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The Art of Association

Community organisations and
the public realm
A literature review conducted as part of a
Demos/New Opportunities Fund project on
participation, inclusion and service delivery.

March 2004

Paul Skidmore and John Craig

1. Introduction 2
the twin deficits of the public realm
2. A brief history 3
voluntary and community organisations in British social policy
3. Community as an idea 6
philosophical and empirical foundations
4. Community in operation 9
policy context and challenges since 1997
5. Harnessing community 15
four challenges
6. Meeting the challenge 16
a conceptual diamond
7. Conclusion 22
towards a research agenda

The Art of Association Page 1

Introduction: the twin deficits of the public realm

The art of association then becomes, as I have said before,

the mother of action, studied and applied by all.
Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

The public realm is widely acknowledged to be suffering from a twin deficit.

The first relates to participation and what is sometimes called ‘the
democratic deficit’. Significant decline in electoral turnout has been seen as
a symptom of a wider political malaise, with citizens increasingly disengaged
from and distrustful of the institutions and practices of formal politics and
civic life. The second is a deficit of service delivery. The capacity of the huge,
historically rooted systems of organisation through which public goods and
services like health, education and housing have traditionally been delivered
is increasingly in doubt. Policy-makers from all parts of the political
spectrum have recognised the need to look to alternative forms of provision
and organisation if the individual needs and demands of citizens are to be

Such grand theorising may seem a long way away from the day-to-day
reality of local community-based organisations. It is not. Our contention is
that these organisations have the potential to narrow both deficits
simultaneously – to improve the quality of service delivery and promote
social inclusion and civic participation – if the right kinds of conditions can
be fostered at local and national level.

For this to happen, four important tensions need to be explored and

resolved. The first relates to whether the idea (and ideal) of community that
permeates so much of the contemporary debate is at all plausible or
attainable given the relentless process of individuation and social
atomisation experienced in Britain as elsewhere over the course of the last
fifty years. If not, is it possible to arrive at a conception of community which
is more aligned with society as it is rather than society as we wish it were?

The second concerns the relationship between community-based

organisations and the state. For some thinkers (particularly on the right)
community is not just distinctly separate from the formal institutions of the
state but positively allergic to them. Yet an alternative account suggests that
the interdependence between state and community is more positive. Peter
Hall has argued that throughout the twentieth century the British state has
actively helped to foster and sustain levels of voluntary activity and social

The Art of Association Page 2

capital in various ways, most notably through the design of welfare systems.1
So how should the relationship between community groups and formal
public and political institutions best be understood and structured?

Third, community organisations – not unlike government itself – have two

distinct identities: a functional, managerial identity as providers of valued
services like health and education; and a deeper, moral identity as both the
products and the enablers of democratic participation. In his landmark
nineteenth century study, Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville
argued that through the experience of participating in community
organisations people learn the meaning of participation in society as a
whole. But do these identities conflict? If so, how could they be reconciled?

Fourth and finally, in the rush to embrace community there is a tendency to

ignore the potential ‘dark side’ of community. One need only think of the
Ku Klux Klan in the American Deep South to see that some forms of
community organisation can be deeply undesirable, and that participation
in itself cannot be the sole claim to legitimacy. The question is, how can we
ensure that community organisations are legitimate and accountable
without imposing unreasonable demands or prioritising the wrong kinds of
procedures or measures?

The purpose of the wider Demos/NOF project is to develop a clearer

understanding of how some of these tensions might be resolved so that
voluntary organisations, community groups and other forms of association
can make the fullest possible contribution to a vibrant democracy and
thriving public realm. Our aim in this literature review is to lay the
theoretical ground for this exercise by providing a concise account of some
of the key ideas, concepts and policy context. We conclude with a set of
interesting and provocative questions that constitute an emerging agenda
for the primary research process.

A brief history: voluntary and community organisations in British

social policy

The 1945 welfare settlement committed the state to addressing the ‘five
giants’ identified in William Beveridge’s famous report: idleness, ignorance,
disease, squalor and want. It also laid the foundations for the construction of
the huge systems of organisation through which they were to be tackled: the

P Hall, ‘Social capital: a fragile asset’ in Perri 6 (ed.) The wealth and poverty of networks
Demos Collection 12 (London: Demos, 1997)
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NHS, social security, the schools system, social services, social housing and
so on. Although specific institutional designs varied by sector the
overarching organising principle was public ownership: they were owned,
run and financed by the state in some guise.

Large-scale state provision replaced and in some cases subsumed the

patchwork of voluntary organisations and charities that had existed before.
Indeed, as Nicholas Timmins argues in his history of the welfare state, it
emerged out of a growing recognition that in terms of capacity, quality,
coverage and accessibility existing models of voluntary provision were

The previous 100 years are often seen as something of a golden age for local
voluntary and community organisations,3 in which Britain’s accelerating
industrial revolution created the first large-scale demand for social services
provision and, through the development of a vibrant voluntary sector, the
means by which it might be supplied.

