Draft: Paper to be delivered at British Academy of Management Annual Conference 2002, 'Voice Off: Management at the Margins' sub-theme

Participation in an e-age: negotiation and the Moor Park Explore Club

Len Holmes, Director, Management Research Centre, London Metropolitan University, (at time of presentation)
Margaret Grieco, Professor of Transport and Society, Napier University, and
The Moor Park Explore Club, Moor Park Community Group, North Tyneside

NB This paper is best read in online form: http://www.re-skill.org.uk/papers/participation.html in order to access the hypertext links provided.

Abstract:

This short paper reviews the opportunities for changed management forms in the delivery of services to low income communities. It explores the consequences of low income community connectivity for altered forms of social bargaining in relation to both private and public sector organisations. Connectivity enables communities to overview the activities of their political representatives and to shape informed views about the fit between community interests and political practices. It also enables communities to better identify market information which is of use to them in the more efficient use of their existing resources.

1. Introduction: Space, place and participation - the new dimension of connectivity.

New information communication technologies enable higher levels of participation in the social bargaining for public resources by communities which were previously excluded by the interaction between low income and transport deprivation. Through new information communication technologies, low income communities can gain information on programmes, policies and public disbursements of resources without having to leave their locality to conduct such searches. This capability of search over extended space whilst remaining in place and locality lowers the transaction costs of civic participation dramatically whilst providing new opportunities for rehearsal and practice in respect of information and frameworks developed without the locality. Space, place and participation can be transformed through the use of the new distributed information communication technologies (cf Tomlinson, 2001).

Connectivity is the key: low income communities must have easy access to the new information communication technology and must also have access to the initial training necessary to activate the technology in meeting their own goals and purposes. The benefits of such access and initial training are many: not least of these benefits is the ability to raise voice in globalised complaint and to raise such voice on the basis of a documented record of experience which is globally accessible.

Debates on the social and political consequences of the new information and communications technologies tend to divide between 'neofuturist' hyperbole and dystopian critique (Wilhelm, 2000). Castells (1996: 65) cautions that such consequences are matters of inquiry, not of fate. Such inquiry, we suggest, must go beyond mere observation framed within modes of social theorising pre-dating the rise of the information society: it must explore the affordances of the new information technologies for transforming relationship patterns and provide for theoretical reframing to account for such transformations (cf Holmes, 2001).

Discussions of low income connectivity within academic discourse frequently raise the question: How realistic is the prospect of widespread connectivity within the low income communities and neighbourhoods of Britain? There are a number of British experiments based on the concept of 'wired communities' as a corrective to social exclusion and the prospect of a digital divide which are worth exploring such as Blackburn East.

 

Case 1: Wired up community of Blackburn East: Extracted from the Blackburn East web site.

WELCOME TO THE WIRED UP COMMUNITY OF BLACKBURN EAST

The Wired Up Community of Blackburn East, is one of the largest projects of it's kind in the World.

It has been won by Blackburn East Area Community Help (BEACH) Partnership, a community Umbrella Organisation, working to change things in East Blackburn. BEACH consists of 13 local community groups/organisations which are all working in the area.

The BEACH " bid" was made in response to an invitation to tender from the Department for Education and Skill (as it is now known) and backed by Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council acting in the capacity of "Accountable Body" for the project.

The area chosen for the project had to be within the Town's SRB 5 designated zone and had to have between 2000/5000 homes. The BEACH Partnership area met these criteria and was therefore used to define the target area for the project.

The BEACH "bid" was one of six successful bids chosen in a competitive bidding process which considered over 30 bids from across the country. It has the potential to bring 2.5 M of investment to the Blackburn East area over the next 12 months. The investment will enable over 2500 households, to have a computer installed and help to establish the Blackburn East web site, BEonline, which is the focal point of the project.

Part of the 2,500,000 will be available to the 6 local Schools serving the area. This will help each of these Schools to extend their Information and Communication Technology facilities for the benefit of their pupils. The funding will come to them through a national E Learning Foundation fund because the BEACH "bid" was successful.

The Steering Group formed to oversee the "bid", and the work done since the award, has now become the Project Board to exercise control of the projects implementation. BEACH Partnership have four members on the Board and provide the Chair and Vice Chair, thus ensuring that the work of the Board, and the Projects implementation maintains a strong East Blackburn focus.

