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.