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From Volunteering And Social Activism To Civic Participation

If increasing antagonism towards traditional democratic practices and institutions is to be reversed, local political authorities must be willing and able to move beyond consumer satisfaction and public consultation to more deliberative and participatory politics, says a new booklet ‘Individual Pathways in Participation’, published today by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).

It was produced following the third in a series of special seminars entitled 'Engaging Citizens', organised by the ESRC in collaboration with the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO).

Among other things, it explores whether being involved in community activities and volunteering can lead individuals to take part in decision-making in state institutions and public services.

The booklet summarises views from experts in the field, including two who spoke at the seminar - John Annette, Professor of Citizenship and Lifelong Learning at Birkbeck, University of London, and Dr Stella Creasy, Head of Research at Involve, the not-for-profit organisation dedicated to understanding and promoting better civic participation.

Despite growing opportunities for participation through increased ‘empowerment’ in both national and local government, research suggests that people feel increasingly disconnected from the public realm. This is seen in falling turnout and reduced trust in political structures and elected representatives.

Professor Annette points to New Labour’s programme for the modernisation of local government, and its neighbourhood renewal strategies, as providing the opportunity for people to get involved in local government and regeneration partnership boards.

He says: “This is part of a shift from local government to local governance, and such activities provide rich opportunities for non-formal lifelong learning for active citizenship.”

But he warns that research, including his own, highlights the need for capacity building programmes for active citizenship and community leadership, and recognises the importance of the political context within which these activities take place.

“Such non-formal community based learning would benefit from being informed by the theory and practice of experiential learning as developed in the USA, and now growing internationally,” he says.

Dr Creasy, discussing her findings from a snapshot of attitudes in a North-East London community, concludes that rather than there being a relationship between social forms of activism and getting involved at the civic level, the reverse may be true for today’s Britons.

“Our research found that while a large degree of informal social networking and activism created substantial ‘social capital’ for residents, there was no automatic relationship between this and their engagement with the public realm.

“Rather, motivation appeared to be down to residents’ perception that their locality was neglected by public service providers. So they needed to work together to overcome the difficulties posed by the negative impact of these services and the local authority,” she observes.

Dr Creasy argues for a shift in priorities in local and national governance, away from creating pathways to participation through structural reforms to its mechanisms, towards securing institutional cultures which can support community engagement and empowerment.

Annika Howard | alfa
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