In the 19th century economic and technological change had unleashed a

rapid process of urbanisation and displaced many traditional forms of
family and community support at the same time as it created new problems
and challenges: for massive increases in housing stock; for effective
sanitation to limit the spread of disease; for better educated and disciplined
workers. But it was also during this period that the Victorian spirit of civic
philanthropy and middle-class paternalism was in its heyday, as expressed in
the flourishing of friendly societies, trade clubs, mutuals, co-operatives and
charitable organisations and the pre-eminence of socially concerned
industrialists like Titus Salt, Joseph Chamberlain, Charles Booth and Joseph

The first indications of trouble in this altruistic paradise were prompted by

the experience of war, when large numbers of those volunteering or
conscripted to fight in the Boer War and later the First World War were
deemed unfit for service. The inter-war experience of mass unemployment,
poverty and social unrest was also crucial. The reconfiguration of the state
for total war after 1939 undermined the traditional laissez-faire orthodoxy,
and hinted at what could be achieved through a more active and
interventionist role for the state. Finally the war made a remarkable

N Timmins, The Five Giants: A Biography of the Welfare State (London: HarperCollins,
e.g. R Whelan, Involuntary Action (London: Civitas, 1999)
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contribution to social cohesion and produced a widespread social and
political consensus on the need to make social justice a central goal of post-
war policy, and for the state to massively increase its role to achieving it.4

As a result, 1945 marked a watershed in the historical development of the

voluntary and community sector. For the next thirty years, as Harris and
Rochester argue, voluntary organisations would occupy an important but
inherently subordinate place in Britain’s social infrastructure.5 They were
expected to complement and supplement the offer of the massive publicly-
owned institutions and services, but certainly not to substitute for it.

The post-war welfare consensus survived largely intact until the late 1970s,
when Britain’s continuing economic malaise prompted accusations that
excessive government spending and an overweening public sector were
‘crowding out’ productive enterprise,6 and led to the election of the
Conservatives on a radical platform of ‘rolling back the frontiers of the

Thatcher’s victory in 1979 marked a second crucial turning point for

voluntary organisations. The incoming Conservative government embraced
the notion of a ‘mixed economy of welfare’ in which voluntary and
community organisations would take their place as alternative providers of
services alongside the public and, increasingly, private sector, and in which
the state’s role moved from direct provision to the regulation and planning
of services provided by others.7 The mixed economy of welfare was
attractive for both ideological and pragmatic reasons. Ideologically restoring
the role of the community and voluntary sector was in line with a neo-liberal
critique of the state as inefficient, intrusive and responsible for a morally-
bankrupt culture of ‘dependence’. Pragmatically, it enabled government to
shift significant amounts of welfare expenditure off the government books.

For community and voluntary organisations, this shift was something of a

mixed blessing. It moved the voluntary sector from the periphery of service
delivery to the mainstream, becoming a major provider of core services
rather than merely supplementing state provision. But moving to the
mainstream, engaging in increasingly contractual relationships with public

Timmins, The Five Giants
M Harris and C Rochester, Voluntary Organisations and Social Policy in Britain
(Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001)
R Bacon and W Eltis, Britain’s Economic Problem: Too Few Producers (London:
Macmillan, 1976)
Harris and Rochester,Voluntary Organisations and Social Policy in Britain
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agencies and competing against the private sector in the process also
transformed the relationship between the state and the voluntary sector. It
changed expectations of what the sector was for and what it should look like,
and fostered a creeping professionalisation and managerialisation which
continues to create tensions today.8

Community as an idea: philosophical and empirical foundations

From the 1990s onwards, these developments have been shaped by the
rediscovery of ‘community’ as an idea and a site of political contest. After 45
years in which the central policy debate turned on the appropriate
configuration of state and market, community has been embraced as a third
and vitally important pillar in creating prosperity, upholding social order
and securing collective goods. Politicians of every stripe have been falling
over themselves to lay a claim to community as natural territory for their
parties or ideologies.9

As Marilyn Taylor argues, the idea of community has descriptive, normative

and instrumental dimensions.10 Community is used to describe groups of
people who share some common characteristics, a definition which permits
wide variation depending on the characteristics that are chosen – a common
culture or identity (e.g. ethnic communities or faith groups), common sets
of social relationships (e.g. neighbourhoods and communities of place) or
common interests and experience (e.g. the business community, users of a
particular service, or patient self-help groups).

But it is the second sense of community that has become more pervasive.
Community is usually a loaded term, and more often than not these
assumptions are positive. Community is seen to enable forms of social co-
ordination and collective action that are beyond the reach of the
unrestrained individualism of the market and the unwieldy, impersonal
hand of the state.

It is from a confusion of these first two meanings that a third, instrumental

conception of community has emerged in policy-making. Crudely, this
account not only assumes that community is ‘a good thing’ per se, but also

See, for example, H McCarthy, M Mean and T Bentley Inside Out: Rethinking Inclusive
Communities (London: Demos, 2003)
E.g. D Willets, ‘The Reality of Poverty’,; D Blunkett, Politics and Progress
(London: Demos/Politicos, 2002)
M Taylor, Public Policy in the Community (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2003)
The Art of Association Page 6
that where community bonds or social trust can be identified it will
necessarily translate into a willingness and capacity for agency – for the
community to take action on its own behalf.


