Community activism and the democratic deficit

I branched out a little on the third day of the SPA conference – but only a little.  First up was three-paper symposium by the Coprodnet collective.  These guys are a multi-site academic, policy and practitioner unit looking at co-production.  (They also need to practice better time-keeping and leave more time for people to ask questions, but that’s a whole other conference issue.)  Co-production, as NEF explained to you yesterday, is the idea that service users and service providers co-produce their service and that, crucially, social value (aka positive externalities) is created through the co-production process.  An example will help here.

Think about a halfway house for people who are being released from a secure mental health unit.  The services provided by the halfway house are a roof, food, mental health services, employment assistance and eventually resettlement assistance (bear in mind that I know nothing about such facilities – you may have to use your imagination to cover the gaps).  If the residents co-produce the services with the staff, that implies that they will be cooking and cleaning, engaging with each other in group therapies where appropriate, providing basic assistance to new residents etc etc.  There are clearly ‘extra’ benefits to the co-production of these services over and above the benefit of the service itself.  If a resident helps with food preparation, he or she gets to enjoy the meal but also benefits from an element of occupational therapy or life skills training.

So far so good…  One of the papers (by James Duggan) focused on the Fantastic Food Organisation.  This activist group started in Dalewood (which I can’t find on Googlemaps – is it pseudonymous?) and addressed itself to the issues of local, sustainable food production.  They worked with schools to set up hydro- and aquaponics, allowing children to produce their own local and sustainable food (that’s the co-production element).  It sounds lovely – the children learn as they produce – and I bet it’s popular with parents.  But.  Schools have changed their curriculum to accommodate the FFO.  Who decided that?  What about the local authority (probably a county council) which is responsible for schools in Dalewood (and is governed by democratically elected councillors)?  What’s to stop, say, a religious group ploughing money into schools and getting their issues on the curriculum?  (What’s that you say?  This already happens in church schools all over the country?  Oh…)  FFO sounds like a lovely group, but perhaps a little monomaniacal.  My first reaction is that education should be run by those elected to run it and not by well-connected, well-funded pressure groups with bees in their bonnets.  I recognise that this is an over-reaction in this case, but it’s my first reaction nevertheless.

While I’m frothing at the mouth about democratic deficits, let me move on to Beth Carley’s paper about New East Manchester ‘Beacon’ regeneration zones (and their non-beacon neighbours a little further south in Gorton).  I’m not familiar with the policies and terminologies, but the basic facts seem to be these…  The Beacon zone received £75m for regeneration (including encouraging or building up mechanisms for citizen involvement/partnership).  Gorton did not receive such a boost (although their community groups did receive some funding from the local council and other bodies). 

After the cash injection, community networks in the Beacon area and in Gorton are remarkably similar to one another.  Carley used a network analysis to compare the numbers of linkages between local activists and groups and the degrees of centralisation present in local networks.  Essentially, a community activist in the Beacon zone knows about the same number of people as one in Gorton, works with roughly the same number of other local groups etc.  The important difference (to me, at least) is that in Gorton, elected politicians are a key part of the community network and are well-connected to local groups.  In the Beacon zone, local councillors were deliberately excluded and they remain excluded from the networks which have developed.  I’m almost lost for words.  I know that I tend to be soft on politicians and soft on the causes of politicians, but even so…  I just can’t see how cutting elected officials out of the process helps anyone in this case.

To be fair, I should add that policy is made by those who show up (to mangle a Disraeli quote – or possibly a Truman quote, or certainly a West Wing quote).  The FFO are showing up and being heard and it would be thus if they had chosen to go through traditional democratic channels.  I am also forced to acknowledge that their way is quicker and more efficient.  I’m not exactly complaining – I just don’t want us to sleep-walk away from our existing democratic institutions.  I think they might be useful.

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