Politics of Community Development

The hardest person to convince that something is wrong is one who makes a living from it.

No one individual, organisation or political perspective has all the solutions to all the problems and challenges that we collectively face at all levels of our community life. However, the whole community itself; the collective summation of interests, intelligence, skills, perspectives and experience of all community members, most definitely does have. One solution to liberating this potential is to enable and allow a process of "community development" and co-creation between the Community and the statutory bodies. With regards to the twin threats of climate change and species extinction, a growing number of individuals and groups are aligning together in a belief that, by working together, we can avoid a catastrophic collapse of life on this planet. However, this is a view not necessarily shared by the existing structures of community governance.

"In recent years, much has been made of the importation of business practices into government...but few policy-makers have quite grasped just how much the principle of self-reliance has become central to modern business, exercised at every level of the modern business organisation, not just its apex" (Atkinson, 1994, p6). While this quote is dated, many modern successful businesses rightly recognise that the creativity and ingenuity of staff is one of its most valuable and important resources that needs to be encouraged and empowered in all ways. Why then is this not practiced within our system of governance? The Good Governance Guide (2012) in Australia, for current councillors and council officers, identifies good practice as that which "...makes the best use of the available people, resources and time to ensure the best possible results for the community..." (source). Within the UK, the community itself seems to be the one element that is often overlooked as potentially the most valuable of resources. Many people of goodwill within the community really do want to help. But to do this they need the structures of government to support rather than suppress them in their efforts. Many statutory sector professionals have perceived the value of community partnerships as a viable long-term solution to local service delivery challenges, without perhaps realising that true community development, by definition, can only occur as a living movement from within the community itself, rather than being imposed from without.

Some time back, I made a formal approach to our local borough authority. The basic issue was that increasing numbers of local people had recognised that there were insufficient litter bins in the town to effectively deter some people from dropping litter. OK, I realise that there are different perspectives and opinions about this! However, the perspective we were working on was that some community members, including me, were willing to operate and manage our own litter bins as a community service; at no cost or inconvenience to the local authority. I expected that they would support the principle of community self-help.

The gentleman that I spoke with was a senior officer within the authority; polite, courteous and willing to engage for 20 minutes. He was able to succinctly articulate the narrative describing the relationship between Council and Community. This is: a) we are not allowed to help ourselves, b) the authority is not able to try anything new, only what has been done before, and c) change can ONLY come from the elected members. After the conversation was succinctly terminated following my enthusiasm to question this, and not to be deterred, I immediately wrote a polite request for support to every local elected member in the borough. I received no response.

There is no suggestion intended that the officer was somehow acting against the principles by which the Council operates or is somehow a "bad person". A quick Google search on "local authority culture of bullying" reveals a horrifying pattern throughout the entire UK. Extensively documented and of widespread concern, this same culture ensues within many local authority working environments, as well as other public services including the NHS; an aggressive and bullying style of hierarchical line management that rewards ruthless ambition while suppressing well-being, truthfulness, healthy debate and innovation. It engenders fear, paranoia and mental illness, much whispering in small groups and the ever-present dominant need to watch ones back. Whistle-blowers, revealing malpractice, are routinely intimidated and silenced, while truly conscientious individuals often feel they have little option but to resign and pursue livelihood in a more humane environment. Little wonder then that us, the people, the ones who pay their wages through our taxes, who might feel dependent on their intervention to support community initiatives, are often regarded as a nuisance; an irritation to be fobbed off and avoided at all costs. One simple and inescapable conclusion is that, faced with the urgent need to create widespread radical change throughout all aspects of society, our current systems of governance and delivery of public services are becoming unfit for purpose.

"Co-production is a partnership between citizens and public services to achieve a valued outcome. Such partnerships empower citizens to contribute more of their own resources (time, will power, expertise and effort) and have greater control over service decisions and resources." (Cabinet Office Strategy Unit)

Reference: Atkinson, D, 1994, The Common Sense of Community, London, Demos.

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