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Katherine Tonkiss

The INLOGOV blog has featured a number of insightful pieces on citizen participation in recent months. Most recently, Laurens de Graaf reflected on the limited role of citizens in participatory projects, where they typically act as information sources for elected representatives rather than decision-makers themselves. Previously, Catherine Durose argued in favour of alternative modes of citizen participation in order to move away from often empty, ‘tick-box’ consultation processes. Further, Catherine Jackson-Read reflected on whether local government in its current form can work effectively in collaboration with citizens.

What these posts have in common is a consensus that facilitating effective citizen participation is a significant challenge for local government, and that authorities should look to more novel approaches to facilitating participation beyond the traditional meeting in the drafty village hall.

These posts sprang to mind when I came across a campaign being run by Birmingham City Council’s Fair Brum partnership, ‘Place Matters’. The purpose of this project is to facilitate the participation of citizens in shaping Birmingham’s neighbourhood strategy by submitting photographs of their neighbourhood via social media. The focus is on ‘what is distinctive about different neighbourhoods and what local people value in their local environment’.

Photographs should answer one of the following questions:

  1. What do you like about your area?
  2. What makes your area unique or distinctive?
  3. What would you change about your area?

This novel campaign relates to the idea of ‘place’ in two very interesting ways.

First, the campaign involves a notion of place strongly grounded in the neighbourhood. The idea of citizens telling their local authority and its partners about their neighbourhood in terms of what it is like to live there doesn’t just involve relaying information to assist decision-making, but actually resconstructs what place means to the citizen in their immediate locality and how they interact with that place. In doing so, this creates a vision of place from the ways in which people understand and interpret their lived environment.

Secondly, and conversely, the campaign involves a very expansive notion of place. The act of photographing the neighbourhood and uploading it via social media is a clear step away from engaging citizens in that drafty village hall, and rather opens up the ability to convey ideas about place from the home – very much along the lines of the Gov 2.0 model that Tom Barrance wrote about a couple of weeks ago. It also opens up the possibility of participation to those without English language skills, or to those who are otherwise unable to engage in traditional processes of local democracy. Previous research I have been involved in has highlighted how traditional models of citizen participation can further exclude some of the most underrepresented groups, and alternatives such as this offer the opportunity to overcome such barriers.

I acknowledge that it will still exclude those who don’t use social media, however this is part of a raft of engagement activities and so there will, presumably, be other ways of engaging that don’t necessarily rely on having a Twitter account.

The results of this exercise will be insightful for local authorities and academic researchers alike, in terms of whether it does address that all too common issue that participation activities become tokenistic opportunities to obtain information rather than to engage citizens in decision-making processes. It will be important for the partnership to demonstrate a link between these participation activities and meaningful citizen input into the decision-making process about the neighbourhood strategy. If successful, the exercise will offer fascinating insights both into Birmingham as a city and into citizen participation in the neighbourhood.

me

Katherine Tonkiss is a Research Fellow at INLOGOV.  She is currently working on a three year, ESRC funded project titled Shrinking the State, and is converting her PhD thesis, on the subject of migration and identity, into a book to be published later this year with Palgrave Macmillan.  Her research interests are focused on the changing nature of citizenship and democracy in a globalising world, and the local experience of global transformations.  Follow her Twitter feed here.

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