This tendency to conflate a range of possible meanings of community into a

single, normatively loaded concept is due in large measure to the influence
of communitarian thinkers like Charles Taylor, Michael Sandel and Amitai
Etzioni,11 and particularly their influence on Bill Clinton’s New Democrats
and Tony Blair’s New Labour in the early 1990s. Communitarians invoke
community as a crucial space in which citizens acquire the moral norms,
sense of responsibility and appreciation of their own and others’ rights upon
which the preservation of individual liberty and the smooth functioning of a
well-ordered and caring society depend. In this sense, it offers: ‘a political
vocabulary which eschews market individualism, but not capitalism; and
which embraces collective action, but not class or state.’12

Communitarianism starts from the position that rights are meaningless

without commensurate responsibilities. The old left in their demand for
social rights, liberals in their emphasis on protecting civil liberties and the
new right in their focus on individual freedoms all fail to recognise that their
political projects depend on the active promotion and maintenance of civic
virtue through community. This helps to explain why communitarianism
has been such an important component of ‘third way’ thinking.13

For communitarians the policy challenge is to achieve a more appropriate

balance between individual rights and social responsibilities. In liberal,
individualistic, market-oriented states like the US and the UK the balance is
seen to have swung too far in the direction of individual rights, a product
both of the creeping colonisation of the public realm by the market and of
welfare state entitlements that foster dependency of individuals on the state.

Communitarians seek to rebuild a sense of personal and collective moral

responsibility through, for example, ‘citizenship’ education. They also aim to

e.g. A Etzioni, The Spirit of Community (London: Fontana Press, 1995); M Sandel
Liberalism and the limits of justice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982); C
Taylor, Sources of the self : the making of the modern identity (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1989)
S Driver and L Martell, New Labour: Politics after Thatcherism (Cambridge: Polity Press,
1998) cited in Taylor, Public Policy in the Community
A Etizioni, The Third Way to a Good Society (London, Demos: 2000)
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reinvigorate the institutions that mediate between the individual and the
state as well as between the individual and the market, empowering
communities (often through more effective support to voluntary and
community groups) to tackle problems such as neighbourhood crime
without recourse to the formal powers of the state.14

Social capital

These philosophical arguments about the merits of community have been

bolstered by a rapidly growing body of empirical evidence about the causal
relationships between stocks of ‘social capital’ – the bonds and levels of
social trust within communities – and the social production of collective
goods like public health and neighbourhood safety.15 Social capital is most
usefully defined as the ‘norms and networks that facilitate collective
action’,16 and incorporates levels of social trust, civic participation and the
density of linkages within and between different sections of the community.

As Halpern shows, interest in social capital as reflected in the academic

literature has rocketed since the mid-1990s,17 due in large measure to the
popularity and influence of Robert Putnam’s ‘bowling alone’ thesis, first
outlined in a 1995 article and subsequently expanded in a book of the same

Building on his earlier work on civic traditions in Italy, Putnam’s argument

is that in the United States membership of a range of different associations,
and the general willingness of the public to trust other people, have declined
over recent decades. He takes his title from the fact that Americans are still
going bowling as much as they did before, just not together.

The substantial empirical claim made by Putnam and others is that this
decline in community ties and social trust is crucial because levels of social

See, for example, Etzioni, Spirit of Community. Note that in those societies where
individual rights are in danger of being suffocated by an over-bearing community, the
communitarian agenda would logically be in the opposite direction.
R Putnam, Bowling alone: the collapse and revival of American community (New York:
Simon & Schuster, 2000); Strategy Unit, Social Capital: a discussion paper (London: PIU
M Woolcock, ‘The place of social capital in understanding social and economic
outcomes’, Canadian Journal of Policy Research (Spring 2001)
Halpern cited in Strategy Unit, Social Capital
R Putnam, ‘Bowling alone: America’s disintegrating social capital’ in Journal of
Democracy, 1995 vol. 6 no.1 pp.65-78; Putnam, Bowling Alone
The Art of Association Page 8
capital are closely linked to the production of all kinds of collective goods.
The term draws on the economist’s lexicon in order to make clear that social
capital is itself a factor in production – and one to which, until recently, we
have paid insufficient attention. Implicit in its very name therefore, is the
claim that, “controlling for other key variables, the well-connected are more
likely to be housed, healthy, hired and happy” (my emphasis).19

For this very reason, social capital is often seen as a panacea. While physical
capital is constantly visible, the intuitive vagueness and subtlety of social
capital allows it to become “all things to all men”.20 Indeed, a recent Strategy
Unit Discussion Paper on the subject notes that ‘the term “social capital” is
increasingly used by policymakers as another way of describing

Putnam himself is in danger of creating a rather circular argument. His

definition of social capital as “…features of social life - networks, norms, and
trust - that enable participants to act together more effectively to pursue
shared objectives”22 risks conflating the benefits or products of social capital
with the conditions for its existence. The norms and reciprocal networks
that make collective action possible are themselves contingent on an existing
foundation of social trust and solidarity.

Moreover, it is hard to clarify exactly what social capital consists of. Strictly
speaking, forms of capital admit of only quantitative (i.e. more or less) and
not qualitative (better or worse) change. We ought therefore to expect that,
other things being equal, as social capital increases quality of life should
improve. Yet one does not have to look very hard to see that this logic
(increasingly pervasive amongst policy-makers) is a massive over-
simplification. Unlike other kinds of capital, social capital is both an
individual and a collective good. Growth in the collective stock of social
capital at the level of a neighbourhood can be consistent with the exclusion
and disadvantage of individuals or whole communities.

Community in operation: policy context and challenges since 1997

In policy terms, the most direct consequence of this burgeoning interest in

community has been threefold: first, a growing emphasis on ‘active

Woolcock, ‘The place of social capital in understanding social and economic outcomes’
Strategy Unit, Social Capital
Putnam, Bowling Alone
The Art of Association Page 9
citizenship’ with new initiatives to encourage it; second, the creation of new
institutions, funding streams and ways of working that reflect the need to
‘empower communities’; and third, the increasing prominence of
‘community cohesion’ as a public policy goal.

