Anna Randle, Head of Policy, NLGN
Local Government Chronicle
Active citizenship is a key strand of current government thinking. The idea is as follows: multiple benefits can be achieved through citizens becoming more engaged and active in their communities, including the building of individual capacity, the strengthening of community cohesion and the improvement of local services and the fabric of the area.
This may sound rather idealistic, but new research from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation suggests that real initiatives can put flesh on the bones of government rhetoric. The research examined a range of anti-poverty projects which sought to encourage the participation of people with direct experience of poverty. David Miliband and Hazel Blears may be pleased read the conclusions: that empowerment is a key to tackling the experience of poverty, and also that active citizen engagement is likely to improve projects’ effectiveness both in building personal and community capacity, and in achieving tangible regeneration outcomes.
This research should be essential reading for councils who are thinking about what the Government’s neighbourhood agenda means for them. The neighbourhood agenda is where the themes of active citizenship and empowerment meet local government policy and practice: it is councils who will facilitate and enable new forms of participation and empowerment within their local areas.
There are various key lessons. Firstly, that conventional managerial top-down approaches are limited in achieving effective participation. Secondly, that citizens are more likely to get involved if they feel real outcomes will result. Thirdly, that capacity-building develops people’s confidence, self-esteem and understanding. And finally, that much of this agenda may be about supporting and enabling the evolution of local organisations which people themselves develop and control.
It is with this last point in particular that the active citizenship and neighbourhood agenda becomes difficult for many councils to accept. It is not necessarily about council-owned and led structures. Any council which is currently pouring over its maps, puzzling over where to draw the boundaries between hundreds of new ‘neighbourhood’ structures, may be at risk of missing the point of what this is all about.
Instead, I think councils should be examining their assumptions about how they deliver services, how they engage citizens, and how they develop community and physical well-being. It is not just about being prepared to listen, but also about being prepared to give up control, and behaving in new ways. It is about ‘enabling’ rather than ‘doing’, being open-minded about where ideas and initiatives come from, and working with communities to identify local concerns and tackle them from the bottom up.
Let’s be honest: achieving the multiple potential benefits of active citizenship is not easy for councils. It requires time, investment, human resources and commitment. It also requires significant cultural change. However, if councils are committed to putting the well-being of their communities and areas at the core of their role, then active citizenship should be at the top of their agenda.
“Participation in anti-poverty and regeneration work and research: Overcoming Barriers and Creating Opportunities” is available free from www.jrf.org.uk