Thursday, 23 July 2009

An Bord Snip Nua and the Active Citizenship Office

Colm O'Doherty: While I have previously argued that the active citizenship agenda of the Cowen and Ahern governments has lacked policymaking substance and commitment to positive social change, I take issue with the recommendation in the McCarthy Report that the Active Citizenship Office be wound up and its work halted. The paltry savings to be gained from this cutback – the 2009 allocation for this programme is just €56,000 – suggests that the sub text here is the removal of the symbolic threat which the Active Citizenship agenda poses to the pivotal role of money in our society.

As Ingham (Ingham, I. (2008) Capitalism, Cambridge: Polity Press) makes clear “It is the money-capital of capitalism that drives the endless pursuit of profit and gives the system its dynamism and flexibility; in short, the creation and control of money-capital is the locus of power in capitalism. It is here that the decisions about when and where the material provisioning for human wants are taken” (p. 206).

Despite its limitations, the State’s Active Citizenship project has affirmed social value as a counterbalance to individual utility maximisation. As Bauman (Bauman, Z. (2008) The Art of Life, Cambridge ; Polity Press) suggests, “pretending that the volume of and depth of human happiness can be taken care of and properly served by fixing attention on just one index –GNP – is grossly misleading. When it is made into a principle of governance, such a pretence may become harmful as well , bringing consequences opposite to those intended and allegedly pursued”(p. 8). The Active Citizenship Agenda recognises that social capital theory does point towards the need for a different approach to governance when markets and the apparatus of the state fail to renew civic involvement and produce those “collective goods which enable beneficial cooperation and restrain self-defeating hedonism and opportunism in social exchanges” (Jordan, B. (2008) Welfare and Well-being –Social Value in Public Policy, Bristol, Policy Press, p.89).

Active citizenship is synonymous with community governance. Community governance is manifested as – voluntary effort, community participation, community development, educational /training initiatives. These collective goods which underpin the interpersonal economy are needed more than ever to reduce the damage to our society brought about by the subordination of social to economic value under the flawed governance structures of the financial and speculative property markets. The retention of the Active Citizenship Office and the continuation of its work will provide a “space” for articulating and dispensing coherent collective systems of meaning , purpose and integrity, capable of creating cultures of social, rather than purely individualistic monetary, value.
Dr. Colm O’Doherty lectures in Applied Social Studies at the Institute of Technology, Tralee

1 comment:

Slí Eile said...

Good on you Colm (O'D)
I was waiting to see if this issue would be picked up by anyone anywhere. It seems like small fry - abolising a small unit such as the ACO that few people have heard of. Yet, the significance of it should not be under-estimated. Far from being a luxury, active democractic citizenship (to use the proper and full terms used in the work by TASC circa 2005 on 'Engaging the Citizen') is a vital ingredient now more than ever. It not accidental that the strong - if somewhat muted - messages for greater engagement with citizens and communities especially in terms of local governance have come to little.
The Government committed some resources to this issue – initially through the work of the National Economic and Social Forum (NESF) and then the Taskforce on Active Citizenship and the subsequent establishment of the Active Citizenship Office located within the Department of the Taoiseach.

In the course of the consultation process in 2006 dozens of open meetings were held, hundreds of submissions made ... the strong message from individuals and communities up and down the country was 'we were not listened to in previous consultations - please hear what we have to say now'. The response invariably was 'this time things are different - action will be taken and structures put in place'.
It seems that the recession and the crisis in Irish public finances have provided the excuse to allow this shoot to die. What a pity even if it was a small and constrained one as you rightly point out.

Here is what the Special Group has to say about the active citizenship programme:

"…Activity levels for the Programme are low. The Group is of the view that expenditure on this Programme is not justified given the urgent need to reduce public expenditure. The Group also recommends the discontinuation of any expenditure planned by other departments on the implementation of recommendations issued by the Taskforce on Active Citizenship.

The last sentence, above, is even more crucial because it could implicate public support for a range of initiatives in community, education and local government areas.

If this is implemented – so much for the efforts expended in ‘listening to what people had to say and acting on it’ through an extensive consultation process at regional and national level.