very local to potential global impact … and environmentalists certainly need better networking.

All this is by way of saying it was very timely for Steven Clift to alert us to the arrival of Jim Diers in the UK, and for neighbourhoods specialist Kevin Harris to organise a get-together last night hosted by Ben Lee at Shared Intelligence.

Jim described how he started as a community organiser in Seattle 30 years ago, and in 1988 was hired by the Mayor to develop an Office of Neighborhoods. It started with a staff of four, and grew to 100 … eventually supporting 400 community self-help projects a year and spending $4.5 million dollars through a Neighborhood Matching Fund. The fund allowed residents to match cash with volunteer labour or help in kind, so releasing enormous energy and expertise. Jim left in 2002, and these days spends time lecturing and travelling to spread the model he helped develop.

Kevin has already blogged about the meeting,  highlighting these key points:

  • Collective citizen empowerment is not so much an idea whose time has come – it was always an obvious option: rather we should say, time’s up for some of the barriers that have been in the way for too long.
  • One reason Seattle’s Neighborhood Matching Fund worked was because the Department of Neighborhoods imputed a value to residents’ voluntary time. This is a topic we’ve been talking about off and on in the UK for far too long.
  • Another reason for the Seattle success was that they chose to encourage and accept bids from unconstituted groups of residents. They found other solutions to the problem of where to bank the grant. Again, this is something we’ve failed to work-through properly in this country, largely because of the centre’s control-obsession.

We also heard from Hugh Flouch, of Harringay Online, about the ways that local organising can be enhanced by social media – something I’ve written about here before. I’m really looking forward to the results of the London study that Hugh and Kevin are doing on the impact of citizen-led neighbourhood websites.

What was refreshing from Jim and his story was that it was completely free of policy-speak – or political speak for that matter. His human stories and photos would resonate anywhere. (Mind you, Seattle City Council sounds is a bit unusual to our ears: nine council
members, and a Mayor. Politics? Democrats and Left from there …)

Afterwards we took off to the pub around the corner, and Jim, assisted by Kevin and a few draughts of beer, managed to condense some of his ideas and wisdom into a few minutes. He concluded:

Every form of government has taxpayers. What should be special about a democracy is that we have citizens, and citizens whose government doesn’t just give lip service, but really respects and values and their participation in their government. We need to get back to the idea that the government is us.

Hope Jim’s back soon. Meanwhile, here’s a few links on the topic. More please.

Jim Diers

Localismand local social media

David Cameron and Big Society

Labour government


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