As a first blog I thought I’d begin by musing over the recent announcement by CLG that they’ll be starting to encourage councils and local authorities to sign community contracts with local residents (Please note the above joyful contract-signing scene from the early 90s as a visual reference – Mark Mardell reporting for the BBC far left). The idea being that these contracts (also known as neighbourhood agreements and local charters) will contain clear standards of service expected from the council but also a commitment from residents about the role that they’ll play in achieving this; a kind of social compact between the two. And according to Mr Denham all’s gone to plan in his pilot schemes across the land. For instance, residents on an estate in Sunderland developed a ‘Clean Green Safer’ contract between themselves and the local housing landlord who run the estate. The result was an apparent drop in all complaints relating to anti-social behaviour and a marked improvement in the local environment. Cue raised eyebrows.
After reading much of the IPEG literature on community engagement exercises – IPEG were also the ones who were contracted to conduct the evaluation for the community contracts pilots – it’s clear that the use of contracts is very much a popular tool among others in the emerging scene of behaviour change techniques. Another example that comes to mind is the ‘Home-school agreements’ between students, parents and schools laid out in the PMSU’S 2004 report on personal responsibility and changing behaviour.
The premise underlying the idea of these contracts comes from a number of interesting theories relating to individual, interpersonal and community-wide behaviour. Take, for instance, David Halpern’s view that when there happens to be a clash between an individual’s actions and their values, people often resolve the discrepancy by changing their attitudes rather than their behaviour. By agreeing on paper to a set of behaviours that correlate with ‘pro-social’ values, an individual is far less likely to break them – no one wants to look like a quitter. Another strand of thinking relates to that of self-efficacy and consequential reasoning: according to BrookLyndhurst there is a greater likelihood of someone doing something if they believe their action will have a notable impact. In the case of community contracts, having a formalised process in establishing goals with regular feedback and praise allows the resident to work towards something with a tangible, motivating reward. These are only a small fragment of a wider theoretical rationale set out to justify these contracts.
I can’t help but thinking, however, that there are quite a few theoretical as well as practical caveats to these contracts than is obvious on first inspection. One of the first problems that spring to mind is something often called a ‘moral-reasoning dilemma’. Coercion or reward for adhering to certain practices may actually ‘crowd-out’ and undermine other-regarding and altruistic behaviour that an individual was happy to participate in anyway; having an agreement may be seen as cheapening those innate values. Along with this you have the obvious problem of having to defend the contract from those who see it as another ‘nanny-state’ interference. The last thing you want to do is alienate people. A third problem regards trust. Although these contracts are designed to build trust between members of the community and service providers, are they not simply indicative of a lack of trust; are we negating trust to the back-burner in favour of something that is perceived to deliver immediate results in community participation? Trust, a key ingredient of social capital and therefore community engagement, is something that takes much longer to cultivate; community contracts, however they are worded, may in certain cases actually damage a community’s tacit level of trust and sense of belonging.
If councils across the UK do decide to jump on the community contract bandwagon, there needs to be a serious and careful consideration of how they implement them. One interesting project I came across a couple of months back was the work of artist Katya Sander. In Berlin during 2005 thousands of badges were distributed throughout the city bearing the tagline “Wenn du die liest, gebe ich es dir (um auch zu tragen)” – “If you read this I’ll give this to you (but then you must wear it too)”. By wearing the badge, and more importantly by asking for it, you bound yourself into a sort of social contract that was entirely transparent. As soon as someone asks for the badge they have then also agreed to bear the contract. The key point is that individuals themselves instigate the contract and whatever that entails rather than it being constructed by a higher source. Interesting stuff, eh?