The After the Riots report from the Riots Communities and Victims Panel was a really good example of how to emerge from something painful with something simple, positive and practical.
In plain language, it’s insightful and creative with few assumptions or judgments.
We particularly liked the advice for the police to look at ways to “improve the quality of minor encounters” in order to “dramatically improve their relationships with communities”.
Our work has always been obsessed with the underrated role of small, everyday moments of social interaction in defining our feelings of self worth and belonging.
That the police’s relationship with its community may be prescribed by this level of interaction mirrors the work done around malpractice lawsuits in the US, which concluded that “the interpersonal aspects of care” were the most important motivating factor for lawsuits – rather than the quality of care itself. This level of interaction, like a doctor’s bedside manner or a police officer’s tone and body language, may really be the key battleground for public services.
However, around the process of fostering more cohesive local communities, the report made a common leap.
The Panel's Neighbourhood Survey found that 61% of people did not agree that theirs was a “close, tight-knit community or that neighbours treated each other with respect”, which the Report rightly links to the low capacity of many communities affected by the riots to intervene informally and earlier in problems like youth disengagement or petty crime.
This pattern of diminishing or shifting levels of social capital, articulated so well by sociologists like Robert Putnam and David Halpern, has always been something we've tried to make central to our work, mapping the issues we examine against the strong or weak state of local life that inevitably sits behind them.
But, the report concludes that, to build up this social capital, local services need to give more attention to “creating and publicising opportunities for individuals to make a difference in their own communities”.
We're much less sure of this.
This idea has always seemed like a “buy one get one free” for government and funders: equip and empower local people to participate in ways that increase community cohesion and deal directly with specific problems in that community. Or, in the words of the Report, helping local people to “better tackle the issues they face and improve cohesion.”
What the report might be missing, as does much of what comes out of Big Society thinking, is that the capacity of communities to collaborate and intervene in local issues is a way of cashing in social capital, not of building it.
Community problems, by their nature, normally bring different groups in an area into opposition: one group wants to build or bring in something that others do not; one group is causing disruption or damage that others resent; one group believes that everyone should do more about something, others believe that everyone should do nothing.
A complex web of strong associational life, high levels of trust, good leaders, impartial brokers and confident councils enables communities to work through these tensions and emerge with solutions that distribute benefits fairly. The reality of many communities in modern Britain is that these webs are often weak or do not exist. There are, of course, many strong local communities (as 39% of respondents to the Neighbourhood Survey attested) and other forms of community, such as online networks, are now stronger than ever, but, in general, people that live near each other know, understand and trust each other less and less.
Working back from this doesn't have to end up with civic engagement initiatives, as it often does. Important as these platforms and mechanisms can be, no-one wants to engage with issues or progress in their local area if they don't know, like or care about the people in that area.
Maybe we just need to create more things for local communities to do together and boost, rather than undermine, the things that are already popular and communal?
One of Putnam’s major conclusions in Bowling Alone is the disintegration of communal local entertainment – fun things, done together, regularly and naturally. Social capital flows as collateral from these activities that share space and time enjoyably. In turn, communal capacity to intervene and participate flows as collateral from higher social capital.
The Report's recommendation that national and local authorities should “develop community involvement strategies, with volunteering at their heart” only seems to promise another layer of contrived opportunities that will rest on top of communities that don't know or trust each other very well.
As high streets get emptier and TV, home internet and video games get better, creating compelling, regular, inclusive things for communities to do together should replace “citizen-lead community action” at the top of a lot more briefs – however good value for money the latter sounds.