This is a guest blog from RSA Catalyst supported West Midlands Fellow John Blewitt. He reflects on the impact of Catalyst and the new Library of Birmingham on his work to connect spaces and people with democratic actions.
Over the last couple of years I have been working closely with the library service in
Birmingham and Worcester and have been fortunate to have become a Library of Birmingham ‘Face’. The Library of Birmingham is a prestigious public project at the heart of the city centre aiming to animate the city socially, economically and politically. Architecturally engaging and ‘iconic’ in the true sense of the word, it is most importantly a major investment and commitment to the public sphere and citizens’ right to the city.
Libraries need to become event spaces for democracy, culture and learning
Public expenditure cuts have led to the closure of many libraries in the UK but these financial pressures have also coincided with a need to completely rethink the nature of public libraries as a public space and place. Mobile digital technologies, tablets and smart phones, the Internet, e-books, Twitter, Facebook and the like are shifting the way we socialize, communicate, access information and learn about the world around us. They offer us all sorts of amazing new opportunities unimaginable only a few years ago, but there are problems.
Some of those problems are well known – lack of skills or access and perhaps a growing passivity that comes with the ease of clicking here to buy, to vote or to think, or watch the aftermath of a hurricane or Strictly Come Dancing. The term ‘clictivism’ has now entered our language. In some ways, of course, it was ever thus and I’m sure there were analog equivalents.
What is really worrying is the sense that civil society needs reactivating. It needs to be given a life that is not completely composed of 0111001001111 and commodified entertainments. There has been a great deal of talk about the need for increased literacy and numeracy, social engagement in volunteering, and a more responsive political democracy and a less disaffected citizenry. The Big Society has come and gone as has the Occupy movement, the flurry of student protests over £9000 per annum fees and the urban riots that targeted mobile phone and fashionable shops.
Public libraries, a space for active debate?
We no longer seem to have spaces and places where we can come together physically, openly and freely to discuss issues and events that are in essence political. Democracy needs an informed citizenry. It needs public spaces and places that are connected to other spaces and to people as citizens who want to learn and discuss issues that are not filtered and framed by News Corporation, Google, or Jeremy Paxman. Public libraries are such places. In fact, they are one of very few public spaces and places left in our increasingly commodified and privatized world where this can occur.
Democracy needs an informed citizenry
I recently used the wonderful Library of Birmingham to run two public events supported by the RSA Fellowship and Aston University. The first was focused on the concept of resilience – a term used with increasing frequency in business, sustainable development, society, urban government and education. How the term resilience is being used was the topic of a book I recently wrote with Daniella Tilbury, which served as the basis of a genuinely interesting discussion on what we humans want to do with our future. People from business, education, charities and from the city came together on the evening of Halloween to deliberate, think and learn. It was a public event, in a public place and it was free. You can get an idea of what was discussed at the event here.
Two weeks later I ran and chaired a larger event held in the Studio Theatre at the Library of Birmingham. The topic was the future of our public services in an era of austerity and ecological limits to economic growth. The Green House Think Tank presented its views as expressed in Smaller but Better? Post Growth Public Services, and a panel consisting of Matthew Taylor (CEO, RSA), Heather Wakefield (Unison), Cllr Stewart Stacey (Birmingham City Council) and Josie Kelly (Aston University) responded energetically. However, it was the questions and comments coming from the audience that produced the most interesting and thoughtful contributions of the evening. The event lasted two hours but could have easily gone beyond. As I was preparing to leave the reasons became for this became obvious. Some departing audience members said to me, “why don’t we have discussions like this more often?”, “what are you putting on next?”, “you don’t get this on the TV” and, from one of the theatre’s A/V technicians, “that was really interesting – most things are so boring”.
Given the opportunity, the experience, the place and space for democratic discussion many people do and will engage with enthusiasm, commitment and intelligence. Far from being disaffected I believe there is actually a hunger for public spaces where public democracy can be enacted. And, public libraries offer such spaces because they are trusted, respected, neutral and, most importantly, PUBLIC. But to prosper in our consumerist digital age they need to remain public, remain relevant and remain committed to public education and public democracy. They need to become event spaces for democracy, culture and learning
As an RSA Catalyst Award winner I am concerned to connect these trusted spaces and places to a range of activities that will help engage people as citizens rather than as consumers, as active learners and as creators and producers of a vibrant civic public sphere. Public libraries are an important but threatened element of our public sphere. My Catalyst project titled Connecting Spaces and Places, recognises the very important physical spaces libraries offer can be complemented by digital technologies but cannot be replaced by them. Thus, public libraries are becoming culturally open ‘event spaces’ and they need to be promoted and used as such if they are to survive as democratic spaces.
