the British shift to participation

While on our side of the Atlantic we struggle to promote themes of public participation (see the November Fifth Coalition for some ideas), in Britain, the new Government has fully embraced civic engagement. As Polly Toynbee writes in the Guardian:

Ministers keep saying it – the key to success in social programmes is through breathing new life into communities. Research into what works in urban renewal finds engaging the people is the only answer. On Monday the new “neighbourhood renewal action plan” is launched, designed to reach down into the heart of the poorest places, promising to rebuild communities from the bottom upwards. The word is local “empowerment”.

The vision of the celestial city looks something like this: parents are involved daily with schools. Churches and local groups run after-school clubs, tenants on estates control their own budgets. All local departments pool their budgets, working together to offer whatever local people want most. Mentors guide and support young offenders, aspirant businesses, struggling readers, prisoners or depressed young mothers, connecting the disconnected. Thus local government is re born as people use the rusty levers of power in their communities.

This is exactly the vision that inspires me and my colleagues. But Toynbee puts her finger on two problems. First, encouraging public participation runs exactly against the hallmark of “New Labour,” which has been efficient, accountable public administration. New Labour doesn’t throw money at problems or bury people in regulations. Instead, “every social programme comes with rigorous targets to be monitored ruthlessly. Every penny of public money is tied up in a public service agreement, where departments deliver or die on their Treasury contracts.” There were reasons for this style of government, and it’s not obvious that Labour can deliver both efficiency and participation.

Second, “there is no clamour for community involvement. It is a top-down prescription in a time when people have deserted the churches, the Rotary Club, the WI, political parties and trade unions. They don’t tell the pollsters they hanker after committees, minutes and points of order.”

What Oscar Wilde said about socialism is also true of civic empowerment: the problem is all those meetings. We will release a survey on October that measures Americans’ appetite for public participation. I’m not going to reveal any results until then, but suffice it to say that the question of demand is important.

Toynbee suggests investing money in public facilities so that they are comfortable, attractive, and welcoming. She notes that in the early 1900s, British public buildings were much nicer and more dignified than average British private homes. Now public and nonprofit institutions are decrepit and depressing, but homes are more comfortable than ever before. No wonder people prefer to watch the telly than hang out at the community center.

Toynbee argues that financial investment in the public sector is a precondition of civic engagement. She sees this as a principle that distinguishes the left from the right (notwithstanding Gordon Brown’s post-partisan rhetoric.) But interestingly, Toynbee (who stuck with Labour and refused to join the Liberal Democrats) cites Joseph Chamberlain in a favorable way. Chamberlain was a Liberal politician, not a socialist or a trade unionist. Perhaps a strategy of public investment, decentralization, civic mobilization, and state cooperation with civil society is the authentic heritage of British Liberalism; and Gordon Brown’s Labour Party ought to head in that direction. In the US, we have similar traditions to draw on.

(Most Americans who visit England see medieval and renaissance sites or stay in London, so they don’t understand the tremendous civic infrastructure of British provincial industrial cities in the Victorian era. Cities like Birmingham and Liverpool had public and nonprofit institutions, local pride, and social networks to rival or surpass Tocquevillian America. These institutions arose in the great age of the Liberal Party.)