Active citizens

Encouraging ‘active citizenship’ – forms of civic responsibility and

participation that go beyond simply paying taxes or registering a vote – has
become an important plank of government policy. Government has sought
to build on a well-established British tradition by making volunteering
opportunities easier to identify and access through support for the
Millennium Volunteers scheme, the Experience Corps initiative aimed at
older citizens and TimeBank. ‘Citizenship education’ has been made a
compulsory component of teaching in schools. Deeper forms of citizen
participation and engagement have been encouraged through new decision-
making fora, such as school student councils, local youth parliaments,
neighbourhood committees and local strategic partnerships.

Yet active citizenship policies have often struggled as a result of the

interdependence of different policy areas and competition between different
priorities. In the case of volunteering, for example. Labour’s strong emphasis
on ‘welfare-to-work’ programmes like the New Deal and ‘making work pay’
through the minimum wage and the tax credit system reflect a view of work
(rather than redistribution) as the central route out of poverty.23 Yet this
creates tension in relation to volunteering, in that it helps to sustain some of
the longest working hours in Europe and a society in which 45% agree that ‘I
am so tired in the evening, I often don’t have the energy to do much’. It also
means there is a reluctance to sanction volunteering by the unemployed,
even though a growing body of research suggests that volunteers themselves
report development in both their skills and confidence.24

Similarly, in relation to citizenship education many schools report a lack of

time and ‘room for manoeuvre’ compared to their primary goal of raising
standards. The result, they argue, is that there are too few decisions around

A recent Home Office study found that 30 per cent of unemployed people had had any
involvement with formal volunteering in the last year, compared with 42 per cent of
employed people. In 1991, unemployed people were just as likely as employed people to be
involved in volunteering. Duncan Prime, Meta Zimmeck and Andrew Zurawan, Initial
Findings from the 2001 Home Office Citizenship Survey (London: Home Office, 2002)
Institute for Volunteering Research, National Survey of Volunteering in the UK
(, 1997)
The Art of Association Page 10
which to model active citizenship and for students to become active
around.25 Teacher-led approaches to citizenship-related topics within the
classroom have predominated over participatory, active approaches.
Indeed, just 10% of pupils have been involved in school councils and the
take-up for activities such as mock elections is around 5 per cent.26
Moreover, an unintended consequence of open enrolment seems to have
been that children do not feel strong attachment to the community
surrounding either their school or their home,27 although encouragingly
British children seem to have above average levels of civic skills compared to
their contemporaries in other countries.28

Empowered communities

A raft of measures designed to ‘empower’ local people and build capacity for
local problem-solving have been introduced. In Bringing Britain Together
Tony Blair argued, “too much has been imposed from above, when
experience shows that success depends on communities themselves having
the power and taking the responsibility to make things better”.29

The government has established new revenue streams like the New Deal for
Communities and the Neighbourhood Renewal Fund, which circumvent
existing structures of local government and target resources more directly at
local communities. The New Opportunities Fund has been introduced to
supplement the Community Fund in directing a greater share of the
proceeds of the National Lottery towards community causes.

Yet the Blair government has always seen its role as going far beyond the
provision of funds to community and voluntary organisations. From the
outset, ministers took seriously the idea that it was important to create
successful connections at the local, neighbourhood and national levels
between the different actors, agencies and institutions involved in local
communities and service delivery – including local people themselves.30 In
this vein, for example, the institutional architecture of central government

C Jones, Leading Learners, Demos, 2004
D Kerr, E Cleaver, and E Ireland, Citizenship Education Longitudinal Study: First year
findings (NfER, 2003)
A Dyson et al, Schools and Area Regeneration (London: Joseph Rowntree Foundation,
T-P Lehman, H Oswald,. and W Schulz, Citizenship and Education in Twenty-Eight
Countries: Civic Knowledge and Participation at Age Fourteen (IEA, 2001)
Social Exclusion Unit, Bringing Britain Together (, 1998)
P 6, Holistic government (London: Demos, 1997)
The Art of Association Page 11
has been reshaped with the creation of the Social Exclusion and, later,
Neighbourhood Renewal Units,31 and a new emphasis of the importance of
community as a cross-cutting theme within the Home Office.32 The
Neighbourhood Renewal Unit brought with it Local Strategic Partnerships
(LSPs) as ‘the key local vehicle for implementing and leading
neighbourhood renewal’. The Modernising Government white paper made
joint working a priority for all spending reviews.33 The introduction of the
Single Regeneration Budget aimed to rationalise government investment
spending. Sure Start centres in disadvantaged communities sought to range
public provision around the needs of young families. Education and health
‘action zones’ were established to break new ground in local collaboration in
service delivery.

However, the task of joining-up proved a good deal more difficult than
expected, as the disappointing performance of the action zones
demonstrates. Despite the freedom they were given, they did not involve
new partners or develop new working practices to the extent that was
hoped.34 Indeed, as Geddes observes, ‘neat new integrated structures can
improve relationships between sectors without benefiting excluded groups
at all’.35

One perspective on this phase of reform is that of ‘fragmented holism’ or

‘the problem of integration without coordination’.36 As often happens in the
early phases of integrative work within communities and local authorities,
many collaborative ventures were set running before real clarity could be
developed about how they related to each other.

