In the big society, community organisers and a new approach to neighbourhood groups are good things but for them to really work the government needs to make a market for their services. For central government, it’s tricky to get supply of and demand for local activists and groups going without being top down. By tweaking legislation that governs a huge range of statutory processes such as planning and licensing the govenrment can make a market.
The coalition government’s big society concept is intended to be a bottom up movement. As a grassroots activist I like this, but experience tells me it isn’t enough on two levels:
Public service providers and big business will all too often ignore individual activists if they can. This is more acute in areas needing the most grass roots action.
Many areas need a catalyst or boot strap to get things going on the ground up ‐ from areas that don’t have much civic activism because everything is’ quitenicethankyou’ to areas with very little social capital that need the most help
The government can see this and is committed to large scale recruitment of community organisers to provide a catalytic effect. And in the background has an aspiration from the Conservatives to get every adult involved in a neighbourhood group. The government does not mean the ‘strict’ definition of a ‘community organizer’ in the Alinsky tradition but people who can catalyse and where necessary lead local civic and social action to make neighbourhoods better places. Nor by neighbourhood groups does it mean traditional ‘constituted’ organisations ‐ it is open minded to everything from the big lunch to local website communities as well as the neighbourhood watch and WI.
The last government from about 2001 onwards created in an un coordinated way large numbers of local accountable bodies top down ‐ from safer neighbourhood panels to NHS trusts ‐ and statutory processes that required input from the citizenry. It was not until some years later (2008 empowerment white paper) and with little success did the government look at the supply of people to be active in these bodies and respond to consultations. For me as an activist the burden just increased. And I don’t feel these top down created groups really hold services to account ‐ although there are notable exceptions such as good safer neighbourhood panels, they are often the servants of the body they are supposed to run.
The government can make a local market for community organisers and neighbourhood groups. A large subset of local civic action is driven by traditional statutory processes ‐ planning, licensing of alcohol sales, entertainment, gambling, adult industries (aka strip clubs), consultations on all manner of services delivered by the council, NHS, education system, police service delivery, courts and probation in the community etc.
The coalition government is reopening almost all the legislation that governs these processes for one sort of reform or another. So it has a golden opportunity to tweak each of the processes by which local engagement happens to create a market for neighbourhood groups and community organisers.
In alcohol licensing for instance the government could tweak the regulations attached to the licensing act (Declaration as a civil servant I was marginally involved in the Licensing Bill work) to widen the area from which comments on an application can be received to beyond immediate neighbours, ensure that the views of all local neighbourhood groups have been sought, involve local GPs in a decision, ensure the A&E Department at the hospital is consulted. In planning government could require applicants (not councils) to seek the views of local neighbourhood groups, engaging a sliding scale of local residents (5 to 50,000) and show they have done so in their application.
A more radical proposal would be to put the burden of communication about a planning or licensing application wholly on the applicant and require local government to adjudicate on whether the application demonstrated canvassing of positive and negative views in a manner commensurate with their proposal and then assess the responses. An extension of the ‘polluter pays’ principle making up for the dreadful communication skills of most council planning and licensing departments – the ‘stick a notice on a lamp post that’ll be fine’ approach. If done right, this could drive companies to invest in local neighbourhood communication ‐ community organisers would be well placed to help.
Also, local public service providers, often tasked by legislation to draw up plans or strategies on local statutory processes could be compelled to assess the extent of big society capacity in affected areas and to increase it where deficient.
The government has a raft of legislative proposals in relevant areas ‐ it needs to seize the opportunity to make a market for the big society by tweaking rules on engagement and consultation in statutory processes as their wider legislative framework changes. It needs to learn the lesson of the last government and co-ordinate this effectively, particularly grasping the picture as seen on the ground when you suffer a mailbox full of dreary off putting con docs from different local public services.
The government also has to guard against clumsy design from the centre influenced by NGOs and lobbyists ‐ this means getting Whitehall civil servants out there on the ground involved in campaigns to experience what it is like. The centre designed the current dreadful systems on consultation and has much to learn to make it work better.
For legislation or statutory guidance there should be a core plug-in big society clause, module or principles for legislation and guidance so that all legislation is pulling in the same direction. Just the sort of thing Cabinet Office Office of Civil Society is well placed to do at the heart of government.
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