Analysis: From ‘civic’ to ‘civil’ society

paulslatterPost-Kerslake there’s a real scent of change in Birmingham. A braver, less bureaucratic council might be capable of a genuine strategic partnership: civic to civil society. Paul Slatter outlines some of the signs of a shift

The Kerslake Report made an oddly liberating – but depressing – read for many in Birmingham. Not much of what was said about civic mis-management was news. Citizens who took part in Birmingham’s ‘Summer of Dialogue’ events the preceding year, facilitated by Chamberlain Forum, identified many of the same failings. These were reported to the council’s now disbanded (and widely unmourned) strategic partnership BeBirmingham and – like many reports before – they disappeared. Kerslake, therefore, represented something like a moment of unavoidable truth. Like when the boy exclaims what the rest of us have been thinking for ages – the Emperor really is wearing no clothes!

The revelation was a relief. Few, however, enjoyed that it took a commission appointed and conducted without much respect or understanding of our city to get there. The Kerslake report, on closer reading, seemed to have been largely ‘pre-fabricated’. The starting point: that Birmingham needs to be managed more like other places, even if those places have neither the size, nor the diversity of opportunities and threats it faces. It followed that nothing much ‘made in Brum’ can have been much good. That looks like a classic case of sentence first – then find a verdict to justify it. With this Wonderland logic, Kerslake said as little about Birmingham’s civil society, and those bits of our council and public services that link productively with it, as our own city council… on a bad day. That was depressing.

To consider seriously the shape of the ‘future council’, you need to look carefully at its citizens and communities. In many ways, they are the city’s greatest asset; possibly the only way in which the ‘jaws of doom’ (the effect of increasing costs of social care and decreasing council revenue) can feasibly be unclamped from its citizens.

Manifested as community self-help, civil society

gives Birmingham massive potential for social innovation

Civil society: that stuff we do because we want to, or we feel we should, not because we are told, or paid, to. Birmingham has it: in its old people, in the working class traditions, on its council estates and neighbourhood forums; in the middle classes, the clubs and societies in the garden suburbs and at its social media surgeries and timebanks; in the inner city, in its faith groups and its young people. The city’s churches, Muslim and Sikh communities and more recent immigrants from Poland and elsewhere, are outstanding practitioners of it. Manifested as community self-help, civil society gives Birmingham massive potential for social innovation. That is, different people doing different things differently in order to produce better – and better value – public services. Contrast that with Kerslake’s apparent mission – to make Birmingham a bit more like everywhere else.

Many of the things the city council has done in the name of devolution and localisation have not helped realise this potential for social innovation. Withdrawing the city’s ten district committee meetings from the districts they represent was a political own goal, scored by the incoming Labour administration in 2012. That, however, was at least a cost-reducing measure.

Much else has been costly as well as over-hyped – sold as community empowerment, when it was really all about keeping backbench councillors occupied. The BeBirmingham-led programme of neighbourhood management, for example, failed to build on the city’s rich experience of community-led and housing-based neighbourhood working in Balsall Heath, Castle Vale, Witton Lodge and elsewhere. The programme produced no theory of change explaining how it would impact on the mainstream. It was wound up as the government funding, which paid for it, ceased, leaving citizens and communities who had become engaged, bewildered.

Paul Slatter is the director of the Chamberlain Forum, the Birmingham-based non-profit neighbourhood think/do-tank which helps large organisations and communities work together to make better places to live. He tweets @paulgslatter

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