The prospect of linking 2,500 local households to the web and having an anchor site for their interaction clearly has consequences for social bargaining and amounts to the launching of a new model for civic participation. However, the British experiment at reducing the digital divide is wider than this one community:

Case 2: Wired up communities. Extracted from the Wired Up Communities Web Site.

The Wired up Communities initiative is investing 10 million of government funding to assess how individual access to the Internet can transform opportunities for people living in the most disadvantaged communities. 14,000 homes in 7 communities are piloting this initiative to test how making ICT accessible by putting it straight into people's homes can help overcome the digital divide.

The launch of this model of civic participation and service delivery by the British government - the Wired Up Communities initiative - has received very little attention; it is, however, a significant experiment in the role the e-form could play in the reduction of social exclusion. The seven projects funded under this scheme have still to make full use of the interactive capabilities of the Internet and World Wide Web and have been conceived of largely as an information search tool but these projects clearly contain the capacity for a much more interactive format which permit local communities to take a more proactive role in the management of public resources. The beginning of such a development can be viewed at the Alston Cybermoor project where a discussion room has been developed to involve local people in the setting of the local website priorities.

There are, however, weaknesses in the design of the Wired Up Communities initiatives which need immediate correction. In one location, Brampton Bierlow, as the Guardian reports (http://society.guardian.co.uk/internet/story/0,8150,752203,00.html ) the project organisers have experienced substantial difficulties in achieving local take up of the offered facilities:

This slowness in take up contrasts dramatically with our experience working with community groups in the North East of England in the context of developing transport forums, one of which is the Moor Park Explore Club. Our suggestion here is that for low income communities to be willing to take up the use of new information communication technologies, the practical purposes served by these technologies must be concretely demonstrated within the local area. For example, the direct use of such technologies by local residents in booking demand responsive transport or other services such as the organisation of hospital and doctors' appointments could be incorporated into the initial design. Similarly, enhancing the interactive character of Wired Up Community design to permit input into the organisation and design of local public services would serve to make use of the technology more attractive to low income communities.

Connectivity is not sufficient and policy makers must pay attention to the design of Wired Up Community facilities and ensure that appropriate education on and induction into the utility of such facilities receive as much attention as the hardware. Ensuring that Wired Up Community design serves immediate and transparent practical purposes from the perspective of community residents is crucial. To this end, community input and involvement in the design of these new social information technology experiments is critical: professional design practice does not, as it stands, capture the needs of low income users.

The cooperation between the Moor Park Explore Club and the Odyssey Group (note 1) within the framework of the North East Action on Transport network (NEAT) has provided an experience of e-based activities and interactions which are combined with physical meetings in the development of social bargaining strategies around transport provision. The e-form enables easy interaction between the community group and the academics servicing at its request the development of local discourse around transport deprivation within the area. The e-form enables the community both to develop its own independent web site and voice and enables this voice to be hosted on professional national and international transport sites. E-contact is paralleled by the participation of members of the community group at professional transport meetings and by the use of e-forms to organise 'explore' trips to environments with different and superior forms of transport provision. Connectivity is enabling academic and community partners to remain in a constant pattern of contact even when the academics are out of country.

The model of social policy research adopted jointly by the Odyssey Group and the Moor Park Explore Club within the framework of NEAT is based on highly distributed shared experience and practice. Academics and community together develop workshops on request to enable other community groups such as the disabled to enter the world of connectivity and these workshops take place within local community facilities.

The boundaries to constant communication over distance and to the local location of IT training and indeed major consultation and policy meetings are greatly reduced by the distributed character of the new technology. The quality of conferencing facility that could only be achieved in custom built, usually urban central locations, can now be put together in a community centre. Policy meetings can take place in the localities affected by them and communities can be enabled to be virtually present at policy meetings which take place in governmental centres. The slow take up of the technologies at Brampton Bierlow indicates that a more radical view of participation is necessary on the part of Government before the Wired Up Communities initiative meets with full success: technology arrangements which simply connect out to an information source rather than enhance interactivity can not do the job. Our experience with the Moor Park Explore Club indicates that low income communities have reason to become involved in the social bargaining for collective resources and technology arrangements which enable this will indeed find a pattern of use.

2. Planning service delivery: new partnership models.

The rolling back of the public sector has seen the development of new models of service delivery. Under New Labour, a key concept or icon in this process is that of 'partnership'. The provision of a range of universal services to universal standards by local authorities has been eroded in favour of national competitions for 'pots' of resources in which local organisations and groups have to form bids often in partnership with other agencies to 'win' resources for regeneration or health facilities or transport provision. The Wired Up Community Initiative represents one such process, the urban bus challenge and rural bus challenge represent others.