As a result, functional and professional boundaries remained intact.37

Whilst greater power had been devolved to localities, it remained with
professionals and within existing professional boundaries. Participation and

31 ;
Cabinet Office, Modernising government White Paper presented to Parliament by the
Prime Minister and the Minister for the Cabinet Office Cm. 4310 (London: Stationery
Office, 1999)
For example, see OFSTED, Excellence in Cities and Education Action Zones: Management
and Impact (, 2003)
Quoted in M Taylor, Public Policy in the Community (Palgrave, 2003)
P 6, D Leat, K Seltzer and G Stoker, Governing in the Round: Strategies for Holistic
Government (London: Demos, 1999)
D Wilkinson and E Appelbee, Implementing Holistic Government (Bristol: Policy
Press/Demos 1999)
The Art of Association Page 12
inclusion that truly began with the community rather than professionals in
service organisations often remained elusive.

Performance management and accountability regimes have proved another

obstacle. The ‘high challenge, high support’ approach of performance
standards, targets and audit that brought early gains in areas like education
and health was increasingly transposed into community policy. The Social
Exclusion Unit’s PAT 9 called for the government to set targets for levels of
participation, starting with a baseline and setting targets for the following
years. Many PSA targets for local authorities have moved into similar areas.
However, doubts remain about whether national performance indicators
can capture what is truly of value about inclusive, participative
communities. Morevoer, as Perri 6 et al argue, ‘politicians must be wary of
the ease with which unreformed or only partially redesigned systems of
accountability can stifle the growth of holistic innovation and undermine
learning. By imposing goals and performance measures too early in the
process of developing integrated practices, they punish effort, sap
confidence in risk-taking and curtail effective longer-term development.’ 38

Target-setting has not been the only cause for concern. The understandable
desire for accountability and legitimacy has resulted in heavy reliance on
‘consultation’. Yet many public service professionals fear that their efforts to
consult and work with members of local community involve the ‘usual

Cohesive communities

‘Community cohesion’ became a policy buzzword and a central component

of the government (and particularly Home Office agenda) in 2001 in the
aftermath of riots in Bradford, Burnley and Oldham. The disturbances were
blamed on the social, professional and spatial fragmentation of the local
population on racial and ethnic lines in the context of significant social
deprivation. In particular, a disaffected, young, white working class and a
young, second or third generation British Asian population in these areas
had become increasingly polarised, and mounting tension between the two
spilled over into outbreaks of violence and social disorder.

For many, these incidents illustrate the ‘dark side’ of social capital – the
intense production of social capital within particular groups can be a recipe

6 et al, Implementing holistic government
Taylor, Public Policy in the Community
The Art of Association Page 13
for social disintegration rather than cohesion if it is at the expense of
connections between them.40 This is a result of the close relationship
between social capital and social closure. The more two people have in
common - geography, family, occupation, demography - the more likely
they are to form what Marc Granovetter in a seminal contribution described
as ‘strong ties’.41 As they do so, this tie will become increasingly constitutive
of their shared identity. They will define themselves as an ‘us’, as against the
‘them’ that surrounds them. In turn, the bonds internal bonds will tend to
strengthen still further, and some external bonds will start to weaken. The
kind of exclusivity that this can create in strong ties is very often part of their
value. For example, familial and marriage bonds are often crucially
dependent on exclusivity. The perspective of social capital illustrates that
this is part of a broader, more fluid picture, in which problems of individuals
and communities excluding themselves are as important as their exclusion
at the hands of others.42

As a result, many have argued that communities, like pressure groups, need
a mixture of ‘insider and outsider strategies’.43 Communities need a mixture
of strong ties within them and weak ties that reach beyond them, drawing in
information and resources. Putnam has presented this in terms of a
combination of ‘bridging’ (between groups) and ‘bonding’ (within groups)
social capital. Similarly, Granovetter’s work showed the importance of
‘weak ties’ in finding employment, because this provided access to different
sources of information (e.g. tips about new job opportunities)44 which
members of the same group (i.e. those with whom one has strong ties)
would not possess.

Community and voluntary organisations, therefore, need to be able to

balance their contributions to public opportunities to create weak ties, and
private opportunities to cement strong or ‘knowing’ ties, with family and
close friends. This idea that the public and private can grow together goes
back a long way.

For an account of the riots, see the Report of the Independent review Team (the Cantle
M Granovetter, “The Strength of Weak Ties”, American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 78
(1973), No. 6: 1360-1380
For example, see S Ball, S Bowe, and S Gewirtz, ‘Circuits of schooling: a sociological
exploration of parental choice of school in social class contexts’, Sociological Review (43) 1,
pp 52-78.
Taylor, Public Policy in the Community
Granovetter, “The Strength of Weak Ties”
The Art of Association Page 14
Harnessing community: four challenges

This foregoing analysis points towards four crucial tensions with which we
must grapple if we are to harness the potential of community in overcoming
the twin deficits described at the beginning of this paper.

