Welcome in my back yard: from a joined-up state to a join-in society
The tectonic plates have shifted in the relationship between the state and the people it serves. From an era in which this relationship was defined by the state’s structures — parliament, the town hall, the local park — these structures now need to be re-defined by the fluctuating and interdependent relationships between the state and its people, as users, consumers and citizens.
The new era is defined by the fragmengrated society — where relationships are dominated by a dual paradox of fragmentation and integration: brand infidelity versus fairtrade evangelism, outsourcing versus freedom of movement, ghettos/gated communities versus neighbourhood associations, etc. These patterns of relationships, previously predictable and institutionally managed are now increasingly fluctuating and interdependent of one another. Shaping these social interactions has become easier than keeping them in shape, which is why single-issue groups and parties are stealing the wider political ground. Only “bottom up” local democracy can provide the opportunity for creating consensus across the community and nurture active local citizenship.
Creating a consensus has always been a key challenge for democracy. More than ever, the public space is riven by both conflict and stagnation — refusal of the other and refusal of change. And yet, consensus is evermore critical at a time when difficult decisions need to be made about how to tackle pensions, climate change, national identity, etc. We need a joined-up society, but more importantly a join-in society
How do we create this join-in society? Lack of interest in participating in democratic activity derives partly from a lack of confidence in being able to make a difference. It also derives from the inappropriateness of traditional structure-led, democratic activity with the remote-controlled society that we live in.
General interest should not be cynically viewed as a repository of mutual fears, at best, drawn together by shared worries and at worst mutual hatred of each other. Some communities do have a strong sense of identity, some people may rarely vote in local elections but many are already making a vital difference through statutory caring, young enterprise and mentoring. Involvement, exchange and redistribution of experiences and knowledge all build social capital.
Naturally, there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution. We need to look on the ground to see what fits best. Some communities may already have a strong democratic vitality while others may benefit from capacity building for a more gradualist approach.
We need to re-invigorate the concept of general interest and common good, through refashioning the relationship between the citizen and those who represent the general interest, our politicians and our government. Everyone needs to reconnect with each other and confront together the new realities
o politicians need to enhance their legitimacy by spreading a civic gospel which gives citizens greater voice in the decisions that they make on behalf of them and greater diversity in the kinds of arenas they can express their political motivations
o citizens also need to engage in expressing this voice and both citizens and politicians need accept their shared responsibilities in finding adaptive solutions to the competing demands we are faced with.
This requires both tangible change and behaviour change to break the status quo and foster civic renewal, where people don’t participate more for the sake of participating, but engage in making communities better places both for themselves and for those around them.
We cannot expect people to assume shared responsibilities in rebuilding the public realm if their communities are vacant of opportunity. We need to go down to all communities, especially the most isolated and excluded, to feel the democratic pulse. To renew democracy, we need relationships and local institutions that integrate the diversity of challenges and opportunities, but also which integrate people’s daily lives, so that individuals can practise democracy, through getting informed, getting inspired, taking action and improving their communities.
We need local public services to lead by example more than by authority. They must mobilise involvement and work in partnership with all those who have a stake in the community. We therefore need local partners to be ambitious and risk-taking, brave and courageous in providing the necessary glue for social cohesion; communicating a clearer vision of how they want to improve the quality of life chances for their residents and enabling its citizens to design and improve their services and greater accountability for a wider range of people to scrutinise the powers-that-be. We need local champions to come together to bring clarity and edge to the local conversation — that choreograph a local narrative that’s inclusive and community-driven.
Empowering people to contribute to the common good should therefore be about giving people access to opportunities and confidence to access these opportunities. This needs to be deeply rooted in an ethos of mutuality and shared responsibilities. Active citizenship can only be formed through enabling a reciprocal relationship between citizens and between citizens and their representatives. Double devolution can therefore only be possible through a grass-roots WIMBYist* renaissance.
*Welcome In My Back Yard