Communities in this model of service delivery have to be proactive in generating proposals in order to win competitions to obtain the resources required for meeting their social needs. Needless to say this model places substantial constraints on the worst off communities - those which most need resources - to have sufficient information on the competitions in play and to find the resources to shape bids and proposals. These new partnership models require considerable social capital and financial resources (whether these be uncosted volunteer time or formal budgets) on the part of would be applicants for the highly competitive prizes.

In this new partnership model of service delivery and in a context of changing projects, initiatives and governmental department names and boundaries, local access to high policy information becomes critical. Moor Park Community Group have been involved in a successful bid for substantial resources for health provision within their community, a provision which will give the Moor Park Community Group a new home. However, this outcome required considerable volunteer investment and although the success of this particular piece of social bargaining was not predicated upon the use of the Internet/ World Wide Web to locate and secure the opportunity, it is clear that many other projects are likely to be.

Using the web to reduce search costs and to overview the policy environment and keep track of changing initiatives reduces transaction costs in communities where the existing costs of search are a disincentive. Government policy, with its many and often conflicting initiatives aimed at low income communities, has not yet focused upon the extent to which connectivity may be a key to the better organisation of its partnership model.

Ultimately, there must be some question as to why competitions for resources, particularly in separate and fixed pots, are deemed the appropriate method for resolving urban degeneration and social exclusion. The plethora of often-overlapping schemes has already resulted in 'initiative fatigue' even amongst relatively well-resourced agencies (Note 2)

The consequence of this competitive mode is that the losers in competitions, and the numbers of losers are in every competition substantial, experience dejection and a loss of social capital. Communities which put their all into a bid and lose are unlikely to put the same level of energy into the bid the next time.

Partnerships models outside of this competitive frame could greatly benefit from universal connectivity. Within the competitive frame connectivity is key to lowering transaction costs, increasing transparency in the political process of selection of 'best partnership models' and may provide a useful role in raising a critique of the inefficiencies of existing practice.

3. Voice, bargaining and negotiation: straight talking and public influence.

The movement away from local authority provision of public services to national competitions for regeneration funding is in part the outcome of the changing and changed character of British democracy. The role of councillors in local authority decision making has been greatly reduced. Party discipline leaves both councillors and MPs more responsive to the Party leadership and less responsive to their respective constituencies. Consequently, low income community residents have little influence or impact upon their councillors and MPs. Voting no longer provides a direct link with a politician who acts in their interest. Dissent is stifled.

Previous experience of a competition-based urban renewal agenda has shown clearly a number of problems with gaining and maintaining the degree of community engagement necessary for social and economic regeneration. The dynamics of relatively short timescales and strict deadlines set for presenting competitive bids, and limited previous experience, rehearsal and practice in engagement with funding agencies, have tended to degrade initially participative modes of leadership: in practice, bids have tended to be produced by community development 'experts', experienced in engagement with traditional political structures (Mantle, 1985). The framing of funding initiatives has been that of the funders, primarily central government as funder-of-last-resort, often reinforcing and reproducing dominant, and arguably failed, modes of social policy analysis and advocacy (Holmes and Grieco, 1990; Grieco and Holmes, 1991).

Bargaining through the traditional political structures is now less effective for low income communities and the voices of their traditional representatives have largely been weakened. In this context, organising own voice outside of the traditional political structures and using that voice to engage with policy makers, business interests and other agencies of influence is now a practical possibility through the use of web campaigns, web casts and other related fora.

In the case of Moor Park Community Group, the interaction between academics and the community resulted in the direct interaction of Moor Park Community Group with government departments in workshops, consultations and research. The workshops have been web cast through NEAT. Straight talking about the real circumstances of low income Britain has its role in the public influence over policy: view, opinions, information that was previously mediated through academic research - and more worringly through consultants who had no commitment to the areas researched and no quality check on the findings that they reported - can now be accessed directly from the community and can be constantly updated on a public access basis.

The Moor Park Community Group involvement in the research of the Social Exclusion Unit of the Cabinet Office on transport deprivation provides an example of enhanced social bargaining: their perceptions and experiences of local travel and transport were included in the report and not marginalised. The pattern of e-connection between community, policy agencies, NGOs and academics all played their part in this long awaited change in the existing record of transport experience in Britain.