The Library of Birmingham has a space, ‘Brainbox’, on the first floor which could conceivably be used for any creative and innovative activity. What it will be used for will be determined by the people using it. No predetermined plan, no strategy, no prescriptions but genuine innovation and free exploration. The RSA funding I received has enabled me to practically encourage people to use and view library spaces in ways they would not previously have done. It has attempted to make real that global call to make real our right to the city.
OK, my two recent events involved talking but talking is doing too as we must all talk democracy to make democracy happen. I intend to initiate other library based events, activities and hopefully exhibitions in the near future. If you want to join me and continue this debate please get in touch via email.
The Centre for Citizenship and Community, a new collaboration between the RSA, the University of Central Lancashire and the Royal Society for Public Health, was formally launched at the RSA House yesterday. Grounding academic and social research in community practice, the Centre will bring together researchers and practitioners from universities, public bodies, voluntary organisations and business to implement community projects and guide social policy using a Connected Communities approach to social and community networks. The launch consisted of key-note speeches from the Centre’s associates followed by a series of discussion groups held by delegates from numerous professional backgrounds to debate the policy implications of the Centre’s early perspectives.
Co-production: a connected communities approach to social policy
In a plenary speech David Morris, Professor of mental health, inclusion and community at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) and the Centre for Citizenship and Community, spoke about how the Centre will promote a vision of the ‘social value of empowered communities’ being integrated into public policy, with a culture of co-production emerging in public services. He stressed the need for policy makers to recognise the complexity and potential that lies within communities, to build innovations around shared community assets, and to use Connected Communities-inspired research to inform the production of community owned, networked social interventions.
Afterwards, RSA Connected Communities director of research Steve Broome criticised what he described as the standard ‘deficit model’ of viewing communities, which focuses exclusively on their problems rather than their assets and potential. In contrast he demonstrated how social networks approaches help us to understand communities using an ‘attribute model’ which reveals which assets in a community help people interact and support one another. He emphasised the prominent role that public services play in supplying or supporting these community assets, and went on to highlight the danger that ill-considered spending cuts present to social networks when community assets are not mapped or recognised. A forthcoming RSA report will develop these themes further, focusing on the viability of community assets and social networks in the context of government austerity.
Theory into co-produced practice: Murton ‘mams’ and ways to wellbeing
Examples of such projects were presented by Mandy Chivers of Mersey Care NHS Care Trust and Lyndsey Wood of the East Durham Trust. Both organisations are working in partnership with the RSA and UCLan to implement co-produced, network-based community projects based on findings from Connected Communities research. In Liverpool, Mersey Care is training volunteers from the BAME community in the principles of the New Economic Foundation’s ‘five ways to wellbeing’, while in Murton, a former mining town, the East Durham Trust has helped set up a new social group for single mothers called ‘Murton Mams’, in which the activities and programme are led by the members of the group themselves to help combat the widespread isolation among this group that the Connected Communities findings revealed.
Challenges ahead: austerity, tolerated harshness, and championing social networks
Following the introductory talks, attendees split into discussion groups to debate the implications of the presentations for public policy and community practice, and to begin to think about what the Centre can contribute to such debates in the future. Some key points that emerged from these discussions included:
i) The need for the Centre to promote and build the status of social networks in a context in which the very existence of ‘communities’ often seems to be doubted. The evidence base for a networked approach to public and community policy must be vigorously argued.
ii) The need to be conscious of the risk of ‘making a contrivance out of ordinary connection’. Co-production, in other words, must avoid the pitfalls of regularising informal, reciprocal relationships, or exposing what David Halpern has called the ‘hidden wealth’ of communities to overly harsh light where they would be better preserved by remaining hidden. An example given was the ‘spontaneous expression of citizenship’ of a train ticket saleswoman who enjoys smiling at her customers and once decided to give Easter eggs to her regulars; if a statutory system of formalised gift-giving on public transport was initiated, the spontaneity and charm of the exchange would doubtless be compromised.
Other challenges were also discussed. Morris and Broome both highlighted the dangers posed to sometimes fragile networks by austerity, growing inequality, and ‘externally enforced fragmentation’, while it was elsewhere noted that cultural norms are becoming less social, along the lines of what Hugo Young described as a growing ‘tolerated harshness’ in society. Other attendees urged that co-productive services must be genuinely co-produced with public services taking an active role, rather than simply deferring responsibility or ‘outsourcing by another name’.
The mood was on the whole optimistic, however, with numerous attendees stating that they welcomed the opportunity to network and debate issues in this way, and praising the new Centre as a valuable line of communication between community-oriented actors from the academic, public, private, and third sectors.
Based in the School of Social Work at UCLan and the King’s Fund offices in London, the Centre for Citizenship and Community will meet regularly over the coming months and offers organisations dedicated support for community engagement through:
- Strategies and integrated programmes for social and community- based commissioning
- Service development and redesign, based on economic modelling and cost-benefit analysis, organisational, leadership and workforce development
This is backed up by:
- Bespoke programmes of accredited learning and professional development
- Programme evaluation and research evidence.
