Will Hands Up become Hands On? The Localism reality check

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.



  • Peter Roberts
    March 19, 2012 - 3:16 pm | Permalink

    I was also at this report launch, David.

    Do you think a focus on the ‘willing but waiting’ is almost bound to include an unsaid ‘and digitally-able’ and that this will therefore reinforce exclusion?

    To me this seems like a seriously vast elephant in the room. I can understand why the various organisations whose interest is in selling solutions wish to ignore this. What I cannot understand are the public and voluntary sector organisations who also ignore this.

  • david wilcox
    March 19, 2012 - 10:19 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Peter – and yes, I do think there is a real problem of digital literacy which I wrote about here . That makes it important for community builders and organisers to have the skills to bridge this divide.
    I think there’s another study to be done on what’s its going to be like to be engaged and active in a more networked society, with a greater diversity of organisations providing services.

  • Peter Roberts
    March 20, 2012 - 9:08 am | Permalink

    I’m not talking about digital literacy, David. The elephant I can see relates to people’s ability to use digital technology.

    Literacy is a bigger problem than digital literacy. As long as sites are text-based there is a group of at least 20% of the population who cannot use them. Yes, 99% of kids have used the Internet but roughly 20% of them cannot use any but the most simple text-based sites. A larger proportion of the total population are functionally illiterate, about 23%.

    For the last nine years I’ve been running a time bank in one of three most deprived wards in my borough. At no time have anything like 77% of my members been capable of using digital technology. At a guess I’d put the figure at more like 40%. So, here are all these people designing systems that the majority of my members cannot use and largely will never be able to use.

    By 2010 60% of the over 65s (and 55% of those with learning disabilities) had never used the Internet. Those are two groups I could ask other members to impart skills to but some don’t want to learn and there’s the small matter of cost to them. Many people can’t afford to use the technology. People just have landlines or just have cheap mobiles or have nothing at all.

    We community workers and weavers can benefit enormously from technology but most people in my networks can’t. They are excluded. I think more and more are being excluded each month. The only way I can think of that would get round all this is a jump to non text-based technology – possibly with free high-speed broadband and the equipment – and I don’t see that happening.

    • March 20, 2012 - 10:51 am | Permalink

      Hi there Peter and David.

      Thanks for your comments Peter. They certianly chime with my experience on the Aylesbury estate in Walworth where we are going door-to-door inviting people to get more involved in their community. The older residents – a growing group in our society more generally – tend only to offer their landline and few if any over 70s have an email address to share. I read that 25% of adults have a smart phone now and 47% of young people (BBC News) but those figures are wildly exagerated for my patch. As you helpfully point out, functional literacy is required to make use of almost all online resources today and your figures make great sense in Walworth.

      We certainly need to focus on methods to develop stronger face-to-face social bonds between citizens. Person-to-person contact in the flesh is what stimulates most people to action, not chat rooms or email exchange. So given the dismal position of most low-income communities with regard to online access, any digital action must enable personal relationships between neighbours and friendships to develop off-line. Using text and email seem to me the extent of such possibilities and I am keen to explore how to take local organising forward using such mechanisms.

  • Peter Roberts
    March 20, 2012 - 11:14 am | Permalink

    Hi Mark. I saw you were also at the launch but we were in different discussion groups and didn’t talk. I think we should.

  • Peter Roberts
    March 20, 2012 - 11:39 am | Permalink

    Whoops. I wrote above about the “…55% of those with learning disabilities (who) had never used the Internet.” That should have read ‘55% of those with no qualifications’. I have no idea what percentage of people with learning disabilities use the Internet.

  • March 20, 2012 - 6:17 pm | Permalink

    It is interesting to note that older people (I hesitate to say “the elderly” as this has a negative connotation) are often the ones in local areas who are the most active in maintaining community links while they are also the least likely to use a broad range of digital tools. As government moves toward e-government this becomes more and more of an issue (though the potential involvement of younger people with other ideas using digital tools is not to be sniffed at either). I know that for community organizers this will not come as news but do you have a sense that policy-makers really understand this problem?

  • david wilcox
    March 20, 2012 - 6:59 pm | Permalink

    Thanks David – that’s a very interesting perception and one I can relate to from personal experience. It can mean that community groups may not innovate because of old styles of working and connecting. I think this may often be reflected in style of meeting too … committee style rather than conversational/creative. If this is the case, it can be very off-putting for new, young members. Real issue – or am I over-generalising?

    • March 21, 2012 - 10:55 am | Permalink

      My concern, David, is actually the opposite – that if online tools are increasingly promoted, the older people who are the backbone of community organizing in some cases may find themselves a little marginalised. Or perhaps we will see fragmentation with the old running f2f groups and the younger doing ‘slacktivism’?

      • david wilcox
        March 21, 2012 - 11:02 am | Permalink

        Thanks David – that seems like a possible outcome. A community organising divide …

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