I read with interest a recent research report from The Campaign Company (TCC) on National Indicator 4, which uses data gathered through the (now defunct) Place Survey to gauge how much influence residents feel they have over local decision making. The research uses something called ‘Values Modes’ to segment the population into three different groups or types: Pioneers, Prospectors and Settlers. These groups, or types, have different worldviews and attitudes that affect how they feel about the level and nature of their influence.
The research resonates with literature on volunteering and other types of participation: that many people get involved (or are more likely to become involved) because they are asked personally. The research also confirms that only a small proportion of the population get involved in local decision making and that when people do, it is often a ‘reactive’ engagement about something that they are unhappy with such as front-line services.
My recent experience of interviewing people in Enfield as part of the Pathways through Participation project agrees with this – several people have said that they are ‘not political’ and haven’t been involved in any type of civic activism…until they remember the time they contacted their MP about the traffic outside their house, or the council about proposals to cut down a favourite tree or build something nearby that they don’t want (be it a car park or, in one case, a mental hospital). This reactive involvement, the TCC report says, doesn’t correspond with many of the ‘proactive’ engagement mechanisms, which try to address broader issues, on offer in most local authorities.
To encourage and increase people’s involvement, TCC recommend that local authorities should communicate better with their residents about the opportunities for involvement, and that local authorities should target their messages so that they will be receptive to every segment of the population.
What is great about this approach is that people’s attitude, personality, values and world view are factored into the analysis – of the problem and solution. It seems sensible that whether someone is inclined to see the glass half full or half empty will affect their feelings about their local council and representatives. However, it is essentially a behaviourist approach that doesn’t factor in broader socio-economic or demographic factors, which are essential to understanding people’s behaviour and views around participation and involvement. Two books that continue to get a lot of interest – Nudge and The Spirit Level – sum up this dichotomy well for me. Both bring value to debates about citizen participation, which in light of the Big Society’s stress on community involvement, will surely remain high on many people’s agenda.