Ideas from the RSA debate, Part 2

Not long ago I got an email from a friend who had come to the RSA debate earlier this month. He works in the public sector and liked the idea that our understanding of community needs to be broadened. But he came away from the debate wanting to know more about the next step. In other words, what can policy-makers take from Together?

This is important. The book is about the value of small voluntary groups, their history and their growing relevance in British society. That’s clear from even the shortest description. Yet it’s always been my hope that reading Together would leave some people wanting to join or set up a group, and that if they didn’t do that, then they might at least consider how some of its principles can be applied to their work.

So from a policy point-of-view what can we take from Together? Or as it was put to me, how can communities of interest become more engaged with policy, and are there examples of this happening?

Three answers:

1. Responsibility

A few months ago in Beverley, just north of Hull, the local council came up with an interesting and new approach to smartening up the place as part of the Beverley in Bloom scheme. The hope was to enter Beverley into the Yorkshire in Bloom competition. Realizing they did not have wheelbarrows full of cash to throw at this they contacted local allotment societies and schools to ask if they would do a spot of ‘guerrilla gardening’ around Beverley.

As Jim Whitfield from the council put it: ‘There are no grandiose plans, but we’d like the allotment holders to be more involved this year and we’d quite like to see more guerrilla gardening. By that I mean people taking it upon themselves to look after small areas of verges or at their schools. It’s about co-ordinating the efforts that lots of people make.’

An allotment society in Torquay

This is a great example of a council engaging with communities of interest. In this case, allotment societies. The principle is simple and effective. Communities of interest are often happy to play a small part in providing a local service, and have certainly done this in the past: in the early 20th century Friendly Societies were responsible for the distribution of sickness benefits among hundreds of thousands of working men.

But there are limits to how much help any community of interest can provide. Some caricatures of the Big Society imply a world in which our streets are policed the members of a local WI while members of the nearest Rotary Clubs take it in turns to empty our bins. All the same, caricature aside, there are ways of involving communities of interest in the provision of some services.

The key to making it work is finding the right overlap of interest. Planting verges and allotment societies is a good fit. Another one might be public libraries and reading groups. Perhaps in return for providing a reading group with copies of the book they’re reading that month the members of that book group could spend a few hours sorting books in the library. Rambling or walking groups could be asked to help maintain some of their favourite footpaths. And so on.


2. How to Spread an Idea Fast

There’s another way to apply the lessons of Together in the context of policy, and it’s centred on recognizing that communities of interest are actual communities: they meet regularly, they discuss ideas and news in their field, and their members communicate with each other between meetings. You can’t always say this about a set of neighbours in any given neighbourhood. If you want to spread an idea fast then start with local communities of interest – even if their interest does not overlap with yours and they don’t have expertise to provide. The value of these groups, at the very least, lies in the fact that they are thriving social networks.


3. Ideas in Groups Last Longer

A third way for policy-makers to act on Together is to encourage communities of interest to form around their ideas. This usually means that these ideas will last longer. The principle here is simple: when you’re bound together as a group that meets regularly you’ll take your shared interest that little bit further and keep at it for longer.

Why? In part because of the social element within any group. In a thriving volunteer group you’ll find volunteers coming back year after year and not just in the name of altruism. It’s the social connection to the other members of the group that can be equally magnetic.

Of course this is easier said than done. There’s a huge amount to say about how to establish a thriving group and I won’t get into that here. But when or if it is possible to encourage a community of interest to form around a new policy or project then it’s bound to extend its lifespan.

Any other ideas?

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