Marshall Memorial Fellowship: When Does Community Engagement Let the State Off the Hook?
In 2010 the Conservative Party in the UK launched their election manifesto as “An invitation to join the government of Britain.’” The stated aim was to build an ethos of civic activism, community empowerment and devolved decision-making, away from politicians to the people. The Prime Minister believed that services previously provided by the state should be in the hands of private citizens or organizations - community groups should be able to run post offices, libraries, transport services, schools and housing projects, amongst other things.
In the UK, there was huge backlash – at a time of deep austerity and cuts to social services, the government wanted to outsource welfare to the voluntary sector without adequate funding. The “Big Society”, as the project was known, faltered quickly and the retreat of the state from its traditional obligations failed to inspire a new ethos of civic activism and community organizing. In the UK, as across Europe, the exchange for relatively high and progressive taxation is the expectation of social and civic service delivery. The state can’t reduce the latter, without reducing the former.
However, in the philanthropy-friendly and low taxation United States, this vision of the Big Society is thriving. From the northeast to the Deep South to the Pacific North West, you can find examples of non-state actors providing services that often go well beyond what would be expected of any local administration. In Chattanooga, for example, there is deep civic pride in the innovative ways local people and organizations are coming together to improve their community. From digital equity, to delivering care to older people, improving relations between law enforcement and youth, to running public schools - it was social enterprises and community leaders, with the support of long established local foundations, providing the human and financial resources needed.
But does this kind of civic organizing let the state off the hook? There is an intrinsic democratic deficit when we see a withdrawal of democratic institutions from public service delivery, whether at the local, state or federal level. Marginalized groups, often unable to draw on the resources of foundations due to lack of time, networks or fluency in the processes have to rely on others to represent them or act in their best interests, but without the ability to hold them to account at the ballot box. If the state is not, and not seen to be, responsible for service provision, it is hard to see by what means these groups can ensure their needs are met.
Perhaps it is for this reason that broad-based community organizing originated in the U.S. and struggles to take root when transposed to Europe. In a system where voter turnout is low and service delivery fragmented, you have to be more organized to get what you need from the system. From education to social care, environmental protection to community cohesion – if the government isn’t delivering, sometimes you have to show up without an invitation.
Leah Kreitzman, Head of Campaigns & Advocacy, UNICEF United Kingdom, London, is a Spring 2016 Marshall Memorial Fellow.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.