Contributed by Dr. Angela Drakakis-Smith
Community engagement are new buzz words in administrative circles, particularly at national government level where there appears to be a strong belief that if the ‘community’ is ‘engaged’ things will get done better and cheaper – even for free. Thus voluntary groups are being encouraged to perform ‘services’ which statutory agencies might normally undertake. Whilst national government is adamant that communities can and will decide which services they want and how they want them, putting this into useful practice at the local level is proving a stumbling block – particularly where this is a euphemism for cutting back on services provided. Street cleaning is a good example: in some areas a street sweep every 17 weeks is not enough and some neighbourhoods could be swamped with litter and dog faeces before the sweeping cart arrives! The Local List is another.
The crux of the matter appears to be how local councils will interpret the will of national government and what local policy will be and how it will be implemented to tie in with the will of local people. Recently, and as part of this process, a Community Engagement Strategy was circulated (although far from widely) for ‘consultation’. However this document was fuzzy as to what the term ‘community engagement’ meant. And even the term ‘consultation’ was far from clear. For those drawing up the document, it appeared to be about surveys and rubber stamping decisions already decided and not really about genuine, meaningful, dialogue/debate, which is what engagement is about, which residents would like and indeed, even appreciate. Residents want to know what is going on, particularly in their neighbourhoods. If paid and elected officers cannot explain this satisfactorily and get some kind of general consent preferably before the event, then perhaps they shouldn’t be doing what they are doing. This is also called ‘accountability’. However, try to engage some officers in useful debate and you might find yourself labelled conflictual, difficult, a nuisance and struck of their Christmas card list! Ask questions or disagree with what they are doing and you might be considered confrontational, a ‘perpetual whinger’ with a one way ticket to Coventry!! This immediately places ‘community engagement on a shaky foundation and undermines democracy which requires a rational debate on issues of importance and relevance. A case in point are Local Area Groups (LAGs) which you many not have heard of – but that doesn’t matter as already their name is changing. Whatever they may be called rest assured there is one being set up in your area as we speak with ready made Terms of Reference and ‘Governing’ bodies who will decide how any money is spent and which services
will be provided to you, and it seems without so much as a nod to the community generally. Ask about them and you may not receive a reply. Spooky!
So where is all this going? Perhaps the short answer is nowhere. As fast as one policy document is printed and before it can be implemented another comes winging down from central government. This appears to have been going on for the past two decades. It also means that no-one has actually to do anything other than circulate paper and whilst the paper is circulating nothing much actually needs to happen. Much is projected into a future which may never be realised and these days people have such short memories. It’s not unlike the banking and monetary system – unreal. So you have to hand it to the Department of Spiffing Wheezes – they really are doing a great job!! However, before anything can change, the 19th century ethos has to make way for a more open and more accountable and more discursive process. At the moment local administrations talk the talk, but they don’t appear yet to have discovered how to do the walk. Maybe that will come – hopefully, in our lifetime.