4. Trips, tips and time to search: identifying viable alternatives.

Conceiving of improvements in service provision and delivery has much to do with the experience of other alternative arrangements. Bargaining for improvement without experience of alternative and better serviced locations is a difficult business. The Moor Park Explore Club with Odyssey funding have been experimenting with fast modes of transport on journeys locally, nationally and, with their recent trip to Amsterdam, internationally.

Ten residents of Moor Park who have had negative experiences of public transport in their own locality and who for example have their sociability restricted by poor quality evening transport service provision within Moor Park experimented with the Amsterdam tram system where the quality of evening service provision placed no such limitations on sociability.

Moor Park Explore Club are currently preparing a report on the experience to place on the web and will use this report to draw the attention of community members and service providers within the North East to the quality of public service transport provision to be found elsewhere as compared with their own area.

The Amsterdam experience provided the Moor Park Explore Club with important comparisons in terms of convenience and cost of public transport services: it provided a view of an alternative. However, before going to Amsterdam the Moor Park Explore Club used the web to research Amsterdam and what they wanted to do there. Instead of arriving as complete strangers they already had defined the journeys they wanted to make. The use of the web to 'frame' the travel experience before the journey had started, in journey at Newcastle Airport to check some location details and after Amsterdam to record the experience and to distribute the experience to others all raise the issue of the role of connectivity in social bargaining. The advance search reduces dependency on others for information - it removes the need for guides and other intermediaries in making unknown journeys. Virtual landscaping renders the unknown familiar while still not physically present. The use of information technology in journey both by means of mobile phones and by means of an airport internet facility provides flexibilities which reduce travel stress and extend the willingness to experiment. The skill to record the experience and distribute it generates visible expertise in other transport systems which provides greater ground for authoritative voice.

5. Conclusion. Keeping track and answering back: the on-line community archive of experience.

Connectivity enables communities to track their experience, to compare the experience as known to themselves with the official record of that experience, to challenge, on the basis of evidence , political accounting which deprives communities of requisite resources, and to place the record of that challenge in full public view.

On-line community archives of experience are growing. Moor Park is but one of many communities where such skills are growing. The emergence of such competences to track and answer back must eventually impact upon the traditional political processes. Predicting precisely when and precisely how is not an easy business but that the potential for such impact exists is beyond dispute.

Notes

1. The Odyssey Group is a network of academics exploring the affordances of the new information and communications technology for promoting inclusionary social change and participatory approaches to economic development. Back to text

2. See, for example, Office of Technology Assessment (1995), Performance and Innovation Unit (2000), UK Parliament Health Committee (2000). Back to text

 

References:

Grieco, M. and Holmes, L. (1991) "Overt Funding, Buried Goals, and Moral Turnover: The Organizational Transformation of Radical Experiments", Human Relations, vol 44, no.7 1991

Holmes, L. (2001) E-rules for radicals?: community organising in an e-world. paper presented at "Organization Theory in Transition: Transitional Societies; Transitional Theories", the 9th International Congress of Asia-Pacific Researchers in Organisation Studies, December 2001, Hong Kong

Holmes, L. and Grieco, M. (1990) "Radical Beginnings, Conventional Ends?: Organisational Transformation - A Problem in the Development of Radical Organisations", in M. Poole and G. Jenkins (eds.) New Forms of Ownership, eds , London: Routledge

Mantle, A. (1985) Popular Planning NOT in practice, London: Greenwich Employment Resource Unit

Office of Technology Assessment (1995) Occupational Training for Young People in the United Kingdom, Washington DC: Congress of the United States (OTA-BP-EHR-175)

Performance and Innovation Unit, Cabinet Office (2000) Reaching Out: the role of central Government at regional and local level, London: Central Office of Information (see particularly chapter 2)

Tomlinson, J. (2001) "Proximity Politics", in F. Webster (ed.) Culture and Politics in the Information Age: A New Politics?, London: Routledge

UK Parliament Health Committee (2000) Memorandum by UK Public Health Association (PH 23), London: The Stationery Office

Wilhem, A. (2000) Democracy in the Digital Age, London: Routledge


Further web links:

Making the Connections: Transport and Social Exclusion

Empowering the learning community

Blair's policy in chaos

Building sustainable communities

Local strategic partnerships - Government guidance