Its associates will be posting regular updates from varied perspectives on the RSA’s blogging platform; in the meantime, more information on the Centre including contact details can be found on the RSA website. If you would like to be notified when the forthcoming RSA report on the impact of austerity on communities is published, or to be kept informed of the work of the Centre for Citizenship and Community, email firstname.lastname@example.org and request to be added the the RSA Action and Research Centre mail list.
As a committed Labour supporter, Alex Ferguson’s announcement to retire could have been better timed. It took the heat and light out of a Queen’s speech that was even duller than her annual Christmas message. If Ed Miliband did give the front bench the hairdryer treatment, it was lost in the photos, eulogies and trophy infographics of one of Britain’s greatest post war leaders (or is that brand-builder?)
We shouldn’t judge a government by the content of its Queen’s speech. Halfway through an administration, the big policy changes have already been pushed through, and the inevitable suite of unintended outcomes have not yet revealed themselves. It may be that “we don’t need much legislation”. New laws don’t grow economies, although like most of us I can’t quite work out what might.
But a dearth of real parliamentary business offers a potential opportunity. Margaret Hodge pointed out recently that too many MPs don’t have enough to do. This year’s legislative programme may lead to even more slack time.
How might MPs fill this time? There probably isn’t any room for more MPs at Number 10, whatever school they went to. As more policies become scrutiny-ready, Select Committee members should get even busier. The unlucky ones will be swallowed by the dull machinations of party business. Others may find more interests to register this time next year (one of the greatest ideas to come from Mark Thomas’ People’s Manifesto was that MPs, like F1 drivers, should be forced to wear the logo of any organisation which pays them). The natural and ethical way to fill your time will be to serve your real employers, your local constituents. A few MPs such as Stella Creasy and Robert Halfon are taking this beyond the standard reactive surgery and letter-passing approach to become genuine community entrepreneurs in their patch. Matthew Taylor once proposed that MPs should be given specific government projects to oversee, to improve their understanding of implementation, and feel the heat of accountability.
However, there could also be scope for under-occupied MPs to use some of the time to transcend the short term needs of their constituents, and the myopic demands of parliamentary non-business. They could do what politicians of all sides find most difficult, partly because we voters make it so difficult for them – to think about the longer term challenges we face, outside of traditional party or departmental divisions, and develop philosophies and policy ideas that will probably have too much depth to be manifesto-ready.
So for those MPs who are twiddling thumbs rather than fiddling expenses, here’s an offer of work. RSA education is currently developing a new research programme to redefine adolescence. How can society relish rather than fear the teenage years, harnessing its ‘hidden wealth’? How might attitudes, funding and policy towards adolescence make the same step change that we saw in the Early Years during the last 15 years? We are looking for a small number of MPs from all parties to help develop this programme. The salary is less than minimal, the coffee isn’t great, and the chances of promotion and prizes are zero, let alone of winning cups with big ears.
Joe Hallgarten, Director of Education @joehallg
One evening last summer, for reasons I can neither adequately remember nor explain, I found myself at the ‘alternative’ 300th birthday party for Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in the outdoor courtyard of a former squat in Geneva.
Being neither an expert on Rousseau nor a French speaker, I sat awkwardly through the lengthy speeches from local historians and activists, while an English-speaker patiently filled me in on the history of this cooperative-run apartment block; how it had been earmarked to be bulldozed to make way for a supermarket in the midst of the city’s 1980s housing crisis before being squatted by a band of community activists who had, eventually, secured ownership rights to the building.
Finally the speeches ended, and the party switched to an activity I could understand: eating. Heaps of sausages and vegetable cous-cous appeared as if from nowhere, and people squeezed alongside each other on long picnic tables to tuck in and chat. Any divisions among the group were invisible as private tenants and former squatters alike talked and laughed and kept each other’s glasses filled with cheap red wine. Nobody seemed to object to my presence as an uninvited stranger taking far more than my share of sausages, a greedy Anglo-Saxon unacquainted with their continental and collectivist ways. They explained to me that, while this was a special occasion, they often met as a group to share a meal, and that this ritual fostered the community spirit which enabled them to successfully organise and manage the once dilapidated but now thriving property. I remember feeling a distinct sense of warmth, a convivial and exciting atmosphere as people bonded over the breaking of bread.
This is the kind of scene that Tim Smit, the founder of Cornwall’s Eden Project, has been creating all over this country through his latest brainchild, The Big Lunch. He was at the RSA last night, along with the broadcaster Fi Glover, Linda Quinn from the project’s backer The Big Lottery Fund, and Jonathan Carr-West of the Local Government Information Unit, to discuss what can be learned from The Big Lunch project about community building.
