Published on March 1, 2011

Why giving Parish Councillors guns might be a good idea…

By Edward Andersson

Edward Andersson is European Associate for Involve and an established expert on methods of participatory decision making. He set up Participationcompass.org – one of Europe’s leading public engagement sites, and has advised a number of organisations on public engagement strategies, including the Home Office, the European Commission, the OECD, WHO Europe, UNDP Turkey and numerous Local Authorities and Health Trusts.

man holding a gunI have been spending a lot of time in Turkey lately, working on projects with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the UNDP. The projects have looked at how citizens can be better involved in local and national decisions. I find that travelling is always an illuminating experience; what at first seems very foreign and different to the UK often ends up shedding new light on work I’m doing back home.

So it has been in Turkey, where, despite differences, the future challenges of local democracy aren’t that different after all. Turkey is, much like England, heavily centralised with little room for local decision making.

An interesting case in point is the role of the Muhtar (village headman), an elected post (the closest British equivalent would be parish councillors). Much like parish councillors they are an example both of what is best and worst with democracy at the local level.

On the one hand they are very local and non party political, just like the parish councillors. Despite limited power Muhtars often command a reasonable level of trust in their communities. They are certainly more connected to local residents than the municipal councillors and in part this springs from the fact that the Muhtar role is non-partisan and relatively informal. Any proposals to formalise it or increase their power may undermine these qualities.

On the other hand Muhtars have frustratingly little real power and their role is becoming increasingly irrelevant as some of the tasks they used to perform (administrative duties and census, for example) are now being done remotely via e-government applications. In the worst cases, the post of Muhtar is almost hereditary (with son replacing father), appointed through uncontested elections (with abysmal turnout) and office holder primarily motivated by local prestige. All of these are also criticisms at various points levelled at Parish councillors.

A strange incentive to become a Muhtar is the customary right to carry a gun. In that regard they are quite different from Parish councillors! This is one example of where something which at first sight seemed completely irrelevant to the British case actually turned out to be quite illuminating. The fact that the right to bear arms in some parts of Turkey acts as an incentive to make people stand for office brought home to me the difficulty of dealing with motivations for participation. I was thinking how problematic it is from a British perspective to have armed local representatives and how the prospect of gun ownership might attract the wrong kind of applicant.

Last week I gave a presentation (Together with Richard Wilson from IzWe) for the Home Office and Baroness Newlove, the Government’s Champion for Active, Safer Communities and ended up spending a lot of time talking about what the excellent reports from Pathways through Participation have to say about motivations for participation. I made the point that we need to make sure that the participation gives incentives that tie in to the motivations of citizens and I was challenged by a community activist. She asked why incentives should be necessary at all. Shouldn’t the positive impact on the community be enough on its own? After all that’s why she was involved. There were a lot of nods around the room and many people seemed to be worried that introducing incentives of any kind would lead to the wrong kind of engagement. We often assume that there are good and bad reasons for participating (the good reasons obviously being the ones that compelled us and the bad those that drive our neighbours).

A lot of people find the idea of people participating motivated by personal incentives troubling. In an ideal world everyone would be motivated by doing good for the community rather than personal aggrandisement.

However, I think that assuming that everyone is motivated by the same things is a dangerous path to take. The Campaign Company has done some interesting work looking at what motivates different parts of the population. Clearly for some people (usually those already involved) good deeds are their own reward and they tend to look down on their neighbour who are looking for benefits that accrue to them personally, or indeed those neighbours primarily motivated by negative emotions and fears. Simply discounting these people and their motivations may be good for the sense of moral superiority of the existing activists, but is unlikely to encourage a broader range of people to take part.

Clearly some motivations will always be inappropriate (corruption, racial hatred, etc.), but maybe it is time for all us habitual activists to take a good look at ourselves in the mirror. If we sneer at people who show up for the free food, fancy title or cash incentive; what does that say about us? Because the fact is that people often join in for these reasons, but they end up staying on as activists for very different reasons, the social interactions, the friendships and the sense of local ownership that develops. The trick is to get them in the door in the first place for these social reasons to start playing a role.

So maybe I’m wrong to take exception to people choosing to become Muhtars in Turkey because it comes with status and the right to carry a pistol. Should we worry too much about the initial motive if they end up doing good work and representing their community? It is easy to laugh at the ‘big fish in the small pond’, but maybe we need to abandon our snobbishness and ‘big up’ the offer in order to appeal to some people’s sense of vanity? Should we accept that for some people the gold chain, sitting on prestigious boards, titles (for example being a ‘champion’ or ‘warden’ rather than a ‘volunteer’) and uniforms and tabards and other visual signs of status are very important?

Handing out guns to parish councillors might increase interest in the role, but it is perhaps a step too far. However, the shiny sheriff’s badge might have the same effect. After all, community rehabilitation means making the people who have done something wrong visible to the community, so shouldn’t we be making those who have done something right visible as well?

Image Creative Commons by  The Knowles Gallery

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