Monday 25 February 2008

How many people are simply Not Bothered?

Involve (an organisation dedicated to increasing public participation and involvement in decision-making) have published a fascinating new report, Participation Nation. This focuses on ‘reconnecting citizens to the public realm’, which is a slightly think-tanky way of saying getting people involved in shaping and enjoying their own lives, especially where government influences them.

One chapter of Participation Nation (shame about the title, sounds like a parody of a reggae toaster from the 70’s…) looks at what people do with their spare time, and what it calls ‘The timesqueeze generation’. This describes the pressures on time and energy as much more pressing than lack of information, for instance. It argues people fall into 5 categories of engagement, from ‘Community bystanders’ (the 36% Not Bothered) through to ‘Active protestors’ (party members and writers to newspapers). Almost 70% of us are, allegedly, either ‘passive’ or ‘bystanders’.

This is not dissimilar to the pattern of arts participation, with more than half of adults attending only once or twice a year. We need to see cultural consumption in the context of people’s whole lives if we’re to genuinely affect deeply-rooted historical patterns. The DCMS Taking Part survey shows there’s plenty of scope for change, and huge correlation with participation in other areas of social life, as well as with educational attainment and class.

Involve have developed a site giving practical guidance to anyone wanting to increase public participation in their work, . This is highly adaptable for arts organisations. You can read some Arts Council publications relating to Taking Part here.


Lowri Bond said...

I don’t think that being bothered or not bothered is not the really the issue here.
It’s not the percentage of people that participate that we should be questioning, rather the percentage of people who are given adequate choices and opportunities to participate in ways that actually affect change. These aren’t the same thing of course and the latter is infinitely less simple to measure.
Do we even have a common understanding of what we are talking about? Ok, so I haven’t read it from cover to cover but Participation Nation doesn’t seem to define what we understand participation to mean, or indeed examine the varying levels of participation that can be achieved and their vastly differing outcomes. Involve’s does attempt to do this but I think we need to be more rigorous and honest about the complexities of what is played out in real life situations at a local level.
Jeremy Till provides interesting commentary on this in his contribution to the book Participation and Architecture and largely, I believe we are stuck in a rut of what he references as placatory or pseudo-participation, where we create opportunities that allow citizens to ‘feel’ that they have participated and gain a ‘sense’ of influence.
Although, in her forward to Participation Nation, Hazel Blears talks about he government’s commitment to forging a new relationship between citizens and the state, I still believe that there are very few opportunities for citizens to really engage with (and more importantly influence) the political processes that should hold the key to empowerment and change.
As Professor Susan Owens pointed out when she spoke at a recent event at Newcastle University, this is the same government who have recently and very quietly erased the public enquiry from the planning system. Although a far from perfect process, it did at least provide a forum for public debate and the opportunity to challenge decisions made by those in power.
And let’s face it, the idea that we create opportunities that could truly iron out the imbalances of power and knowledge is a pretty scary one isn’t it? I mean, if we were all bothered, anything could happen!

Mark Robinson said...

I think there's a lot in what you say. The planning point is a good example of what can (if we're given the opportunity!) motivate people to 'participate' - don't we do so when we feel we have a stake in something plus the opportunity? So there's some kind of 'gap' there.

The notion of placatory or pseudo participation is a really interesting one, and I can think of examples of it. But often a desire for future involvement or engagement or participation, call it what you will, is driven by a sense of influence, isn't it? If people don't 'feel' they've participated, even if they've actually, say, fed into a planning consultation and impacted on it, they may not do so again.
The percentage question is a perennial in 'taking part' isn't it? I might argue the first is actually a measure, albeit perhaps a proxy measure, of the second category you suggest, which indicates there's work to do. The thing that really worries me is that there are such clear and stark demographic differences between those who feel they have adequate choices and opportunities to participate and those that clearly either don't or don't feel motivated to take them up. That, for me, actually undermines the democratic and cultural benefits of the participation that does happen.