The title for the evening’s event was ‘Where Does Responsibility For Community Lie?’, and this is a question that greatly interests me as a project developer on the RSA’s Connected Communities programme. Is it possible for a third party or an external campaign to help build social capital and encourage a community spirit, or can such feelings only be aroused by people acting independently and spontaneously? Does government have a role in creating the conditions in which communities can flourish? What is the role of business and the third sector? And what the heck do we mean by ‘community’ anyway?
Smit and his co-panelists had much to offer on these subjects and much besides. Smit talked about how food, and the British institution of the Sunday lunch, is a crucial element in encouraging people to gain the confidence to knock on each other’s doors and turn strangers into neighbours. This, in short, is what Smit claims an external project like The Big Lunch can do; in his words it can ‘give people permission’ to overcome shyness and take responsibility to act in the community.
Smit said that he hopes that within ten years the pizzazz of ‘The Big Lunch’ branding and publicity won’t be needed, and that a regular, grassroots ‘neighbours day’ will have outgrown the initial project. But he also sees the potential for something much bigger to emerge out of the initial small-talk that occurs over an outdoor dining table. Especially keen Lunch organisers are invited down to The Eden Project for training as social activists and organisers, and are encouraged to develop the confidence to help mobilise communities in new and potentially radical ways. In the modern context of the traditional, hierarchical modes of centralised politics being seen to be losing relevance and influence, Smit says that ‘the potential for a really powerful social force’ lies among horizontally-organised groups of citizens.
Back in the present, Carr-West was on hand to discuss the impact of The Big Lunch to date, following the publication of his report on the project. Headline figures of 8.5 million participants over four years, with 82% reporting that they felt closer to their neighbours as a result, are remarkable, but some of the more qualitative observations are just as significant. Conversations, he said, weave the fabric of communities and allow people to feel better about themselves while also building social capital. He pointed to evidence that an increase in social capital is good for people’s health, it’s good for the economy, and it helps to lower crime. Furthermore it cannot be monopolised – or cut – by governments as it is held collectively in society. And yet the public sector does have a role, he maintained, in helping to connect community activists with one another to run services, provide social support, and enact change, with local councils especially well-placed to facilitate a kind of ‘connected localism’.
All of this may sound like a lot of lofty talk when placed alongside Big Lunch photographs of people wearing face-paint and cutting Victoria sponge cakes underneath lines of bunting. But the culturally ingrained custom, built up over millennia, of people coming together around food in an atmosphere of sharing, warmth and safety, allows for social connections to form. And as the RSA’s Connected Communities programme helps to show, our social networks go a long way to determining our wellbeing, our employability, our health and our ability to get things done in society. And that is something that my erstwhile dining companions in that housing cooperative in Geneva are living testament to.
Yesterday I was interviewed by a researcher from the University of Manchester who is working on a collaborative research project examining the use of social media platforms such as Twitter. The project aims to explore how people use social media in their daily lives and the extent to which people’s use of social media reflects local issues, events and concerns. It is part of the Manchester eResearch Centre which exists to explore how the recent explosion in social media and the interactive web opens up opportunities for understanding societal issues and concerns. So far so interesting…
Having already interviewed a community forum, the police, city council and local MPs, the researcher is in the process of recruiting and interviewing individuals who live in South Manchester and are ‘well-networked users of Twitter.’ She’d got in touch with me via someone she met at a networking event, who had given my name as someone who he thought would fit the bill. I was slightly surprised – I tend to think that I don’t really know what I’m doing with Twitter, and I’m an extremely long way removed from the major league ‘twitterati‘. Aside from that, I don’t use Twitter all that much to share information about or discuss local issues, so I wasn’t convinced I was quite what she was looking for.
I tend to think that I don’t really know what I’m doing with Twitter, and I’m an extremely long way removed from the major league ‘twitterati’.
Nevertheless, I agreed to be interviewed, not least because I was keen to hear more about the research project, and mindful of potential connections or overlaps of interest that might emerge through having the conversation. I wasn’t disappointed. Aside from anything else, it was interesting to be on the other side of the voice recorder for once – there’s a lot to learn from being interviewed rather than doing the interviewing.
Answering questions on my use of Twitter, the role it plays in my professional life, my personal life, and the connections between my use of Twitter and the community in which I live made me think about all these things in a particularly reflective way.
I was asked questions relating to how I use Twitter to provide information to other people, to organise debate and discussion, to gather support and interest and to portray sentiment in relation to various local issues, concerns and events. Like I’ve said, I don’t really think of myself as someone who really knows how to use Twitter to great effect, so it was curious for me to discover that I had at least something to say in relation to each of these lines of questioning.
On one level, Twitter has facilitated the democratisation of news creation, information sharing and agenda setting. On another, it does little to engage, empower or enable members of society who are, in various ways, isolated or marginalised.