First, we must be realistic about society as it is rather than as we hope it to

be, and reach for a conception of community which works with the grain of
this underlying reality. In particular, this requires models of active
citizenship and community organisation that start from where the average
citizen is, rather than relying on a few exceptional and highly energised

Second, we must recognise, understand and respect the interdependencies

and interconnections between community and other social actors. For some
thinkers (particularly on the right) community is not just distinctly separate
from the formal institutions of the state but positively allergic to them. The
state is accused of crowding out communities’ natural propensity to altruism
and association, and infringing on personal liberty in so doing. Yet as we
have seen, and as scholars like Theda Skocpol have argued,45 this is a deeply
misleading picture. The relationship between formal politics and local
community activism has always been interdependent and symbiotic.
Richard John points out that the image painted by de Tocqueville in
Democracy in America was only possible because the many stagecoach
companies of Kentucky and Tennessee were subsidised by the central state.
It was these stagecoaches that made the ‘astonishing circulation of letters
and newspapers among these savage woods’ possible. Indeed, while the
postal system itself enabled much greater private freedom, it depended on
making private addresses public and codified.46

Third, we must avoid remaking community in the professionalised,

managerial image of either the state or the private sector. Community and
voluntary groups are providers of services to groups of users, and the
temptation is to ascribe a narrow and consumerist model of the sorts of the
relationships and transactions involved and of the goods which emerge from
them. This then impacts on the kinds of accountability mechanisms,
funding conditions, reporting requirements and governance structures that

T Skocpol, Diminished Democracy: From Membership to Management in American Civic
Life (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2003)
R John, Spreading the News: The American Postal System From Franklin to Morse
(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995)
The Art of Association Page 15
such organisations are expected to observe. Yet community and voluntary
groups are much more than this – they are an integral and essential
component of democratic participation. Indeed they are generative of
democracy; they resemble, in de Tocqueville’s words, “great free schools to
which all citizens come to be taught the general theory of association”.47

Fourth, we must be wary of the ‘dark side’ of community and social capital
and think about ways in which the legitimacy and accountability of
community-based organisations and activities can be created and
maintained, without imposing undue burdens.

Meeting the challenge: a conceptual diamond

In thinking about how the challenge these tensions present, four concepts
may be helpful. None is a panacea, and we have deliberately resisted the
temptation to go into detailed policy prescription at this stage. But taken
together, this conceptual diamond is a useful way of interrogating the
tensions and the potential opportunities for resolving them. The four
concepts are:

Network governance

Collective efficacy Co-production


Figure 1. A conceptual diamond

Network governance

As Marshal McLuhan argued, ‘our new environment compels commitment

and participation. We have become irrevocably involved with, and

A de Tocqueville, Democracy in America translated by H Reeve (London : Saunders &
Otley, 1835)
The Art of Association Page 16
responsible for, each other’.48 This emphasis on our mutual interdependence
is a founding tenet of the ‘governance paradigm’ in the social sciences. The
common theme is an interest in explaining changing patterns of governing
that do not rest on the traditional authority of the state, and which instead
involve institutions drawn from within but also beyond government. The
public/private divide is seen to have grown increasingly fuzzy as new ways of
organising and delivering services have emerged which downgrade the role
of the state as sole provider and seek to draw community and voluntary
organisations (as well as private companies) into complex networks of
provision cutting across traditional institutional boundaries or categories.49
Finally, governance emphasises the capacity for public policy to ‘steer’ the
behaviour of these networks and the actors that compose them rather than
to intervene in or control them directly.50

If community-based organisations are to thrive in this fluid institutional

environment, it will be important to find the right way of structuring their
relationship with other ‘nodes’, including the public sector and government
itself. To put it another way, government steers behaviour whether it means
to or not, because as we have seen funding conditions, reporting
requirements and accountability structures can all reinforce old categories
and divisions and old ways of working.

Embracing the notion of network governance opens up a different set of

possibilities for how community-based organisations can preserve their
legitimacy and accountability in two, complementary directions.

The first is that right across public service provision the participation of
citizens and users has become increasingly central to their legitimacy. Box
identifies four eras of control in public organisations: elite control;
democracy; professionalism; and the emerging era of citizen governance.51
Community-based organisations are potentially well-placed to benefit from
this growing emphasis on the involvement of users/citizens in that they are
typically more permeable and situated closer to local people than
professionalised public sector organisations. But as the basis of legitimacy

M McCluhan, quoted in T Bentley and J Wilsdon (eds.) The Adaptive State: Strategies for
Personalising the Public Realm (London: Demos, 2003)
G Stoker, ‘Governance as Theory: Five Propositions’, International Social Science Journal,
No 155, March 1998, pp17-28
J Kooiman (ed.), Modern Governance: new government-society interactions (London:
SAGE Publications, 1993)
R Box, Citizen governance: leading American communities into the 21st century (London:
SAGE, 1998)
The Art of Association Page 17
shifts from expert knowledge to local participation, it will be necessary to
ensure that the process is not susceptible to being dominated by a cadre of
‘usual suspects’.

The second is that the concept suggests a way by which legitimacy could be
based less on procedure than on outcome, and less on a judgement by a
funding body or public agency than through a process analogous to ‘peer
review’ in academic research. At one extreme at present, managerialist
approaches like the contemporary approach to performance management in
the public services tend to suffocate innovation by forcing community
organisations to fit in with standards determined by the centre. At the other
end of the spectrum, unconstrained innovation in which community
organisations were encouraged to just do whatever they liked might see the
creation of a great many unconnected activities that did not have the
requisite legitimacy in the eyes of the community, did not learn from each
other, or did not generate wider benefits beyond their initial impact. Indeed,
often the complaint within communities is this idea that people no longer
know what is happening, or what other local activities or opportunities exist.

Instead, community and voluntary organisations need a form of ‘disciplined

innovation’52 – very often the connections that they make with other work
can be as valuable for the people they serve as the work they do themselves.
Equally, creating a balance between different forms of participation within
services and activities maybe of real importance in helping communities to
combine both strong and weak ties, and reap the benefits of both bridging
and bonding capital.

