That's just [inaudible]. They can. I mean, an individual, if he has the pluck and the independence of mind, can do a very great deal. Actually, here we sit, no organi[s]ation, none whatever, and simply by expressing an opinion which is known to be unbiased, an individual can effect a very great deal. And this powerlessness of the individual is a form of cowardice; it's a preten[c]e, an alibi for doing nothing. Bertrand Russell.
A lonely, intoxicated middle-aged man recently walked into my office, took a swig from his long neck and politely asked me how much it would cost to see a lawyer. I told him and asked what it was about. Unperturbed by the quoted cost, he said “It’s just ... um ... it’s just that I have a problem … with society”. That was it: he turned around and left. Well said, I thought.
This man exemplified many people I have spoken within my own local community: obviously intelligent, they lack the knowledge and skills to identify and articulate their problem, connect with other people facing similar challenges and work towards finding a solution.
Community democracy is predicated on civic engagement, the essential ingredient of which is social cohesion. The cement of social cohesion, like friendship, is common experience, so to foster community democracy we need to create physical and social environments that enable and encourage people to interact with one another.
Dormitory suburbs, poor public spaces and transport systems and individualistic lifestyles don’t encourage people to interact. And there is a huge disjunction between social policy objectives spruiked by government and bureaucrats and what actually happens. “Grassroots wilt” is spreading because governments emphasise the importance of and need for civic engagement (be it online or otherwise) yet simultaneously ride roughshod over (and even legislate away) individual and community rights.
A culture of civic engagement takes time to develop and requires support. It’s not something that can be manufactured by governments, but they can encourage it. For example, at a local level, does every local government have a community consultation policy and feedback policy in place? Do they “follow up” to make sure the policies work? Do all local government assets registers include social capital, and human and community services - placing a value not just on hard infrastructure but also on social and environmental assets - to ensure that planning decisions address whether or not proposed developments add to or detract from those assets? Are citizens armed with information about decisions that might affect them and how they can have their say?
Although it’s not surprising that not everyone knows how to draft a petition or use technology to find the forms needed to hold a protest or speak at a Council meeting or navigate “the law” online, has any local, state or federal government produced a “Citizens Handbook” giving people practical information which is readily accessible and actually comprehensible?
Going back a peg, an even more basic step is having good information. Before we try to address any questions of community democracy we need to gather hard data to determine the real current level of community involvement and understand why people are or aren’t engaged. At the moment it’s guesswork. Funding should be allocated immediately for the Australian Bureau of Statistics or a similarly independent body to gather, collate and analyse the data and publicly report its findings. That information could then be used to develop a raft of strategies to ramp up community engagement in every local government area in the country.
And even more important than trying to motivate citizens who, like most of us, have been fighting the disillusionment and cynicism that comes with being ignored by governments and feeling powerless, we must understand that strengthening community democracy starts with children.
The concepts of truly participatory democracy, and belief in their efficacy, need to be taught to the young so that by the time they reach adulthood they have become ingrained as societal norms.
In 2001 Professor Geoff Masters, referring to the results of an international study Citizen and Education in Twenty-eight Countries: Civic knowledge and Engagement at Age Fourteen, noted that:
In Australia, civic knowledge was lower than the international average, and civic engagement was also down. But the study’s results suggest that student participation in school governance ... helps build students’ confidence in the value of participation and is correlated with their civic knowledge and likelihood of voting.
This essay recently won the John Hatton Community Democracy Award 2010.
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