In answering the questions, I began to give examples and the discussion turned to the inclusiveness or otherwise of the Twittersphere. On one level, Twitter has facilitated the democratisation of news creation, information sharing and agenda setting. On another, it does little to engage, empower or enable some members of society who are, in various ways, isolated or marginalised. Aside from those members of society who do not have access to an internet enabled device, there are those for whom Twitter simply doesn’t appeal. It isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, and why should it be?
My interviewer mentioned one member of the community forum she’d interviewed who was deeply negative, resistant, and unable to see any potential benefits of using social media to engage with the local community. We talked about professionals such as teachers, nurses and social workers, whose day jobs are are structured in such a way as to make it very difficult to be tweeting all the time alongside doing the job.
They may also already be part of existing communication networks that they are used to and that work well for them, or they may feel that using Twitter is a quasi-work activity that they’d rather not get involved in after hours. There’s the public bodies for whom it is very difficult to use Twitter in the organic, instantaneous way that it needs to be used because of the need to adhere to policies and have all public communication formally approved and signed off. And there are people for whom Twitter is confusing, off-putting, boring or simply not their medium of choice
I’m sure I’m not the first person to suggest that Twitter is a sort of bubble – a group of relatively similar people talking to each other about the things that matter to them. It is easy, when you’re part of that bubble, to imagine that all the important voices are being heard, that anyone who wants to be included in the debate will be. It’s also easy to feel – if you find yourself amidst a storm of retweets – as though you’re really making a difference, that the important people are listening and that you’re at the heart of the action.
But there’s also a world out there that doesn’t live itself out on Twitter. For all the unique opportunities and connections that Twitter may facilitate, there are plenty of people outside the Twitterverse who may be doing really important and valuable things without tweeting about it, or whose voices are easily overlooked. The research I took part in is due to be published this summer and it will be fascinating to find out more about the ways in which Twitter represents, enables or excludes people from participating in community life. In the meantime, I’m very happy to hear any thoughts. Use the comment function below, write me an email, post me a letter (wouldn’t that be novel?) or, if you really want to, you can even send me a tweet.
Like most people working in the area of Education, I find myself constantly reminded of the shining beacon of success that is the Finnish education model. So I was eager to attend a recent conference by the Finnish Institute and the Embassy of Finland which claimed to explain “the Finish Miracle”.
An even mix of Finnish and English educationalists presented their views on the key features of the Finnish system compared to the English, exploring the measures that have led to success and why. It was an extremely enlightening day that I won’t attempt to summarise in full. The key observation that I took is that when searching for the differences between the Finnish system and our own, we need to look beyond specific measures to an underlying cultural ethos towards education.
Whilst it has been widely noted that the Finns have seen positive results from measures such as children starting school at age seven and no national inspection of schools or league tables, the event’s first speaker, Professor Auli Toom from the University of Helsinki, attributed Finland’s success to their educational approach. She highlighted the fact that Finnish culture regards education as a source of hope for a better society and life. This requires the same educational opportunities for every child, hence a completely comprehensive system. At the forefront of this are excellent quality teachers, who are trained to at least Masters Level, with only ten per cent of those that apply being accepted onto the teacher training program. Although teachers are not paid especially highly, prestige and status attracts the best candidates into the profession, who are then given the freedom and trust they deserve.
Next Professor Andrew Pollard, from the Institute of Education, stood up to give a markedly different story from the English perspective. Whilst he acknowledged that there are good and even excellent aspects of our education system, he queried why it is that we settle for one that is, overall, mediocre. Like Professor Toom, his answer referred to an entrenched cultural approach to teaching and learning, one that he regarded as characterised by a history of reform followed by compromise. He cited instances, including the English Civil War, the 1870 Education Act and the 1944 Education Act, as key milestones in our history where we fought for equality. However, our gains were quickly followed by some form of retreat. According to Professor Pollard, this lack of commitment to equality has resulted in an inconsistent education system, where some schools improve at the expense of others that flounder. It remains to be seen whether the National Curriculum Review will be another instance to add to his list, as it allows more freedom for teachers and schools to define the curriculum on the one hand, but places greater emphasis on core knowledge on the other.
Although Professor Pollard’s view is slightly pessimistic I do think we can learn a lot from Finland in terms of equality in education. What lies at the heart of their ethos is an understanding that schooling provides an opportunity for all children to gain not just knowledge but ways of thinking and the broader skills to contribute to an effective and inclusive society. Perhaps we are stuck in the past, with our traditional concepts of achievement that only allow a minority to succeed. But instead of looking back we need to join the Finns in looking forward and ensure that we prepare every child for life in an ever changing world and trust the people who know best, teachers, to get them there.
I wish I had a trumpet. We just released a report Beyond the Big Society: Psychological Foundations of Active Citizenship. Allegra Stratton covered it in the Guardian, it was discussed on the Today programme, and hopefully there is plenty more coverage to come.
