Published on April 30, 2010

Participation in post-election society: Who, how, and why?

With the election campaign in full swing (including the obligatory egg-throwing incident), the three main parties have all been eager to draw attention to their plans for devolution, and never has the phrase ‘handing power to the people’ seemed so ubiquitous. Involve’s recent blog post exploring the three main party manifestos illustrates how the relationship between citizen and state is shaping up to be a key election debate.

But beyond the realms of empowerment and involvement in governance and decision-making, where, and perhaps more importantly, how do the parties want people to ‘participate’? Labour is keen to bring in a national ‘Youth Community Service’, with the goal that young people contribute at least 50 hours to their communities by the age of 19; whilst the Liberals are eager to look at new ways to support charitable giving and philanthropy with ‘easy giving accounts’ and a reform of Gift Aid. But perhaps the idea of empowering people and communities to participate has been yelled the loudest by the Tories and their idea of a ‘Big Society’, where every adult volunteers to be part of a neighbourhood group that is encouraged to work together to deliver public services and build community cohesiveness. Overlooking the internal wrangles of what many see as a rather unTory idea, as well as the inevitable questions over funding, one aspect that appears to have been somewhat overlooked in all three parties aspirations for greater community involvement, is that for most ideas devolving power, you need participants. Who we might ask though will participate? And perhaps more importantly, what makes the parties think they will want to?

In a society where up to 40% of the electorate might not even vote at the election; where only a quarter of people formally volunteer at least monthly; and where half don’t even want to be involved in decision-making in their local area, how would the leading parties convince people to mobilise and participate? The Pathways through Participation project, which explores how and why people get involved in different forms of participation activity across their lives, recently published a literature review, which amongst other things explored the barriers to participation. In addition to practical deterrents such as lack of time, research has found institutional barriers, lack of resources (e.g. social networks) and psychological barriers (e.g. mistrust) all impede individual’s ‘pathways’ to and through participation. Further research, conducted only this week, further indicates that the toughest obstacle for politicians keen to get their constituents to be more active will be to motivate and stimulate participation across all sectors of society and beyond the so called ‘usual suspects’. This is no small ask by any stretch of the imagination.

For the ideas of Westminster politicians to work and be sustained, we need to know how power, relationships, access and equality all help or hinder participation over time. The next phase of the Pathways project will be doing just that, exploring how and why people do or do not get involved throughout their lives. Only when such concepts are explored, and individual’s stories and experiences are listened to and acted upon, will the idyllic visions of highly active citizens fully engaged in strengthening their communities begin to take shape.

Eddie Cowling

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