Five steps to active citizenship and a more supportive society
4 November, 2005

Chris Leslie, Director, NLGN
Public Servant

Can you name your next-door neighbours? If you saw someone vandalising a parking meter, would you report it to the Police? If so, then you are a prime candidate for the accolade ‘active citizen’. These tests may be simple and the hurdle set apparently low, but they are two examples of a neighbourliness that has dwindled in recent decades – a sense of community and responsibility that, sad to say, is not shared by sufficient numbers of people. “So what?” might well be the retort. Yet it does matter if you accept that we cannot thrive as isolated individuals disconnected from one another, because the truth is we all depend on each other for society to succeed and prosper. A recent Home Office study pinpointed three processes at work in the ideally active society: guardianship (i.e., looking out for each other); socialisation (where certain standards of respect and cooperation are accepted); and information flows (between residents and service providers and so on). Active citizenship and a willingness to engage in society is a prerequisite for quality public services, for economic growth, for sports and culture and entertainment. In short, active citizenship is the cornerstone of our democracy and civilisation.

In his seminal book “Bowling Alone” the author Robert Putnam illustrated the shifting character of American culture, as traditional social activities – club memberships, church attendance, scouts and brownies – have fallen in popularity while individualised activities – such as watching television or going to the bowling alley alone – have grown. This trend correlates to a decline in electoral and political participation, argues Putnam, which in turn has occurred in parallel with other socially dysfunctional changes, including rising crime, fragmented & ghettoised communities and a sense in which ‘respect’ between members of the public has been eroded.

Attempts to boost turnout in elections, or to raise volunteering rates across the country are all laudable in themselves, but ultimately looking at each of these separately is to merely tackle the symptoms of a deeper origin, when it would be more productive to identify and address the root cause of general social disengagement.

So if Louise Casey’s newly established ‘Respect Taskforce’ is to succeed, she would do well to look quickly at what can be done to boost active citizenship and how we can collectively invest in what Putnam calls ‘social capital’. The problem is, much of the solution lies in face-to-face relationships and not in sweeping national policy gestures or legislation. From neighbourhood to neighbourhood, the consequences of social disengagement manifest themselves in different and complex ways; loitering youngsters at odds with scared and suspicious elderly residents; pockets of street crime or persistent vandalism; even so-called ‘road rage’ at traffic bottlenecks. These are local problems to be overcome almost entirely by local solutions. So while nationwide changes can arguably smooth the path for greater participation (greater tax relief on volunteering, more convenient ways to cast a vote), ultimately changes in behaviour will be delivered through conversations, prompting by friends and family, people persuading people to take part, to understand, to join in. Local interaction from person to person is the antidote for social disengagement, and we need to foster and encourage this as a matter of urgency.

There are at least five ways in which local interaction could be improved. First, from the earliest age children need to learn about how society works, its decisions and networks, and how their lives in their town or village have been shaped by local decisions and community activity. Schools should be institutions that face out towards there surrounding neighbourhood, bringing in parents and residents and local community groups on a routine basis – the ‘extended school’ hours coming soon are a great opportunity to deliver this.

Second, local government with its unique legitimacy as a local service provider needs to take on its leadership responsibility and devolve decision-making out of the town hall and into neighbourhoods, listening more carefully to issues as they arise in the street or in the park and responding to requests, in doing so rebuilding trust and faith the electoral contract. Extra effort needs to be taken to reach out to those less able to attend public meetings or voice their demands – these are the individuals most in need of engagement and interaction.

Third, local residents need to be better informed about what activities and interests are around the corner if only they found out or knew about them. Some council publications are now acting as a social diary for family weekends, as local newsletters advertise forthcoming events, festivals or club meetings – and these should be encouraged and not viewed with cynicism.

Fourth, all our political parties need to get back to grassroots membership, prioritising local meetings, debates and discussions. Rather than exploring state funding as a means of boosting activity, they should instead be encouraged to meet and recruit locally. Perhaps an equivalent to charitable gift aid on political party membership donations capped at, say, £50 would be the best incentive to encourage lots of small conversations with many people, rather than a constant HQ focus on big sums from a few donors.

Fifth, we need to recognise that time is a premium especially for working people, and with pressures and expectations for all adults to be engaged in employment we need employers to accept their social obligations too. This means that employers need to be aware of problems in their local community, and for the best employers to do the right thing and set aside some time-off for civic duties of staff. Not only should time sitting on a jury or as a magistrate or councillor be encouraged, but a good employer should contribute staff time and volunteer solutions to neighbourhood problems, to local clean-ups blitzes, offering enterprise placements for school pupils, providing companionship for the elderly and alone, and so on.

These five steps are merely examples of where local action could begin to turn the tide of social disengagement and encourage active citizenship, though more than this is needed still. Those of us who advocate a ‘new localism’ need also to recognise that this is more than structural or managerial change – it should be a strategy to reinvigorate civic and community activity for a purpose, namely the social cohesion of where we live.