Like everybody else, we are not too sure where the inner circle of Downing Street stands on the Big Society. My impression is that David Cameron believes in the idea deeply and genuinely, but has been advised, rightly, that the term has become somewhat toxic, and they are regrouping to find a way to bring the idea back to life.
I have already used a Lord of the Rings reference on the Big Society, describing the emphasis on community at a time of austerity as an attempt to build the Shire in Mordor. At the moment it feels more like Downing Street are carefully planning a resurrection that has to be the same thing, but different. In this case the next iteration of the Big Society looks more like Gandalf the Grey reeling from his battle with the Balorog of Morgoth, when he “strayed out of thought and time”, “but it was not the end…” and Gandalf the White was “sent back, until my task is done”.
My impression is that David Cameron believes in the idea deeply and genuinely, but has been advised, rightly, that the term has become somewhat toxic, and they are regrouping to find a way to bring the idea back to life.
The uncertainty over the status of the Big Society is reflected in the title of the report. Throughout several months of drafting, it was called ‘The Hidden Curriculum of the Big Society’ but at the last minute we feared this may sound out-dated, and given the content of the report applies to participation more broadly, and ‘curriculum’ tends to activate conventional educational frames, we decided to hedge our bets, in case the Big Society really has died as a political idea.
Nonetheless, the report is about the Hidden Curriculum of the Big Society in the following sense(from the report):
Curriculum literally means to ‘run the course’, as in curriculum vitae, the course of my life. The ‘curriculum’ of the Big Society is viewed here as a long term process of cultural change, consisting of the myriad activities and behaviours that people are explicitly being asked to participate in and subscribe to. The hidden curriculum of this process of cultural change comprises the attitudes, values and competencies that are required for this process. The main purpose of this report is to highlight the nature of this hidden curriculum, and indicate how it might inform policy and practice, particularly in relation to releasing hidden social wealth and increasing social productivity.
The ‘curriculum’ of the Big Society is viewed here as a long term process of cultural change, consisting of the myriad activities and behaviours that people are explicitly being asked to participate in and subscribe to. The hidden curriculum of this process of cultural change comprises the attitudes, values and competencies that are required for this process.
As indicated in our web blurb, we believe the idea of the Big Society is at its weakest when it is presented as a partisan technical solution to acute socio-economic problems, and at its strongest when viewed as a non-partisan long term challenge to enrich our social and human capital. At the core of this challenge are the demands we place on people when we ask them to be, for instance, responsible, autonomous, or to show greater solidarity with their fellow citizens. Such demands are grounded in implicit assumptions about human nature and adult competencies that need to be made more explicit if the Big Society is going to survive as a viable idea.
We introduce a perspective on public participation that is rarely considered by policymakers, namely mental complexity in the adult population – our varied capacity to understand competing motivations and values in ourselves and others, to ‘get things in perspective’, and to act appropriately in uncertain or ambiguous situations. Rather than theories of ‘personality’ and ‘interpersonal skills’ that only pay lip service to the complexity of human capital, we believe this perspective helps us to deepen the discussion on public participation, with greater explanatory power and clearer practical implications.
This argument is informed by the work of Harvard Theoretical Psychologist and Educator Robert Kegan, whom I was lucky enough to be taught by a decade ago. I also make use of his ideas in our Transforming Behaviour Change report but in the more recent work I try to show the central relevance of his work to one of the biggest policy issues of our time.
The core argument is that what makes society ‘big’ in the sense of significant are big citizens, and what makes a citizen ‘big’ are their competencies. When you look closely at the things people are asked to do and master (participate, volunteer, take responsibility, cooperate etc) in the name of the Big Society, these tasks clearly entail certain competencies.
Why I think our report has value is that we look at these competencies in detail, and find, inspired by Kegan, that they implicitly ask for a certain level of mental complexity in the adult population. That is fine, good even. Our argument is that if the Big Society is ever going to be taken seriously this implicit challenge has to be recognised, and we need to be more explicit about what this means in terms of designing policies and practices that support people in meeting that challenge.
Confused but intrigued? Read the report.
I wrestled with the document for months, as Gandalf wrestled with the Balrog, so I am glad it is out, and want to thank those who helped, especially the background research and contributions of co-authors Matthew Mezey Kalman and Benedict Dellot.
The Guardian and the LSE have just published findings from their research on the riots. This is really really worth a read and a watch. However, anyone with any experience of youth work with marginalised young people will not be at all surprised. This is a bit of a reflection of some of my own work and a call for better ideas!
A digested read, digested, of the topline tells us that “Widespread anger and frustration at the way police engage with communities was a significant cause of the summer riots” with deep-rooted “distrust and antipathy toward police”. A feeling of injustice and alienation pervaded the various reasons cited for the riots- from lack of jobs and opportunity; to scrapping the EMA; to how they felt they were treated compared with others.
