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The commercialisation of community

By Mark Randell - posted Tuesday, 24 December 2002

Listen to the talk of politicians, bureaucrats, agency heads and corporate chiefs around the country. One word like a mantra rises above the usual blah-de-blah of our modern lives - Community. Community is the new (old) Eden, the new (old) solution to all our woes. We can solve our economic woes by having 'resilient communities'; we can solve our health woes by having 'healthy communities', we can even escape our environmental woes via 'sustainable communities'.

Communities must be consulted; we must build 'social capital' in our communities, we must build 'community capacity'; we must tend, foster, support, manage our communities.



Ah, there's the rub. Communities have become things to be managed. Not lived in, not organically developed. Managed. We must put some programmes in. We must get some structures in place, some processes, some accountability. Accountability? To what have we come?

Not that I can talk. I recently spoke at a conference on the topic of 'Auditing Community Participation'. As one person pointed out to me, that's the 'language of the market'. Well, yes. It's also, I thought, reasonable English. Auditing is what I mean - comprehensive checking, transparent external validation that whomever really is doing non-paternalistic community participation. And there is something to be said for the 'Trojan Horse' - slipping something truly socially powerful into the market under the guise of commercial language.

Properly done, a social audit of participation can make sure that the powerful in a community are doing their level best to make sure that the less powerful, affected by decisions made in that community, have a voice. It can counter the push of the moneyed, the powerful, the 'A-list'. What it won't do is lead to a 'management plan'.

Communities are not things to be 'managed'. Creeping managerialism is a rampant and noxious weed found in many - indeed, almost all - ecological niches in our economically-driven society, but it hasn't yet gone (and hopefully won't go) feral in our communities.

It fits nicely with previous (and unfortunately, long-lasting) pre-occupations of the managerial classes: the most pervasive being 'customer service'. Customer service. It rolls of the managerial tongue like honey off a spoon. Everybody is 'customer-focused' or 'customer-centric', everybody claims to put the needs of the customer before anything else - does that include revenue, profit, the five-year strategic plan, and management bonuses?

The problem is that communities don't consist of 'customers'.


Communities consist of citizens. As many before me have pointed out, the relationship between, say, a local government and its community is most like the relationship between a corporation and its shareholders, not its customers. Citizens are owners, not unrelated consumers. Governments are governments, not retailers.

Jim Ife, of Curtin University in Western Australia, builds a nice model of the problem, pointing out that people are treated as one of the 4 'Cs': Customer, Client, Case or Citizen. You have to be very clear which one is appropriate to your organisational model (note: Not necessarily your business model).

In the case of governments, for example, the appropriate way is to treat people as citizens (not customers). In the case of a General Practitioner, there is a difference in the locus of responsibility depending on whether you treat people as cases or clients. Under each of the 4 Cs is a different framework of rights and responsibilities: Customers might be handled within a market model, Clients might be handled within a professional model, Citizens ought to be handled within a governance model, and so on. We shouldn't confuse the frameworks.

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About the Author

Mark Randell is the Principal of Human Sciences, a community development consultancy based in Fremantle, WA. He has worked in the commercial, government and academic sectors.

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