Marilyn Taylor (MT), chair of our advisory group, talks to Véronique (VJ) about the project and how it might inform the Big Society agenda.
VJ: Why did you decide to get involved in this project?
MT: Having been involved in many different research projects on participation and governance, I still feel that we don’t understand enough about what participation means to people – why they get involved, why they continue or stop being involved. Or indeed, its impact on the rest of their lives. So there’s a real need to dig a little deeper. The Pathways through Participation project appealed to me because I felt that was what it was trying to do.
VJ: How do you think the project might inform the Big Society agenda?
MT: It’s not yet clear to me what the Big Society agenda is exactly, but it seems to be based on the assumption that, given the chance, there is an army of people out there who are not involved in community activities at the moment but, if the conditions are right, will want to get involved and volunteer in their communities. And that this will provide what communities need. Before making that assumption we really need to know more about who is already involved, who isn’t, how people engage in different forms of activities, why, at what point in their lives, and what impact it has on them and those around them. All this affects what can be expected of them. We also need to know more about what people do and don’t want to get involved in. I hope the Pathways through Participation project will be able to provide evidence on this. And that this will inform policy on how best to support community participation so that it works for everybody but does not ask too much of people.
Research suggests that, left to their own devices, it is middle class people who volunteer more and are more likely to want to take up opportunities to run services, challenge planning laws and so on. People from poorer areas have much less of a voice – they have a lot of pressures on them, don’t necessarily know how the system works – and public service cuts are likely to hit them and the support they need hardest, which will add to the pressures. So, if the Big Society is going to work for them, we need to know what they want, what it is realistic to expect and how they can have the same opportunities as other people.
Another thing is that some of the traditional ways of participating locally are no longer there. Political parties and trade unions no longer have much of a local presence, for example, public spaces are being privatised, pubs and post offices are closing down. What difference does this make? And where are the new spaces where people connect with each other? Or is participation more of an individual affair? Of course there’s the internet, so can the project tell us more about how that plays into the picture of participation? Does it complement or replace face-to-face forms of participation, for example? And how does this differ between different population groups?
VJ: What would you like to see come out of the project?
MT: Above all, I’d like the project to provide a more realistic view of participation; what it means to people and how it affects them. Getting involved in your community can be very rewarding but also quite stressful and we need to understand the stresses and strains as well as the undoubted benefits. I really hope the project can help policy-makers think through some of the complexities of participation, and reflect on what their role might be in promoting opportunities for participation that work for the whole community, and for different communities, not just for the few.
I’d also like to know how different forms of participation interact. Is it the same people all the time? Or do different people choose different ways to engage?