Collective efficacy

Yet this does not entirely resolve concerns about social capital’s dark side.
Even with a stricter definition of social capital, the fact that groups like the
Ku Klux Klan or criminal networks like the mafia can be productive of high
levels of social capital and highly damaging social outcomes is problematic.

Dense webs of strong ties, although providing strong personal support to

community members, may be parochial in nature and may actually isolate
communities from the public resources that they need. As we have argued,
therefore, communities need both strong and weak ties, ‘bridging’ and
‘bonding’ capital.

For more on this idea in the context of education, see D Hargreaves, Education Epidemic:
Transforming secondary schools through innovation networks (London: Demos, 2003)
The Art of Association Page 18
We know that neither family nor geography are as dominant as they used to
be in the development of communities. As traditional community forms
decline, today’s communities are increasingly composed of strong and weak
ties. However, the problems of many disadvantaged communities remain.

As Robert Sampson argues, as a community builds its social capital, it is

constructing networks available to drug dealers and charitable organisations
alike. Hence, we can see social capital as a necessary but not a sufficient
condition for the creation of public goods. According to American
criminologist Robert Sampson, this implies that a more important feature of
any community will be its level of ‘collective efficacy’. For Sampson, ‘the key
theoretical point is that networks have to be activated to be ultimately

Sampson connects the trust and cohesion associated with social capital to
‘shared expectations for control as neighborhood’ (our emphasis). In the
case of community safety, for example, past experiences of violence and
crime can reduce the expected success of activating community networks.

This is the first way in which the concept of ‘collective efficacy’ shows how
the narrative about social capital that has been so dominant in recent years
is best understood as underlining rather than eroding the importance of
more formal organisations. The work of community and voluntary
organisations can help to create and sustain the positive expectations of
collective effort that activate social networks.

Secondly, we can view community and voluntary organisations as crucial

and often unique networking tools in their own right. As Sampson argues,
‘getting action requires connections among organizations, connections that
are not necessarily dense or isomorphic with the structure of personal ties in
a neighborhood’.

As a result, while social capital is a global concept, collective efficacy is

situated – a community has collective efficacy in relation to specific tasks.
However, as positive expectations for collective effort spill over from one
task to another, and tasks are adapted to meet new ends, organizations can
help unlock the potential of social capital to solve other problems.

Collective efficacy is important because it focuses attention on the ways in

which shared beliefs about efficacy can be created, without requiring that

The Art of Association Page 19

‘my neighbor or the local police officer be my friend’. This allows
community and voluntary organizations to work with rather than against
the grain of community development. As an activist quoted by Anastacio
and her colleagues argued in relation to capacity-building, ‘communities are
pretty bloody capable already’. At their best, community organizations
activate existing social networks by raising expectations, sustaining effective
groups and modeling viable community involvement. Building their
capacity to work in this way is a key challenge for community and voluntary


Being realistic about communities as they are is in part about acknowledging

individuation and the privatisation of sociability. According to Manuel
Castells, ‘people do not build their meaning in local societies, not because
they do not have spatial roots, but because they select their relationships on
the basis of their affinities’.53 In their recent book The Support Economy,
American business scholars James Maxmin and Shoshana Zuboff argue that
21st century organisational life will be governed by a new logic, in which
increasingly demanding citizen-consumers will rebel against the specialised,
standardised, impersonal offer on which many organisations rely (as typified
by infuriating automated telephone helplines). Instead they will expect
genuinely personalised, ‘deep’ support from the companies and
organisations whose goods and services they consume.54

This implies that we need to emphasise the role of individual choice in

constructing communities, and think of communities in terms of the
individual support they provide. For Barry Wellman, this is the idea of
‘personalised communities’, or that society is characterised by ‘networked

The challenges facing community and voluntary organisations is, in fact, the
creation of infrastructure within which community creation will be possible.
As Stephen Burke argues, ‘if you look at most communities, the only
common elements now are the primary school, the GP’s surgery and maybe
a faith group and that’s probably about it’.56

M Castells, The Rise of the Network Society (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996)
S Zuboff and J Maxmin, The Support Economy: Why Corporations are Failing Individuals
and the Next Stage of Capitalism (London: Allen Lane, 2002)
W Davies, You don’t know me but …Social Capital and Social Software
(, 2003)
The Henley Centre, The Responsibility Gap (2003)
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Increasingly, enabling active citizenship is about structuring individual
choices in a way that generates rather than corrodes shared capacity, and in
turn community. In a forthcoming article, Tom Bentley argues that this
requires that we discard the traditional distinction between consumers and
citizens, since this relies on a false assumption that different personal
choices can be somehow contained within specific spheres.57 Instead we
need to reach for a conception of citizenship in which the desire to be
authors of our own lives and surroundings is connected to an institutional
infrastructure that makes this possible in the civic and social sphere as much
as the marketplace.

Community-based organisations could arguably enjoy a significant

comparative advantage over other actors in bridging personal aspiration and
collective capacity, for several reasons. First, they are better placed to
understand, engage and empathise with people’s personal narratives than
traditional professionalised services. Second, once the unit of analysis
becomes the holistic needs of individuals, the functional categories that
define the interface between citizens and services (patient/doctor,
pupil/school) no longer seems the most appropriate. Instead, it becomes
possible to imagine, for example rebuilding the civic infrastructure around
the potential of children to thrive from the earliest years onwards, and
assembling the resources – from childcare to recreation facilities, learning
opportunities, schooling, forms of parental involvement, transport and
environmental planning and so on – to enable this.


