When I speak to council officers and civil servants about community engagement the conversation often conjures up mental images of docking space stations.
The officers are sincerely trying to picture interesting ways to approach the community, connect with it, create an airlock where they and the community can talk and then back into their own orbiters, reseal the doors, flush out the airlocks and return to business.
The conversation is so often based on the assumption that ‘services’ are separate from the people they serve. They have things to get on with regardless of what the folk around them do. The service is in its own orbit and conversation with the community is a nicety, not a necessity.
This mind set is riddled with contradictions which were exposed at last weeks fab Comunities & Local Government meeting to discuss social media and the forthcoming Community Empowerment White Paper.
The reason why this view perpetuates is because services are rarely delivered by the community they are intended to serve. They are rarely delivered by those who are already ‘engaged’. As one of the participants so elegantly put it – the government is trying to retail services when it should step back and structure itself as the wholesale part of the delivery chain. That would create huge opportunities for empowerment in the people led retails sector.
Of course local government has always been part of the retail arm of central government and increasingly local government is looking to create neighbourhood operations to push the retailing closer to the ground.
But these are organisations that still have a very different culture, or perhaps atmosphere from the groups of people they are designed to help. And until that atmosphere is breathable by both the service and served we will continue to dock when we should be engaged.
Dan McQuilan’s excellent post on how the social web will make greater empowerment inevitable, the questions for government is how to relate to it.
Dave Briggs explanation of how social media will do this.
Interesting stuff Nick, and ties in nicely with the Digital Equality taskforce/action plan and DC10plus stuff i’m involved with. (So excuse the ramble slightly off topic!)
I’n no local government expert, but I have seen that where the local authority creates genuine partnerships which involve third sector organisations together with local grassroots communities – change happens.
I recently visited the DC10plus projects in Sunderland (e-champions and Electronic Village Halls) and was heartened to hear how the City Council team had visited the local community centres … but had gone as fellow citizens, caring listeners, as a necessity – with a voluntary sector ear … rather than as council employees trying to “sell services” as a nicety.
Sit with them, drink tea with them, slag off the football with them as you say – engage – don’t dock !
What we saw were vibrant communities that were changing lives of residents on run down estates and a genuine positive relationship between them and the city council team running the ICT projects.
Scaling up this relationship as a positive interface between local and central government or replicating it across the country is a challenge (hey a Digital Challenge!) but just may be possible if enough are up for it. The “final third”, the “digirally excluded” are the ones now using technology in Sunderland, just maybe the Digital Equality strategy will direct support and resources to see a Sunderland in Preston, Leicester, Reading …..
Good points above.
I recently tried turning things a bit on their head, and suggested at a meeting that Local Government officers might like to take a turn as volunteers in a community where they are not known as LG people, trying to get to grips with problems sans their normal ‘official’ badge! – and see how it feels…. i.e. try being, as you say, part of the market-led supply chain instead of the ‘command’ economy lead.
A steep and quick learning curve is required if the impasse, however well-meaning in its orgin, which so often occurs is to be broken. How else might this be achieved, I wonder?