Responsibility and Response-Ability

October 9, 2009 by
Filed under: Education Matters 

David Cameron’s speech at the conservative party conference indicated that the conservative party might be interested in the work of our connected communities project, so I decided to take a closer look.

The RSA is a charity, and strictly non-partisan, but Mathew Taylor has previously given his thoughts on Progressive conservatism and it seems important to engage with the main ideas of the would-be next government as fairly as possible.

Cameron repeated one of his more memorable signature lines: “There is such a thing as society, it’s just not the same thing as the State.” This line sounds like a suitably respectful departure from Margaret Thatcher’s most famous “There is no such thing as society” quote, but in fact, when you read Thatcher’s original, and typically decontextualised quote, in full, she was saying something quite similar (to women’s own magazine October 31 1987):

“I think we’ve been through a period where too many people have been given to understand that if they have a problem, it’s the government’s job to cope with it. ‘I have a problem, I’ll get a grant.’ ‘I’m homeless, the government must house me.’ They’re casting their problem on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It’s our duty to look after ourselves and then, also to look after our neighbour. People have got the entitlements too much in mind, without the obligations. There’s no such thing as entitlement, unless someone has first met an obligation.”

Ten years later Tony Blair spoke of the need to combine rights with responsibilities, which again makes you wonder if they all mean much the same thing, with only slightly different degrees of emphasis. However, the tone of Thatcher’s quote is rather different, and more combative in spirt than Cameron’s distinction, or Blair’s juxtaposition. When Thatcher says ‘there are individual men and women and there are families’, I don’t sense she is thinking of community, and her vision of the social world does sound relatively atomised.

Cameron clearly sees community ( “the ultimate warm fuzzy” as a recent RSA seminar attendee put it) as part of the picture of a healthy society, as he made clear in his speech:

There is such a thing as society, its just not the same thing as the state.

"There is such a thing as society, it's just not the same thing as the state."

So no, we are not going to solve our problems with bigger government. We are going to solve our problems with a stronger society. Stronger families. Stronger communities. A stronger country. All by rebuilding responsibility.

The use of ‘responsibility’ has a more Thatcherite feel, but detractors could point out that calling for responsibility entails ensuring response-ability too. Patterns of inequality make some people and some areas much more able to respond than others. Indeed, it has recently been argued that the growth in inequality over the last decade is a legacy of Thatcherism.

Such political claims remain contentious, but at a conceptual level it seems clear that you cannot be responsible if you are not able to respond. So while it may be legitimate to encourage greater responsibility at an individual and community level, there is presumably also a role for goverment to enable such responsibility.

Part of what connected communities is about is understanding the basis of response-ability at a community level. Many local government departments and third sector projects are likely to face actute financial shortages soon. They will have the same responsibilities, but in the absence of adequate financial capital, we need to understand how to harness existing levels of social capital so that people are genuinely able to respond.


Comments

  • http://www.thersa.org/ Alasdair Jones

    Given the recently introduced ‘duty to involve’ statutory guidance for local authorities, I find your point that it’s ability to respond that’s key, rather than opportunity to do so, telling. As engagement becomes increasingly formalised (into consultations, surveys, workshops), so the ways in which we are understood to take responsibility, it could be argued, become increasingly complex as a particular skill set needs to be developed in order to participate. As Jonathan intimates, perhaps a social networks approach to social capital provides a means to sharing such civic engagement skills.

  • http://www.thersa.org Alasdair Jones

    Given the recently introduced ‘duty to involve’ statutory guidance for local authorities, I find your point that it’s ability to respond that’s key, rather than opportunity to do so, telling. As engagement becomes increasingly formalised (into consultations, surveys, workshops), so the ways in which we are understood to take responsibility, it could be argued, become increasingly complex as a particular skill set needs to be developed in order to participate. As Jonathan intimates, perhaps a social networks approach to social capital provides a means to sharing such civic engagement skills.

  • http://yomo.co.uk/ mas

    I think this stems from very basic simple things. For 7 years I ran a national programme training up young people to organise community activities. The programme targeted groups of young people from the most deprived areas of the UK. Typically we’d work with 60 or so groups from different areas each year and one of the first things we’d do with them was an exercise that helped them identify issues of concern in their neighbourhood. Having done that the next step was to get them to consider who could do something about those issues, and who *should* ie. who’s fault is it & who’s going to sort it?