It was acknowledged that the form the riots took (e.g. looting) was essentially due to opportunism given a “perceived suspension of normal rules”- people felt this was an unusual chance to get away with it. Social networking sites were seen as mere corollaries to the main facts – although Blackberry messenger was seen as being crucial – and it was found that far from being centered around gangs, the riots were actually a reflection of an unprecedented ‘truce’ which allowed people to cross postcode lines.
“Ring the bells that still can ring,
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.”
This all took me back into work I conducted in Camden on young people’s social networks with the fantastic charity PanArts. The social world inhabited by the young people in the Synergy project – which aimed to unite young people divided by endz gangfare- was typical of this. If they wanted young people from, say, NW5 to go to a youth centre in NW3, they needed a mini-bus.
The young men that took part in the arts projects were incredibly affectionate between themselves – playing with each other’s hair and clothing – but untrusting of others: “they do have to look over their shoulders all the time” (PanArts worker, 2010). They were never still, always on the look-out for danger, and always in friction with the police.
This friction might be expressed in police de-facto stopping youth club meetings by imposing a curfew on the area, or the anger-inducing story of a young man who left all his friends and networks behind to go on to bigger things, yet found that once he had left Camden to learn new skills, Camden could not leave him. Whilst in the centre of London attending a prestigious arts training course he was stopped and searched by police who informed his new friends who knew nothing of his background that he was a ‘repeat offender’ who they should not be spending time with.
Youth culture has historically always been about forming identities… Gangs are not the problem
As expressed by PanArts in an interview with me at the time:
“ A lot of the kids we work with don’t have that belief that society is working ultimately for their good, so those micro-systems [of trust] are what they latch onto, well possibly because it is all they have got… and because they like being able to trust people… and tell their secrets and have fun”
Human beings need identities, and when they are shut out from mainstream society, they form their own. Youth culture has historically always been about forming identities: our identity is what we barter our social capital on. Social capital is not always ‘positive’, it merely describes human interactions. A sense of community is not solely about geographical proximity, it is about who we recognise as ‘like us’.
Gangs are not the problem. What is worrying is marginalised groups who feel they are not part of mainstream society, who feel that they are treated different to everyone else, handed a rawer deal than everyone else, who experience suicidal levels of disinterest in what happens to them as they feel they have nothing to lose. Anger at police, is essentially anger at how representatives of the state interact with you. Researchers for the LSE/Guardian reported being repeatedly asked “This is nothing to do with the government right, this is nothing to do with the police, right?
We are seeing the formation of “some neighbourhoods that are effectively somewhere else from the rest of society”, and we can all see the cracks in the perfect offering of a supposedly meritocratic ‘open-opportunity’ society. The question is, what are we going to do about it?
We’re looking for ways that technology – particularly the web – can play in helping young people: whether it’s helping them access advice and information, seek support from others, or connecting them to hidden job and training opportunities
I would love to see what would happen if we were to run a service re-design project with young people affected by the riots or gang violence. Co-production has been used to great effect in many arena: what happens if you ask people “Right, this is our budget, these are all the people we need to provide for: how would you do youth services? How would you ensure something of a fairer deal?”
Or maybe you have a far better idea: the RSA has just launched a interactivism challenge with Google “ asking people of all backgrounds – software developers, young people, professional practitioners, teachers and policymakers of all levels – to put forward innovative ideas for how the internet and technology could support young people.” What can you build?
We have heard the bells, and we have seen the cracks. Is it maybe time to let the light in?
Working on a programme called Citizen Power is, I have to admit, a bit of a challenge coming from a human rights background. Who is this citizen whose power we’re so interested in?
For all that Socrates may proclaim himself a citizen of the world, citizenship is, by its very nature, exclusive. The citizens of a community must satisfy some set of requirements in order to enjoy membership in that community. While these requirements may have changed drastically from the fall of the polis to the rise of the nation state, they serve a similar purpose: to draw a line between those who belong and those who do not. The citizen is inevitably defined in opposition to the non-citizen – the culturally, ethnically, linguistically or politically different ‘other’ who lies on or outside the boundaries of the ‘imagined community’ of the nation state.
This is so for several (interrelated) reasons. First, in the modern welfare state, citizenship confers various social and welfare rights on citizens. In order to ensure that the state remains economically viable, it seems wise to limit these rights to those who, in turn, do their bit by paying taxes, contributing to the labour market, and so on.
Second, the principles of democratic legitimacy require that that rights of political participation are extended to all those who are affected by the political decision-making process. By exercising their right to vote or stand for office, citizens grant politicians a mandate to create or amend public policy on their behalf. Again, it makes sense to limit these rights to the legitimate members of a political community – we can’t have every tourist and their dog turning up on polling day.
