Ten days ago Suffolk County Council approved it's New Strategic Direction which involves the council divesting itself of its role in service provision. Private and Third Sector Organizations will be able to bid to run the services currently provided by the council. Instead of delivering these services it will have a greatly reduced bureaucracy engaged in the managment of contracts. As a Suffolk resident I am concerned about this plan. I believe that it is ill thought out, ideologically driven, will place vulnerable people at risk and lead to cuts in Suffolks superb library and museums services. I have had, until this point, very little interest in local politics and would struggle to distinguish between the functions of the burough and district councils let alone name one of my elected representatives. But I have spent a long time (too long!) researching and writing a PhD thesis on the role of Non-Governmental Organizations in the design and implementation of HIV/AIDS policies and programming in India. So whilst I know very little about David's Cameron's 'Big Society' (a term vague enought to encompass whatever might be politically expedient at any given time and in any given context) I know a fair amount about the concepts and theories of social capital, participation and bottom up versus top down planning. These are contested and debated concepts in development literature and I am interested to find out what the literature says about the Third Sector and related concepts in the UK.
The national news media has been covering this story in some detail over the past few days. The BBC ran a segment on News Night and a member of the audience on Any Questions on Radion 4 asked whether Suffolk's 'virtual council' might actually mean 'virtually no services'. Witty enough to make me laught- but not very loudly.What will happen when the spotlight is turned off Suffolk County Council? How can a member of the general public become involved in local level issues and hold its elected representatives to account? How can I, with little if any experience or knowledge of local politics, get involved? The Big Society is reputedly about getting 'the people' involved in decision making. What strategies has the council put in place to ensure that individuals and communtities can get involved?
When the council met to debate the New Strategic Direction the following clause was added at the request of a Green Party Candidate:
That there should be pro-active and wide-ranging engagement across Suffolk to establish whether the key NSD proposals find favour with the communities we all represent before moving to implementation, and the findings from this engagment be reported back to Full Council at the meeting on 2 December 2010.
I want to find out what this engagement will involve and what steps the council is taking to ensure that it takes place. I want to find out more about the thinking behind this New Strategic Direction and how the council is going to ensure the participation of the electorate of Suffolk. I want to find out how easy, or difficult it is to become part of the Big Society we hear so much about.
Last Tuesday I rang the council to try and find out more. I was told that there was, at that point, no person designated to answer such queries, no information available for the public and no details about any consultation process. I was told that the council could not specify a time frame in which my questions could be answered. I left contact details and am still awaiting a response.
In the past few days I have also emailed my elected councillor, the head of the council and the chief executive of the council asking what the 'wide ranging engagment' might entail. So far I have had no response.
So, this is my Brave New World of political engagement and political activism. Now that this blog is up and running I will use it as a means of recording and reporting my attempts to find out what the council is doing to ensure the active engagement of Suffolk residents in discussions about the New Strategic Direction. I will report on my efforts to get involved as an active citizen exercising my democratic rights. I will try and elaborate on what 'participation' looks like in Suffolk. And I'll explore the manner in which the language of politics and participation is being in this arena. Does it aid clarity or add to confussion?