It is almost impossible to imagine any form of personalisation which does

not involve individual citizens more deeply in creating the public goods and
services that matter to them. Hence the importance of the concept of ‘co-
production’ – the idea that good health, learning, safe neighbourhoods and
other prized social outcomes depend not just on the quality of public service
institutions like schools, hospitals and the police service but on the active
consent and participation of citizens themselves. Good health depends on
individuals eating well and taking regular exercise as much as it does on new
drug treatments. Environment sustainability requires citizens to think
carefully about their use of scarce resources by recycling and so on. A recent
study of attempts by prisons to involve inmates in co-producing their
rehabilitation found that those who had not taken part in education or

T Bentley, ‘The self-creating society’, Renewal Vol. 12 Forthcoming
The Art of Association Page 21
training while in prison were three times more likely to be reconvicted than
those who had.58

But co-production can also be understand in moral terms as empowering

individuals to take control of more aspects of their lives, to be not just
recipients of services or subjects to be governed but active participants in
governing themselves. The much-vaunted need to create ‘ownership’ of
policies is about the way the construction of shared meanings through
service provision can radically improve service quality. In the experience of
the Carnegie Trust, ‘young people’s solutions are both simpler and cheaper
than our own and more effective because they own them’.59 In this sense,
co-production shows that the twin deficits of participation and service
delivery might actually be resolved simultaneously.

Community-based organisations are well-placed to embrace co-production.

One way in which they do this is by avoiding the forms of professionalism
and managerialism that in traditional public service organisations create a
false distinction between users and providers. They do not assume that the
codified knowledge of public service professionals is somehow more
valuable in the creation of positive social outcomes than the ‘tacit
knowledge’ (what we sometimes think of ‘know-how’, or the kind of
knowledge, like the skill of riding a bike, which is difficult to put into words)
of citizens and users. Finally, community organisations are more likely to be
able to draw out this valuable tacit knowledge than traditional public
services because of the deeper bonds of trust and mutuality that they
possess. For example, one of the reasons why support and self-help groups
like Alcoholics Anonymous are successful is that individuals feel more able
to open up to others in a similar position than they would to a professional.

Conclusion: towards a research agenda

“In democratic countries,” wrote de Tocqueville, “knowledge of how to

combine is the mother of all other forms of knowledge; on its progress
depends that of all the others”. In this paper, we have argued that de
Tocqueville was right on both counts. Improving our knowledge about how
ordinary people can ‘combine’ in community-based organisations will be

Quoted in Social Exclusion Unit, Reducing Re-Offending by Ex-Prisoners
(, 2002)
D Cutler, Taking the Initiative: promoting young people’s involvement in public decision
making in the UK (Carnegie Young Peoplpe Initiative, 2002)
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crucial in addressing the twin deficits of the public realm with which this
paper began.

We have also highlighted four tensions that stand in the way of addressing
these deficits, including:
o The idea (and ideal) of community that currently permeates the
debate, which is not necessarily plausible or attainable given
wider social, economic and political changes;
o The true relationship between the state and community-based
organisations, which is much more complex, interdependent and
symbiotic than is sometimes presented and must be carefully
analysed and nurtured;
o The danger of trying to remake community organisations in a
professionalised, managerial image, through undue emphasis on
their functional identity as providers of services at the expense of
their deeper role in promoting participation;
o The potential ‘dark side’ of community and social capital, and the
need to promote legitimacy and accountability without imposing
unreasonable demands or prioritising the wrong kinds of

And we have suggested four concepts that may help us to think about how
these tensions could be overcome:
o Network governance: in a more fluid institutional environment,
we need to think about approaches to funding, accountability
and service provision that allow community organisations to
o Collective efficacy: we need to see the role that community and
voluntary organisations play in creating and sustaining positive
expectations of collective effort, which is more important in
increasing local problem-solving capacity than social capital;
o Personalisation: we need to understand the importance of
identifying, engaging and empathising with individuals’ personal
needs, aspirations and narratives instead of organising provision
around the functional categories of traditional professionalised
o Co-production: we need to recognise that the quality of public
goods like health and safe neighbourhoods depends as much on
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the active consent and participation of citizens as it does on the
performance of formal public service institutions.

We conclude by listing ten questions that have occurred to us as we have

delved into the literature in this area, and which seem potentially promising
avenues for further research and enquiry in later phases of the project:
1. How do community organisations enhance collective efficacy by
improving people’s expectations about what it is possible to achieve?
2. What do users see as the principal advantage over traditional public
services? Do community organisations permit more personalised
forms of offer than traditional public service providers, and if so
3. How can we be sure that community organisations are not unduly
defined or influenced by the ‘usual suspects’?
4. What are the range of ways in which community organisations can
involve citizens without drawing too heavily on their limited supplies
of time and money?
5. How do community organisations accommodate diversity and attain
the right mix of ‘insider-outsider’ relationships?
6. What are the processes or different types of participation through
which community organisations respond to, broker and condense
individuals’ aspirations to change their circumstances and
7. What kinds of relationships do community organisations forge
beyond the groups they directly serve?
8. What is the ‘multiplier effect’ of different types of community
organisation and activity? How do the outcomes they generate –
knowledge, skills, expectations, social outcomes – vary in reach and
durability in different cases?
9. How might community organisations evolve more lateral
relationships and forms of accountability with funding bodies and
other partners?
10. How do community organisations change? Are they more adaptive
and responsive to their users than public sector bodies?

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