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Apart from ‘it can’t go on, what’s the point of it all?, one of my little catchphrases is this: ‘the reason people engage is to have fun, to make a difference or to grow; preferably all three’ (by the way don’t inadvertently blurt out the former when buying a ready meal from Tesco; the assistant was so unsettled I had to pretend I was talking about the conveyor belt).

The latter insight came to me from years of activism for the Labour Party which overwhelmingly comprised activities which were not enjoyable, largely pointless and as boring as hell (co-incidentally, the source of another catch-phrase ‘I’ve suffered for my politics, now it’s your turn’). I have since tried to apply the three criteria for successful engagement to the ways we encourage RSA Fellows to come together in whatever way suits them best, to have great conversations and aim over time, to develop projects.

One of our most supportive and inspirational Fellows is Tessy Britton, a powerfully creative thinker and practitioner in the field of community engagement. A while ago  I blogged on a debate started by Tessy critiquing the campaigning assumptions of some exponents of community organising. In essence, Tessy argued that groups which start out with an oppositional or other-directed campaigning stance find it hard to move to a self-help, solutions-oriented way of thinking.

I am supposed right now to be preparing an extended essay for Political Quarterly to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Bernard Crick’s seminal book ‘In defence of politics’. My chosen focus is the chapter entitled ‘a defence of politics against democracy’ in which Crick demonstrates the folly of seeing virtue in politics as simply following the often contradictory whims of public opinion.

A critique of populist or direct democracy tends to lead to the advocacy of deliberative models. The problem here is the recent literature on deliberation. First there is the work of Cass Sunstein (among others) showing that in most circumstances deliberation leads not to moderation and resolution but polarisation and extremism. Unsurprisingly this tendency is  most pronounced when the deliberative group starts with a broadly shared opinion on the matter at hand. The answer may seem simple; mix up the groups. Not only are the results not as encouraging as one might hope (mixed groups often simply split and then polarise), but they look even more depressing when allied to the work of Diana Mutz.

In her book, 'Hearing the Other Side: Deliberative versus Participatory Democracy', Mutz reported research showing what motivates participation is strong agreement; indeed, the kind of agreement which can lead to group think and polarisation. Furthermore, she found that when people were forced to hear the other side's point of view they became rather demoralised and less likely to participate.

I have repeatedly argued that three attributes are required of citizens if we are to  close ‘the social aspiration gap’. One of these is ‘engagement’. So these findings give substantial food for thought. I suggest three tentative conclusions:

We must avoid simplistic ideas that all forms of engagement are a good thing and that each form somehow makes the other forms more possible. Tessy is right; engagement in united protest movements may actually make it less easy subsequently to engage in the more complex, messy and inherently contested process of developing and applying solutions.

The design of forms of engagement is difficult and crucial. Complex issues probably require forms of engagement based on relatively small groups of people who do not start from fixed views and who are committed to in-depth inquiry. Logistics mean that such processes – for example proper Citizens Juries - can only ever involve small numbers.  Indeed they represent a kind of representative/deliberative model.

Engagement should involve a reflexive component in which participants examine and explicitly seek to avoid the pitfalls which each form contains.

Let me end with catchphrases. As I search through my personal history for any small triumphs, I did unearth one witticism of which I was at the time inordinately proud: someone asked me, ‘Matthew, what’s it like to be an only child’ to which, quick as an arrow I replied, ‘I’ve no idea, I don’t have any brothers or sisters’. I’m not sure it it’s profound or pathetic. Perhaps I’ll put it to the vote.


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