The Big Society, civil society and communities

If Cameron’s rhetoric about the Big Society is to have a chance of being translated into something meaningful it will have to engage with the ideas and experiences of community development in the context of civil society.
Paul Henderson
30 July 2010

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If Cameron’s rhetoric about the Big Society is to have a chance of being translated into something meaningful it will have to engage with the ideas and experiences of community development in the context of civil society. So far the initiative has been launched as if the struggles of community groups over many years to defend and improve their neighbourhoods had not taken place. There is a history of local people who experienced severe forms of deprived neighbourhoods working together effectively.The government needs to learn from it.

In western Europe, use of the term civil society has increased noticeably in recent years. Often this has resulted from observing how, in central and eastern European countries, it is a term which, since the fall of communism at the end of the 1980s, has been fundamental to political and social change. Civil society is a necessary condition for ensuring lively, strong and participatory democracy. In addition to being key to local involvement, participatory democracy also has to build collaboration among the institutions, professions and sectors that are capable of influencing the development of participation.

The safeguarding of human dignity and equality before the law, equal opportunities, a tolerant society and counter-balancing powerful interests have mainly been the result of battles that civil society has fought. Yet in many parts of Europe societies are learning that civil society is not always a synonym for a ‘good society’.  Those in power can often draw some civil society organisations into being part of, or dependent upon, their institutions and systems.  As a result civil society is weakened. 

The challenges facing civil society in the UK and other western European countries are different from those in central and eastern Europe because of the contrasting historical and contemporary contexts. In the UK, there is mounting anxiety about the negative opinions towards political parties and representative democratic institutions. At the same time there is concern that governments and their agencies have become too powerful, particularly when considering the extent of measures introduced to control citizens.  Yet there are important parallels between the old and the new democracies with regard to the challenges facing civil society.  In both there is:

- awareness of the need for the building and re-building of the independent basis of civil society

- a realisation of the importance of addressing the democratic deficit as energetically outside the framework of constitutional reform as within it

- criticism of localism and decentralisation policies that offer only tokenistic opportunities for influence and decision-making by local people.       

What is the specific contribution of community development to building civil society?  And how do we recognise this contribution? One way of answering these questions is to focus on the notion of a constituency: community development supports neighbourhoods and communities of interest that are getting a raw deal from mainstream society. It does this by helping people to identify shared issues and concerns, whatever the scale: increasing local employment opportunities, saving a local post office from closing, campaigning against an environmental threat, supporting groups which provide informal care for vulnerable people, encouraging the running of a community festival, finding ways of helping divided communities to find common ground. The list of issues and topics with which community development can engage is varied and extensive because it is generic, it is not confined to operating within the framework of one profession or discipline.

Community development should be attractive to the government because it can reach out to people who might not consider becoming a member of a voluntary organisation or of putting themselves forward as a volunteer. Yet it is such people who can be key to the building of cohesive communities. Community development can put forward alternative ways of thinking about an issue. In the case of social control, for example, we can appreciate community development’s potential for being able to shift the term away from a focus on criminality and offending to engage with issues of hostility, tension and violence in communities. Social control is as much about knowing how people can live together as it is about coping with crime and the fear of crime.

It is worrying that the case being made for the Big Society sidesteps the well-documented disenchantment of large swathes of the population with the representative democratic system. There is a hunger for participatory forms of politics. If, however, these are going to work they need to connect with the ways in which people are willing to become involved. This is where community development becomes of critical importance. It is an essential cog in the wheel of authentic democratic processes. Without it, the voices of communities will be severely weakened.

Paul Henderson has been involved in community development for over 30 years, most recently with the Community Development Foundation. He is a Trustee of the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust. He is co-author (with Ilona Vercseg) of Community development and civil society, (The Policy Press). 

You can read more of OurKingdom's Big Society debate here.

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