    I observed just about all of these sessions over the years and consistently community issues were the fault of somebody else, and generally that somebody else was “The Government” or “The Council”. Litter, drugs, nothing to do, vandalism – all the fault of the government – usually because they didn’t provide enough facilities or opportunities etc. etc.

    Then we’d move on to the next stage where we asked them to identify resources available to them. Almost inevitably it would turn out there were all manner of resources available to them – and then of course from that point on it was our job to help then make the most of that and eventually get to the point of taking responsibility themselves to make a difference etc. etc.

    That attitude though would really get on my nerves – it’s widespread and I do think there’s an element of the nanny state causing it, but something really needs to be done to help people get back to taking personal responsibility. There’s litter in my street – I pick it up, it’s not somebody elses job……………… but of course it is, and I think it’s these little things that need tackling. We need to encourage people to want to take personal responsibility, for themselves, for their families, for their neighbourhoods & so on.

    • http://www.thersa.org/ Jonathan Rowson

      Thanks Mas. Most would agree with the desirability of people becoming disposed to be proactively responsible in the way you mention, but what I am curious and unclear about is the relationship between the appropriate attitude and the socio-economic context in which we seek to foster it. Telling people to be more responsible clearly doesn’t cut it- so what to do?

  • http://yomo.co.uk mas

    I think this stems from very basic simple things. For 7 years I ran a national programme training up young people to organise community activities. The programme targeted groups of young people from the most deprived areas of the UK. Typically we’d work with 60 or so groups from different areas each year and one of the first things we’d do with them was an exercise that helped them identify issues of concern in their neighbourhood. Having done that the next step was to get them to consider who could do something about those issues, and who *should* ie. who’s fault is it & who’s going to sort it?

    I observed just about all of these sessions over the years and consistently community issues were the fault of somebody else, and generally that somebody else was “The Government” or “The Council”. Litter, drugs, nothing to do, vandalism – all the fault of the government – usually because they didn’t provide enough facilities or opportunities etc. etc.

    Then we’d move on to the next stage where we asked them to identify resources available to them. Almost inevitably it would turn out there were all manner of resources available to them – and then of course from that point on it was our job to help then make the most of that and eventually get to the point of taking responsibility themselves to make a difference etc. etc.

    That attitude though would really get on my nerves – it’s widespread and I do think there’s an element of the nanny state causing it, but something really needs to be done to help people get back to taking personal responsibility. There’s litter in my street – I pick it up, it’s not somebody elses job……………… but of course it is, and I think it’s these little things that need tackling. We need to encourage people to want to take personal responsibility, for themselves, for their families, for their neighbourhoods & so on.

    • http://www.thersa.org Jonathan Rowson

      Thanks Mas. Most would agree with the desirability of people becoming disposed to be proactively responsible in the way you mention, but what I am curious and unclear about is the relationship between the appropriate attitude and the socio-economic context in which we seek to foster it. Telling people to be more responsible clearly doesn’t cut it- so what to do?

  • Paul Brasington

    I’m grateful for seeing the context of Thatcher’s dictum, but it doesn’t make it seem any wiser, and Cameron’s take on it takes us no further. There’s an old myth on the Right that if you have a welfare system this kills individual charity and our sense of obligation to others, but as far as I can see after 60 years of state welfare you could not say that among the many changes in social attitudes we’re somehow less caring or less willing to give time or money than our pre-war counterparts. Cameron’s distinction between state and society is only part of the same mythology, and a false polarisation. The state is not the same as society, but it is certainly part of it, society in a sense being the interaction of state, communities and individuals. It’s true that governments can influence that interaction, and that I guess is where response-ability comes in, but if that influence is going to be positive it requires case by case judgements and not a dogmatic withdrawal.
    Cameron may in reality understand this, but his rhetoric is worrying. The evidence this week is that the Tories have learnt nothing except Blair’s PR skills. I’m quite interested in the idea of a progressive conservatism. It’s just that every time you try to grasp what it might mean it seems to fall back into the same old reactionary posturing.

    • http://www.thersa.org/ Jonathan Rowson

      Many thanks for this lucid comment, Paul. I like the idea that ‘society’ amounts to the interaction of state, communities and individuals- not even Thatcher could claim that there is ‘no such interaction’. For what it is worth, this taxonomy corresponds quite well to the social capital literature where they speak of social capital(societal capital?) at micro(individuals, families), meso( neighbourhoods, communities) and macro(towns, cities, countries) levels. Part of the challenge in social capital research is that the role and relevance of social capital differs at these different levels, but the rationale for having this composite concept- social capital- is precisely the enduring relevance of the interaction you highlight.

