A bigger hearted society?
There is a healthy appetite for community engagement and volunteering, as communities are showing in the aftermath of the riots, says Paul Emery
Amid the shock and outrage of last week’s riots across England, something altruistic happened – something the media was quick to publicise as a symbol of a burgeoning Big Society. Communities grouped together to help with the clean-up and restore calm to their neighbourhoods.
It may not have quite been prime minister David Cameron’s ideal vision of the Big Society in action, but what the images of volunteers holding brooms aloft did show was a big-hearted society – one in which community spirit and unity is alive and well.
Ever since the Government unveiled its plans to increase community engagement in local service delivery, there has been a question mark over whether there is sufficient appetite or inclination among communities to get involved, either directly – volunteering to provide services themselves – or indirectly, where the public has decision-making powers about providers.
But this latest example is proof that, with the right cause, the right support, and the right leadership, ‘people power’ can be realised.
This is why we have launched the Community Toolkit (www.communitytoolkit.co.uk), a free online resource to help individuals and small groups get the common sense support and protection they need to start straightforward community activities.
There are already government-driven suggestions of how communities and individuals can become formally involved in public service delivery – the Tenant Repair scheme will enable social housing residents to make repairs or appoint suppliers themselves; a new concept of community-run ‘free schools’ launches in September; and, in many parts of the country, the public are stepping in to help keep local libraries afloat.
Meanwhile, in its recent Open public services White Paper, the Government outlined plans to devolve commissioned services.
More informally, there is plenty people can do to help out – from setting up litter-picking groups or holding a community picnic, to helping tidy a neighbour’s garden or setting up a class to share language skills.
For local authorities, there are clear benefits to service devolution – it opens up more provider choice, flexibility and innovation. But, at the same time, community-delivered services is new and challenging territory that will take entirely new management structures and new ways of working to succeed.
One of the reasons the clean-up in the aftermath of the riots was so successful is because it was not simply an emotional response on the part of the public.
Instead of a random collection of volunteers taking to the streets where-ever and however, what actually happened was an organised response executed in partnership with authorities.
According to reports, nominated ‘leaders’, consulted with the police, fire service and local councils to establish where help was needed.
The information was then disseminated via Twitter, utilising hashtags such as #Riotcleanup, ensuring that the ‘Broom army’ knew where to go, what to do, and what to bring to stay safe. A simple act, perhaps, but one which shows even the most basic of community activities needs planning, clear communication among ‘partners’, and risk analysis to work. So, what does this mean for the Big Society?
Decentralisation will inevitably create a complex web of delivery, presenting a key challenge for local authorities and, in many cases, for the voluntary organisations and charities with which they will be working.
Because, while councils may not directly deliver certain services in the future, they will likely become the strategic co-ordinator, bringing together a range of suppliers, empowering community groups, charities and volunteers.
In other cases, local authorities will need to hand over responsibility for a service, relinquishing control over both its implementation and success. But, in either instance, it is the authority which retains both the risk and the responsibility, should the service fail.
It is not simply as ‘service co-ordinator’ that local authorities could have an important part to play. It has been widely acknowledged that apathy could jeopardise the success of devolved services, and there is a job to be done to get – and keep – communities on board.
As the aftermath of the riots showed, there is an appetite for community engagement and volunteering, but we shouldn’t forget that this example of unity came in the wake of a highly-emotive issue which affected communities directly.
The question is, how can communities be equally inspired to volunteer when it comes to longer-term community needs, or those which affect only certain parts of a community?
There is no single answer but, certainly, there are steps which local authorities and other organisations can take to help the public play a bigger role in society.
Education is key – the public need to understand what is required of them, if they would like to get involved. They also need to be able to volunteer with as little hassle and risk as possible.
Using local ambassadors to set an example, as well as establishing volunteer networks which enable keen individuals to link up with others, could also be something councils provide, or advise on.
Without doubt, the riots brought out the very worst in some people, but the very best in others, demonstrating the kind of community spirit needed to inspire people into becoming more involved in the services they use.
The road to fostering engaged communities in which people take on more responsibility is a long and a potentially-complicated one. But it doesn’t have to be.
By helping the public to feel empowered to act, see the benefits of community engagement, and understand how they could play a part, a Big Society could well become reality.
Paul Emery is head of community and social organisations at Zurich Municipal.
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