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October 20, 2005 || 9:31 am
Community strength: or, the government passing the buck?

I've been meaning to post about this for a while, but like many other topics it's been languishing behind a pile of other work. Recent work by the government's Neighbourhoods Unit proposes five ways to measure so-called community strength, which is meant to be one of those 'good things' although no-one really understand what it means. So here they are:

1. Governance - percentage of residents who feel that they can influence decisions affecting their local area
2. Cohesion and inclusion - percentage of residents who feel that their local area is a place where people from different backgrounds can get on well together
3. Volunteering - percentage of residents who affirm that they carried out voluntary work in an organisation once a month or more in the past year
4. Voluntary and community sector - percentage of VCS groups and organisations affirming growth in activity over the past year in terms of (i) financial turnover and (ii) volunteering
5. Services - Proportion of services in selected public service areas delivered by VCS organisations on behalf of the local authority.

I've got so many problems with this that I hardly know where to start. Read Kevin Harries and David Wilcox for the more moderately critical view before succumbing to my rather vehement reactions.

Governance: well, that's a measure I have no problem with. What it has to do with communtiy strength or cohesion I don't know, but the ability to influence decisionmaking is called democracy and wins brownie points from me. Cohesion and inclusion, similarly, I have no problem with. I welcome the day when we are liberal enough that we do genuinely get along with others who are 'different'.

Volunteering. OK. Since when has volunteering been anything to do with holding society together? I don't volunteer, but I would like to think I'm a very good citizen. I look out for people on the street, I'm the kind of person who nearly once got bashed in the head for trying to stop a guy hitting his girlfriend, I vote, I comment on local planning applications, I go on protest marches, I get involved in all sorts of ways. But volunteering is such a strange way to define community-minded actions. In fact, perhaps I do technically volunteer when I pick up litter on my way to work, but I don't consider it as such. And those who 'volunteer' to leaflet for their church or mosque, or who fundraise for their private school - is that really about community cohesion? It seems more about defining oneself as part of a group to me - which can be the bastion of exclusivity rather than liberal inclusivity.

And then the last two - now here's the rub, really. Here's why the government may be so happy to class volunteering as an essential part of a healthy civic-minded life. Because actually they are now measuring the health of our communties by how few public services are provided directly by the state. Why on earth are communities more 'strong' if a mental health support service is run by a voluntary organisation rather than by the local doctor's surgery? Aren't you really undermining the people who do work in the public services by saying that they should be replaced by volunteers? Shouldn't health centres, town halls, parks services, libraries and all the primary publicly funded services be the long-term beating heart of a community, not something that's being phased out in favour of potentially ephemeral, constantly shifting volunteer or charity organisations whose acronym, headquarters, logo and staff change every two years? and what if I don't want to go to a Christian charity for my housing needs?

It's pretty ridiculous to me. Why don't we make our public officials the stalwarts of our communities and value what they do - attracting the most ambitious, civic-minded and community-focused people not to become part-time volunteers, but to become full-time mayors, nurses, housing workers, councillors, parks wardens. It would be easy if their job descriptions involved being more creative, responsible, inventive and independent. Instead, the bright people go volunteer, where they get to take initiative and feel like they're achieving something, while the couldn't-care-less idiots work for the state.

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