  • Paul Brasington

    I’m grateful for seeing the context of Thatcher’s dictum, but it doesn’t make it seem any wiser, and Cameron’s take on it takes us no further. There’s an old myth on the Right that if you have a welfare system this kills individual charity and our sense of obligation to others, but as far as I can see after 60 years of state welfare you could not say that among the many changes in social attitudes we’re somehow less caring or less willing to give time or money than our pre-war counterparts. Cameron’s distinction between state and society is only part of the same mythology, and a false polarisation. The state is not the same as society, but it is certainly part of it, society in a sense being the interaction of state, communities and individuals. It’s true that governments can influence that interaction, and that I guess is where response-ability comes in, but if that influence is going to be positive it requires case by case judgements and not a dogmatic withdrawal.
    Cameron may in reality understand this, but his rhetoric is worrying. The evidence this week is that the Tories have learnt nothing except Blair’s PR skills. I’m quite interested in the idea of a progressive conservatism. It’s just that every time you try to grasp what it might mean it seems to fall back into the same old reactionary posturing.

    • http://www.thersa.org Jonathan Rowson

      Many thanks for this lucid comment, Paul. I like the idea that ‘society’ amounts to the interaction of state, communities and individuals- not even Thatcher could claim that there is ‘no such interaction’. For what it is worth, this taxonomy corresponds quite well to the social capital literature where they speak of social capital(societal capital?) at micro(individuals, families), meso( neighbourhoods, communities) and macro(towns, cities, countries) levels. Part of the challenge in social capital research is that the role and relevance of social capital differs at these different levels, but the rationale for having this composite concept- social capital- is precisely the enduring relevance of the interaction you highlight.

  • http://yomo.co.uk/ mas

    Hi Jonathan – I don’t think we can tell anyone – my firm belief in setting up that programme was in creating a culture change – what I hoped the programme would achieve was that by working with young people at a younger age than is usual for that type of programme, and by supporting them to have a positive experience of contributing to their local community it would foster in them a culture of contributing and being involved.

    It’s difficult to evidence if that really happened – certainly many young people did continue to contribute my measure of volunteering with us. I know too that many did continue to contribute locally through projects we kept in touch with – interestingly though those that volunteered most often with us also volunteered least locally (not surprising given the commitment required from us but interesting from the perspective that it was their role to inspire other young people to be active locally).

    All sorts of other interesting stuff including that through those young people the programme also effectively supported adults to volunteer locally too via their involvement with the group and there was further potential there that I wanted to develop.

    On the flip side during the period the programme operated there was a clear move towards much more professional involvement in community activities – youth work has become increasingly professionalised, gaining the necessary checks to work with young people has become more complex, lots of the volunteers we worked with subsequently became employed by local authorities in various capacities – and I’d argue that this worked counter to what we were trying to achieve. The communities we worked with increasingly became places where doing things for the community was a vocation.

    I could go on for a long time but the short version is I still believe in working towards a culture change – doing so with very young people and doing so over a long time and involving local volunteers in supporting those young people. I don’t think other services are effectively set up towards supporting this approach though.

  • http://yomo.co.uk mas

    Hi Jonathan – I don’t think we can tell anyone – my firm belief in setting up that programme was in creating a culture change – what I hoped the programme would achieve was that by working with young people at a younger age than is usual for that type of programme, and by supporting them to have a positive experience of contributing to their local community it would foster in them a culture of contributing and being involved.

    It’s difficult to evidence if that really happened – certainly many young people did continue to contribute my measure of volunteering with us. I know too that many did continue to contribute locally through projects we kept in touch with – interestingly though those that volunteered most often with us also volunteered least locally (not surprising given the commitment required from us but interesting from the perspective that it was their role to inspire other young people to be active locally).

    All sorts of other interesting stuff including that through those young people the programme also effectively supported adults to volunteer locally too via their involvement with the group and there was further potential there that I wanted to develop.

    On the flip side during the period the programme operated there was a clear move towards much more professional involvement in community activities – youth work has become increasingly professionalised, gaining the necessary checks to work with young people has become more complex, lots of the volunteers we worked with subsequently became employed by local authorities in various capacities – and I’d argue that this worked counter to what we were trying to achieve. The communities we worked with increasingly became places where doing things for the community was a vocation.

    I could go on for a long time but the short version is I still believe in working towards a culture change – doing so with very young people and doing so over a long time and involving local volunteers in supporting those young people. I don’t think other services are effectively set up towards supporting this approach though.

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