Developing Active Citizens

This week has been a hard one, full of knocks. In any community-related work, you need to be ready to face up to changes in fortune and to recognising when your own skills are not yet adequate for the task. But this week households who seemed quite recently to be keen to work with me have gone cold. One seemed promising and engaged but then decided quite formally not to take things any further. Another person agreed to join us listening door-to-door as a volunteer but when we turned up to go out at the agreed and confirmed time, was not available or contactable. Another whole family who before Christmas were enthusiastically welcoming of our intentions seem to have disappeared and do not answer our calls or visits. We planned and confirmed our first house group this week, turned up at the door and found it darkened with no explanation.

Rome visit June 2008 – 57 by Ed Yourdon CC FlickrA radical and difficult task

Such disappointments come to everyone trying to motivate people to act on their community concerns. I am only too aware of having chosen to work in one of the most complex and demanding settings in London, the Aylesbury estate. It houses a community that has been portrayed as feckless, evil and violent for decades when in fact the people who live there prove themselves the normal mix of honest, hard-working and concerned individuals. My competences as a community organiser continue to grow and I know that I find it increasingly comfortable to draw people out and give them a spark of hope, despite trying circumstances. My colleague Kathleen reminded me that persistence is also one of the attributes of a community organiser!

Beyond the Big Society - cover imageThe psychology of action

A new report published this month by the RSA offers a new light on my experience of rejection. In Beyond the Big Society, Jonathan Rowson and colleagues suggest that active citizens need to develop a level of ‘mental complexity’ to become competent. Framed by the Big Society sobriquet, the 40 page document explores what individuals need psychologically to be able to act competently with others in community. As such, it opens up new ground in under-explored territory and does so in an engaging and non-technical language.

RespectCompetencies for citizenship

They focus attention on three competencies central to participating in community life: autonomy, responsibility and solidarity. The capacity of individuals to take the initiative autonomously without state interference is central to organising and as the authors comment, is linked to intrinsic motivation to being ‘self-authoring’, creating your own goals and working toward them for their own sake (p 18). I suspect that many of the people I meet on the Aylesbury have been given few opportunities to exercise such autonomy and feel much safer in the cosy arms of the state bureaucracy, even though they rail against the local authority at every turn.

‘Bigger than self’ problems 

To be responsible for things that are not experienced on a daily basis – the ‘bigger than self’ problems – is a major ask for most citizens. Many regard their council and income taxes instrumentally buying them agencies to tackle those wider questions without too much involvement from the original customer. And of course again as the authors point out you need ‘to be response-able, as in ready, willing and able to respond to a given challenge in a given context.’ (p 19) The residents of the Aylesbury estate are in no way uniform – anything but! – but once again few take on this wider perspective easily and with enthusiasm. Yet again, engaging with the wider picture is a vital component of organising.

TrustSharing the same turf

Solidarity is a term used widely on the left but here the authors suggest it is “about the extent to which we feel we are on ‘common ground’ with and have a sense of mutual commitment with the people with whom we share space, time and resources.” (p 20) The tradition of working class life in Walworth has focused on solidarity but with a limited range of people. The sheer kaleidoscopic diversity of the Aylesbury together with the brisk pace arrivals and departures makes effective solidarity near on impossible. As the cuts begin to bite, the pressures on families will only get greater. The importance of seeking the common good together is undoubted but those ready for this challenge are sparse indeed.

Adult development the key

Beyond the Big Society goes on to propose that these three competencies of active citizenship – autonomy, responsibility and solidarity – require adults to go on developing their mental capacity for complexity. (They draw on the work of Robert Kegan here) The authors argue that the Big Society will only have its culturally transformative impact if it is recognised as a generation-long project and one that requires us to build new ways of knowing not just newly skilful citizens. In seeking for an explanation for the early response of Aylesbury residents to the offer of engagement with each other on things that really matter, I take comfort in the analysis of this report. It’s not the whole story, no doubt but it gives some fresh signposts to what may be underlying realities.


Jonathan Rowson et al (2011) Beyond the Big Society: Psychological Foundations of Active Citizenship RSA

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One Response to Developing Active Citizens

  1. David says:

    Thank you!

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