Thursday, 28 May 2009

Empowered Citizenship

Some years ago, I had an idea that a street party would be a good way to build community in the road where I used to live. So I put a short note through everyone’s door and fairly quickly a small group of us began to meet and organise the event. The party was held a few months later, everyone had a good time and the street felt a friendlier and safer place to be. Although I have now moved away – the road continues to have regular street parties and picnics.

On that basis, I now advocate street parties as good things to do – to help build communities. But am I right? Are street parties the best option in every case – are there some places where some other activity would be better. How would I find out?

The short answer is, I believe, that nobody knows. Governments and public services blithely talk about the need for active citizenship and engaging with the public, but where is the research and reflection on what works best? Do we need citizens actively doing anything and everything – or are some actions better than others at (say) increasing community safety, improving community & personal health or developing the local economy? I would contend that we need ‘evidence based citizenship’ (or ‘empowered citizenship’ as a slightly less cumbersome term).

At a conference some years ago, Sir Kenneth Calman, when he was Chief Medical Adviser to the Government, drew a circle on flip chart saying it was the entirety of clinical practice in the NHS – all the actions that doctors, nurses, physios, OTs (etc.) did to cure illness and promote health. He then drew a vertical line dividing the circle in half and put a question mark in the left half. He said that half of what goes on in the name of healthcare had no evidential base – there was no research to prove its clinical effectiveness. In the other half of circle – he drew a horizontal line creating two quarter segments. In one of these he put a cross and in the other a tick. He went on say that a quarter of clinical practice had been shown to be ineffective but was still practised (hence the cross) and only one quarter was evidence based (and ticked). His challenge to the conference participants was to change those proportions. Steadily, over the years, practice in the NHS has been changing and within the frameworks of clinical governance, the ticked segment of the graph is now much larger.

This principle has now been applied to many other parts of the public services and the phrase evidence based practice is in wide use in social services and the National Offender Management Service, for example. Although we have yet to see much ‘evidence based policy development’ from Whitehall or much talk of ‘evidence based policing’ (although the National Policing Improvement Agency is resolutely beginning to change that), for example, the idea is here to stay.

In my mind, I draw a circle representing citizen action and I wonder what proportions of that circle would be ticked, crossed or queried. How much of what we, as citizens, do, when we are moved to make a difference to our neighbourhoods or the world at large, is evidence based?

For me this is a critical next frontier for the public services. Yesterday, David Cameron, talked about ‘power to the people’ and over the years the Government has talked much about community empowerment and active citizenship. If we want citizens to be actively doing the right and effective things, then the public services have a duty to help them make the right choices.

This is not an argument for controlling active citizenship through introducing risk analysis and fixed bureaucratic protocols, for example – that could well dampen the energy of citizens wanting to make a difference. I am not advocating there should be such a thing as ‘professional citizenship’. But I am proposing that much more could be done by the public services to assist citizens to make good choices. In my vision of ‘empowered citizens’, people with energy and commitment will be helped, informed and assisted to choose activities that will make more of a difference.

The public services need to find more and better ways of working with the public so that citizens are empowered to take effective action, rather than being treated as passive agents to be merely consulted.

Perhaps one of the critical features of being British is our volunteering spirit, many thousands, if not millions of people use some of their flexible time to help neighbours and others. Perhaps even more could be achieved if the public services researched, reviewed and learnt about what works best. This knowledge could then be made available to citizens so that the power of actions taken by the public can be multiplied. 

© Jon Harvey 2009

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