The state of Public Involvement in the Big Society era

Yesterday the non-partisan Hansard Society published Audit of Political Engagement 8, their annual survey of political and community engagement, for which nearly 1,200 people in Great Britain were interviewed.

This is a useful litmus test regarding how people engage and is the first of this series to be conducted at a time of public expenditure reductions. It should be remembered that in the 80’s and 90’s local election turnout was relatively high over issues such as  cuts, Rate-capping and the Poll Tax. Thus it was reasonable to assume that public interest in politics would be higher in the current circumstances.

It was also the first survey to be conducted during the era of the Big Society programme. In the 80’s and 90’s, whilst political interest was high, cuts then did not seem to lead to a large amount of extra volunteering to take the strain as places such as parks and other public spaces lost their visible staff and some services were reduced.

What were its conclusions of this report in this new era?

  • Interest in politics and knowledge of political events had both increased since last May – a record 58% of people claimed to be interested in politics, a 5% rise since last year, whilst 53% claim to be ‘knowledgeable’ about politics in general (up 2 points).  However, this was not matched by an increase in political engagement beyond voting or civic activity.
  • Most people in Britain are unlikely to get involved in their community despite wanting to engage more with local issues. Only one in ten definitely intended to do voluntary work in the next two years. While 69% of people said they were interested in how things worked in their local area and 51% felt getting involved could make a difference, only one in 10 said they were certain to do so in the next two years.
  • Whilst the public’s knowledge of Parliament has increased, satisfaction has decreased. 44% were ‘knowledgeable’ about Parliament (7 point increase), however 27% were satisfied with Parliament (6 point decrease) and only 30% agree that ‘Parliament is working for you and me’ (8 point decrease)
  • 46% say they are knowledgeable about how things work locally and 49% believe things work well locally (compared to just 30% who believe things work well nationally). 51% say getting involved locally can change their area (compared to just 30% who say getting involved in politics can change the way the UK is run)
  • Motivation to volunteer and get involved seems to be rooted in a sense of personal self-interest. People are more likely to get involved in their local community ‘if I felt strongly about an issue’ (40%), ‘if it was relevant to me’ (33%), ‘if I had more time’ (28%), and ‘if it affected my street’ (25%).
  • While the research suggests people think volunteering can have more impact locally than nationally, people are generally less aware of what is happening on their doorstep than they are about national issues and controversies.
  • The findings suggest the Big Society must avoid “political associations” to succeed.

In demographic terms those most likely to put themselves forward were parents aged under 45 (particularly those aged 25-34), were from a high-income group, have children; and they tended to vote Liberal Democrat.

Dr Ruth Fox, director of the Hansard Society, said:

“People say they are interested in being more engaged locally but, on the whole, are not willing to actually commit to activities. They are not very altruistic. It is self-interest that motivates them to action – when an issue affects them or their community in a personal way.”

‘This raises interesting questions for the development of the Big Society. A clear focus on the local and the personal is where the Big Society has the greatest chance of succeeding. The concept needs to avoid political associations, focus on the local and personal, and emphasise ‘community’ rather than ‘Society’.

Perhaps Ministers will keep using the term Big  Society as a national brand, whilst more community oriented terminology is used at the local level by Council’s who will know doubt note this report’s contents. We have blogged here, here,  here,  here and here about the communications challenges the Big Society faces. We would also argue that values based engagement enables one to define a much wider range of Big Society behaviours relevant to the value of each target community. We have commented further about that point here.

The Hansard Society survey also identified what it described as engagement profiles:

  • Onlookers: (20%) – happy with political system but no urge to get involved
  • Unenthusiastic: (15%) – broadly content but not very interested in more involvement
  • Already active: (14%) – strongly engaged and interested in doing more
  • Willing localists: (14%) – not actively involved but willing and likely to do so locally
  • Apathetic: (14%) – disengaged without being negative and not seeking any involvement
  • Alienated: (12%) – have strongly negative views and little wish to get involved
  • Exaggerators: (11%) – say they want to be more involved but may well be over-stating their intentions

The Audit identified ‘Willing Localists’ (14% of the population) as the key target for the success of the Big Society. They are not actively involved in a wide range of community and socio-political activities but seem the most willing and realistically likely to become involved in the future.

Whilst this segmentation is interesting, how transferable or multi-dimensional is it to other areas of public policy?

I recently commented on the segmentations used for the Searchlight Educational Trust “Fear and Hope” report on cohesion and the World Wildlife Fund “Common Cause” report on climate change and made a point, which I quote full below that I think can be applied here too:

“However there is also a danger that these identity segments will come across as somewhat one-dimensional as it responds to just one policy challenge, rather than testing that segmentation against a wider range of policy issues.

“We thus need segmentation that is not only dynamic, but is also built on a long-term database, tested across a large range of personal values and public policy areas, so we can track the small changes that lead to the bigger shifts in attitudes. This is why TCC utilises segmentation on the basis of the values which we believe lay underneath identity and which are driven by fundamental personal needs and the level of motivation and self-efficacy in achieving them. They are collected as part of the British Values survey which has been collected over the last 38 years.

“When those values are clustered in identifiable geo-demographic groups and are studied specifically on this one issue they may well become the sort of identities shown in this report that are then reinforced by local social norms and social proof. However those identities may not automatically translate into similar groups for other areas of policy – such as attitudes towards the Big Society, action on Climate Change or outlooks towards the public spending reductions – addressing as they do, just the issue of multiculturalism.

“In order for segmentation to be robust and effective in tackling a range of issues within any targeted community it needs to be able to address a much wider range of overlapping public policy challenges.

“There was perhaps a similar sense of one-dimensional outlook when it came to the recent World Wildlife Fund Common Cause report which addresses both values and identity in the context of the challenge of climate change, and which has been previously covered in some detail in this blog.

“The big question for the authors of both these two reports to consider, is could their different approaches be translated for use in the other policy area?

“With values based segmentation and its tried and trusted data collected over a long period as well as being part of a wider surveys collected as part of the World Values SurveyTCC uses a system, that is not just operable for one challenge, but which also applies across the public policy sphere.”

My fundamental point is this: do we really want a separate segmentation for every single public policy issue?

The danger of the three different segmentations I have now shown above, is they may illustrate some interesting groups of people, but they do little to address issues in the community which are not just about engagement or not just about community cohesion. In the end those issue are a complex mix of many factors and we do not have the luxury either the time or resources of looking at each of them separately.

Charlie Mansell is Research and Development Officer for The Campaign Company. If you want to see what your own primary values set is, why not take the simple Values Questionnaire here.

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2 Responses to “The state of Public Involvement in the Big Society era”

  1. Young People and Status Dogs – TCC research leads the way « The Campaign Company’s Blog Says:

    […] have blogged before that a generic values based segmentation approach enables one to make the linkages between […]

  2. The state of Public Involvement in the Big Society era… a year on « The Campaign Company’s Blog Says:

    […] have previously commented on this blog about the non-partisan Hansard Society serial publication Audit of Political Engagement. It […]

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