Is Community Involvement a Waste of Time?
Mike Waite, New Start Magazine, July 2001
in Regeneration Projects
Successive regeneration programmes in the UK have been marked by the growth of
community involvement as a central theme. It has been widely welcomed as a way of bedding
in change, and capitalising on the knowledge, skills and ideas of local residents.
This is seen as a crucial antidote to the bureaucratic, top down approach of traditional
service provision. But it also raises a range of questions. The criticisms tend to fall
into three broad categories:
policy is fine, but reality doesnt match the rhetoric
Supporters of this theme welcome the policy but dont believe it is being
fully implemented. Theres a mismatch between what government says should happen, and
what it feels like on the ground.
Some suspect that much of the talk of involvement is a cynical attempt to sell
policies, and to get people to think they have ownership without the reality of it.
Statutory organisations may want to open up space for community involvement but it
doesnt actually happen.
Part of the problem is that public agencies arent skilled enough in consultation
they are the ones who really need capacity building, rather than community
and voluntary groups.
The form filling and jargon involved in running regeneration projects effectively debar
community activists, and professionals take over.
It doesnt go far enough
People who raise arguments on this theme see that stated policies are steps in the
right direction but say theyre not sufficient.
The reality is that community groups, voluntary organisations, and local agencies are
dizzy with the range of initiatives landing on them.
The energy involved in running each swamps the big picture and prevents the linking up
of processes. In all this, partnerships and policy-making bodies dont give enough
real weight and value to community representatives.
Some would also ask whether there is actually a commitment to devolution of control.
Although the government justifies much of what it does in terms of delegation, the reality
is that local government control is being replaced by more central control, with
objectives set by central government or regional development agencies.
The policy is fundamentally flawed
The above arguments assume that problems to do with popular involvement in tackling
social exclusion are technical glitches that can be solved by stronger will and better
techniques. But more radical perspectives suggest that the concepts of participation
and community development are problematic and ambivalent.
Some suspect that policies in this area are being used and promoted for negative and
cynical reasons. A focus on community and the local neighbourhood as the site for solving
problems of social exclusion suggests this is where their causes can be located.
There is a negative logic in this argument. It blames the victims. It focuses on
changes seen to be necessary in peoples behaviour in excluded areas, and aims to get
people in deprived areas to add to their burdens by taking responsibility for the negative
effects of trends such as globalisation and social fragmentation.
Whats so good about community involvement anyway? The real issue is whether the
political or social content of the process in which the community is being involved is
positive and in their interests.
Critics say current policy trends need treating with suspicion. At its centre is an
attempt to privatise responsibility, to encourage the poor themselves to address their
problems. Community involvement and concepts such as social entrepreneurship
become metaphors for the absence, withdrawal and degradation of services, which should be
provided by the state.
Community involvement is promoted as a means of mobilising active consent and
co-operation for official schemes and agendas.
Some community activists are worried about becoming dependent on official funding
programmes. This has a range of effects, including shifting their focus from campaigning
and advocating to management and accounting, making them experts in regeneration jargon
rather than the needs of their constituents.
|Mike Waite has been involved in youth and community work projects in
deprived areas of north-west England for more than 15 years. He has contributed to many
publications, including New Start, Soundings, Critical Social Policy
and the Community Development Journal.
||A fuller version of this article appears in the pamphlet, Perspectives
on Social Exclusion. It is available from the New Politics Network, 6 Cynthia
Street, London N1 9JF (Tel: 020 7278 4443). Price £5.