Monday 16 February 2015

The disappointments of participation, so far

Participation in the way we are governed, and the way that public services work, has been the great - largely unrealised - dream of the revival of Liberalism since the 1950s.

Most of it wasn't categorised as Liberal, all that explosion of energy from adventure playgrounds to self-build housing, but it was.  It was also a reaction to the corporate state, over-professionalism, and the sense - as Nye Bevan put it, approvingly - that "the man in Whitehall really does know best".

That anarchic participation and self-help provided the energy for the huge growth of the voluntary sector, now largely controlled by government grants and the lottery.  It has also been undermined by three other things.

First, the delusions of statutory consultation, which brings real consultation - if we ever see it - into disrepute.

Second, the failure of the peculiar phenomenon of official consultees - local people put on boards and paid, who tend to go the opposite of native.  I remember these from the early days of the Elephant & Castle development.  There is no more pompous phenomenon, more obstructive, more on their own dignity, as the official community representative.

Third, the idea that participation is bound to be passive.  People sitting quietly, plodding away online, telling their local authority about potholes using clever software from the privacy of their own back room.

There's no doubt that the online world can support real participation, but - here is the point - there can be no genuine participation without action, without doing things.  They may be very simple things, befriending people, talking to people, having ideas.

Without activity, participation is about spin, and marketing, in a virtual world unbounded by the inconveniences of geography.  It has no equality.  It is all about manipulation.  It is us and them.  Only action wrests equality from officials - working alongside professionals, playing a role of some kind.

So two slightly more uplifting things.  First, there is my co-written book Give and Take about the track record and future of time banking in the NHS.  Time banks are one of those rare things: genuine active participation.

In the 15 years now since Sarah and I launched the Rushey Green Time Bank in Catford, the idea has proved itself many times over.

Second, there is the way that blogs can be a form of political participation which might be able to spread ideas and encourage other kinds of activity.  They may indeed go beyond something that is merely passive.

The Spanish academic Juan Sanchez from Valencia University is doing research about the implications of political blogs and you could help him by filling in his short online survey here.

I will feed back the results when they emerge.

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