Community Engagement

8e. Community Engagement

What we now want most is closer contact and better understanding between individuals and communities all over the earth and the elimination of that fanatical devotion to exalted ideas of national egoism and pride, which is always prone to plunge the world into primeval barbarism and strife.”

Nikola Tesla

Postmodern society thwarts our innate desire to participate politically, just voting in an election every few years, marching once in a while, or signing petitions on Avaaz or MoveOn doesn’t count for much. We need new avenues for passionate participation – not just in elections every few years, but continuously. The desire for this is so effectively masked and covered up that most people don’t even feel it as something they have forfeited.

Today’s communications infrastructure could support a permanent revolution. In fact, I think this would be its logical endpoint. It seems possible – let’s try a thought experiment – to design and launch a social networking infrastructure, via the internet, that seamlessly supports political collaboration, direct democracy and resource sharing, based on transparent exchanges. Along with launching a global platform, we would need to undertake a mass educational initiative through the media. We would have to disseminate the values and principles of a cooperative, trust-based society to people across the world.”

Daniel Pinchbeck in How Soon is Now?

Ironically in ‘Parliament Must Die‘, which declaims representative government at the level of parliament, I wish to fully endorse democracy that exists at a local level. In the UK we already have a locally-based government in the form of our parish and town councils. I work as a parish clerk for two parish councils in rural Cornwall, UK. My heart really warms to the local people of towns and villages that give up their personal time to meet the concerns of local people.

A lot of people haven’t really heard of these and think they are something to do with the church. But here, in our town and parish councils, there is real democracy, backed by a code of proper conduct in public life that seems to be beyond many parliamentarians.

Positions at these councils are filled by ‘representative democracy’ also, with an election every 4 years. At the ‘bottom end’ of democracy, there is much better potential for actual representation at a local level. At this level democracy works well.

Elections are held every four years and these local bodies come complete with model sets of governance, codes of conduct, financial regulations and strategies to keep them independent and transparent, even an annual audit. Everything you need to activate a community except the political will. They are funded from the Council Tax paid by local residents.

Often the membership is slanted towards the well-off, the retired and unfortunately, some who enjoy the sound of their own voice too much. They seem to exist quite often without defined or directional leadership, without a ‘vision’ for their community and they seemingly support the status quo and innovate very little. They sometimes seem to exist just to oppose any kind of change in a knee-jerk reaction.

The National Association of Local Councils website states:

Parish councils are the most local tier of government – they’re at the very heart of the community, giving neighbourhoods a voice and helping people feel more involved in the decisions that affect them. They take localism to the next level by giving people a democratic voice that goes beyond just voting in elections. And yet, only a third of the population is covered by one. We want to change this and see more of England join the tens and thousands of parish councils already in existence.”

Independents for Frome

Independents for Frome (IfF) was created to support a group of individuals to stand and get elected to Frome Town Council in 2011. Ten of the seventeen who stood were elected. This gave IfF an outright majority on the council that allowed a raft of ambitious ideas to be implemented much of which is described in ‘Flatpack Democracy’ [A DIY guide to creating independent politics by Peter Macfadyen]. Independents for Frome had 27 people wishing to stand in 2011 and selected 17 all of whom were elected – with every seat heavily contested. They are now engaged in an even more ambitious programme for Frome.

“One of the keys to their success is that the group operate a ‘Way of Working’ . This enables them to make decisions in the best interest of Frome, while not emulating the Party Political system that they feel is counter-productive at Parish/Town level. More details of the Way of Working and other aspects of their success can be found in the book ‘Flatpack Democracy’.

Many of the initial party have been engaged with conversations, workshops, meetings and events in Frome for over a decade. Working on themselves and others in the slow unravelling of the stories we’ve been told about growth, happiness through consumption and the possibility that we can continue to live as we have done for decades.

This work has often been linked Joanna Macy’s ‘work that reconnects’ that forces engagement with humankind’s insane distruction of our biosphere. And to that of the Transition Town Movement. Transition has focussed minds on climate change, peak oil and the limits to growth all over the world – perhaps in doing so it has helped create foundations from which the dedicated action of Extinction Rebellion will take hold even further … and perhaps that will force a government which continues to demonstrate a complete and utter contempt for their moral duty towards future generations, to turn and face the catastrophe approaching. By operating broadly as normal people do in normal everyday life, they have taken the opportunities presented by Localism whilst looking for ways to change, for the better, the relationships between people and those they elect.

“British style of politics has been to leave decision making to the politicians and the professions/ bureaucrats with a periodic election thrown in. Indifference has become a deep-rooted part of our political culture, and judging by the recent local elections it is still flourishing. How long can we live with such a busted democratic flush?

We can of course build a more active, knowledgeable and engaged community, where citizens gradually adopt roles as movers and shakers rather than mere recipients of services. We have hardly scratched the surface in Frome with participatory grant making, citizen’s panels, skill’s networks et al but already intriguing enigmas are emerging. They will be familiar to many of you, a more participatory form of governance throws into immediate relief questions about representation , leadership, legitimacy, authority and archaic regulations. All questions which are as old as the debates about democracy itself but bizarrely more acute at this the lowest of tiers. Just where you would expect most flexibility there are constraints and hidden bear traps. Thanks god for the power of general competence, although even that is not quite the panacea it might have first seemed.

Secondly, can we ditch the idea that our council and all of its trapping and paraphernalia are the equivalent of a vending machine, you drop in your pound coin as taxes or fees and expect the machine to dispense at least £1 in services. When the machine inevitably malfunctions, delivering pop tarts instead of mars bars, the natural tendency like Basil Fawlty is to give the machine a “damn good thrashing”.

Ultimately, this model undermines people’s confidence in, and their allegiance to local government. In fact the core business of localities should be solving problems, not delivering services. Providing services is only one aspect of an innovative, and at times risky, problem-solving approach that must engage citizens to be effective.”

Article from Mel Usher from the National Association of Local Council’s (NALC) Magazine

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