And third, citizenship – particularly in its civic republican form – is a reciprocal agreement that demands active participation from its members. Yes, citizens are entitled to certain rights – but, in return, they also have certain obligations to contribute to a common social good (by engaging in public deliberation, shaping public institutions, helping out elderly neighbours, etc). This is reflected in the idea of a “Human Rights Act Plus” (which looks at supplementing existing rights and liberties with citizens’ responsibilities), and documents like the NHS Constitution and the Department for Education’s Guidelines on parental responsibility, which set out both rights and corresponding obligations.
This is all very well in theory, but in practice it gets a bit messy. There are many groups that are affected by political decision-making but excluded from the sphere of citizenship, particularly where this is premised on active participation. This may be because they fail to meet the formal requirements of citizenship (including asylum seekers, refugees and migrants); they have forfeited their rights to political participation (including prisoners); or they lack the basic capacities required to participate (including those who are very elderly, severely mentally disabled, extremely poor, homeless, unable to speak English, or otherwise marginalised).
In Peterborough, where the Citizen Power programme is based, there are relatively high levels of poverty (in 2009, 18% of working age persons were claiming a key benefit, against the national average of 15%), homelessness (in 2008-2009, 2.41 households were recognised as homeless per 1,000 people, up from national average of 1.03) and ethnic diversity (8.99% of Peterborians were born outside the UK or Ireland, up from the national average of 8.32%) and, anecdotally, large numbers of refugees and asylum seekers. Citizen Power aims to revitalise a sense of attachment to place in Peterborough by building connections between people and communities and encouraging active public participation. But, in doing so, how inclusive is it of those who lie at the margins of – or beyond – the framework of citizenship, and are arguably most vulnerable? And, perhaps more importantly, how inclusive should it be?
There are definitely steps in the direction of inclusiveness. The Recovery Capital project is working closely with injecting drug users and prolific and persistent offenders. Peterborough Curriculum draws on the resources offered by a culturally diverse local community to create a unique place-based curriculum. The Take Me To project took a diverse group of residents – including members of the local Polish and Muslim communities, elderly community members, and adults with learning disabilities from 49 Lincoln Road – on an exploration of place and belonging. And the Civic Health project will examine the capacities required for active participation – including, crucially, where these are most lacking in Peterborough – and provide tools for addressing these gaps in order to encourage as broad a sphere of participation as possible.
Citizen Power Peterborough seeks to resuscitate a shared sense of community identity premised on other-regarding behaviour. In doing so, how can we best look outwards towards those on the margins of citizenship who are most in need of empowerment?
There is a tremendous irony at the heart of the current debate on AV. Politicians of all persuasions are looking the electorate in the eye and telling us, as sincerely as they can, that we are the audience with the greatest stake in the issue of voting reform. But their internal debates suggest something rather different. Where does that leave us?
Those in favour of AV tell us how unrepresentative the current system is, how only about a third of MPs secure a majority of the votes in their constituency, how many MPs can effectively ignore the needs and votes of many of their constituents, how the existence of safe seats means some don’t even need to work hard to engage their core support, and how most voters are effectively disenfranchised by this situation.
Those in favour of FPTP invoke the ghoul of perpetual coalition government and compromise, the fact that second, third and fourth choices should not have the same weight as first choices, the relative complexity of AV, and even the fact that AV is too small a step and should be rejected in favour of something closer to PR. Oh, and the fact that the only countries in the world to use AV for national elections are Australia, Papua New Guinea and Fiji (which is apparently considering a change anyway).
These are all reasonable arguments, and positive reasons to engage with the question of electoral reform. They should in themselves persuade people that it matters to them and encourage them to think about it and vote on it.
And yet, when those same politicians look each other in the eye, the debate takes a rather different course. Those in favour of AV claim that FPTP is mainly being defended by politicians with a stake in it (mostly the Conservatives). Those in favour of FPTP claim AV is really being advanced as a mechanism for increasing the power of the Lib Dems.
In other words, the debate turns negative, and is about power for politicians, not power for the people. And politicians, let’s not forget, have the loudest voices on this issue, so people are well aware of their internal wranglings. The debate on Newsnight a couple of nights ago, in which four politicians spoke a lot and two non-politicians said less, was a case in point.
Isn’t this exactly what we don’t need? Our voting system is at the heart of the relationship between Parliament and the electorate, and all politicians acknowledge that something needs to be done to engage with us again (even if they can’t agree on how). Surely an extended debate on the future of that system should be taken as an opportunity to re-engage people, and to persuade them of the importance of their part in the electoral relationship? It would be a shame if it actually reinforces the disconnect between us.
It comes down to the question of what are we voting for in May – something that matters to us, or something that really concerns the fortunes of 650 (for now) MPs?