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 literature review 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 [email protected]  

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The Art of AssociationCommunity organisations andthe public realm

A literature review conducted as part of aDemos/New Opportunities Fund project onparticipation, inclusion and service delivery.

March 2004

Paul Skidmore and John [email protected]  

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1. Introductionthe twin deficits of the public realm


2. A brief historyvoluntary and community organisations in British social policy


3. Community as an ideaphilosophical and empirical foundations


4. Community in operationpolicy context and challenges since 1997


5. Harnessing communityfour challenges


6. Meeting the challenge

a conceptual diamond


7. Conclusiontowards a research agenda


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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 andservices 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 promotesocial 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

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capital in various ways, most notably through the design of welfare systems.1 

So how should the relationship between community groups and formalpublic 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 Britishsocial 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

1 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 theoverarching 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 effectivesanitation 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

2 N Timmins, The Five Giants: A Biography of the Welfare State (London: HarperCollins,

1995)3 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

4 Timmins, The Five Giants5 M Harris and C Rochester, Voluntary Organisations and Social Policy in Britain 

(Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001)6 R Bacon and W Eltis, Britain’s Economic Problem: Too Few Producers (London:

Macmillan, 1976)7 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. Itchanged 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 thirdand 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 setsof 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

8 See, for example, H McCarthy, M Mean and T Bentley Inside Out: Rethinking Inclusive

Communities (London: Demos, 2003)9 E.g. D Willets, ‘The Reality of Poverty’,; D Blunkett, Politics and Progress 

(London: Demos/Politicos, 2002)10 M Taylor, Public Policy in the Community (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2003)

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that where community bonds or social trust can be identified it will

necessarily translate into a willingness and capacity for agency – for thecommunity 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 theirpolitical 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

11 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)12 S Driver and L Martell, New Labour: Politics after Thatcherism (Cambridge: Polity Press,

1998) cited in Taylor, Public Policy in the Community 13 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, empoweringcommunities (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 collectivegoods 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

14 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.15 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

2002)16 M Woolcock, ‘The place of social capital in understanding social and economic

outcomes’, Canadian Journal of Policy Research (Spring 2001)17 Halpern cited in Strategy Unit, Social Capital 

18 R Putnam, ‘Bowling alone: America’s disintegrating social capital’ in Journal of Democracy, 1995 vol. 6 no.1 pp.65-78; Putnam,Bowling Alone

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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“community”.21 

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 exclusionand 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

19 Woolcock, ‘The place of social capital in understanding social and economic outcomes’20 Ibid.

21 Strategy Unit, Social Capital 22 Putnam, Bowling Alone

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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 theMillennium 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 emphasison ‘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.



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

23 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)

24 Institute for Volunteering Research, National Survey of Volunteering in the UK (, 1997)

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which to model active citizenship and for students to become active


 Teacher-led approaches to citizenship-related topics within theclassroom 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 atlocal 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 localcommunities and service delivery – including local people themselves.30 In

this vein, for example, the institutional architecture of central government

25 C Jones, Leading Learners, Demos, 200426 D Kerr, E Cleaver, and E Ireland, Citizenship Education Longitudinal Study: First year

findings (NfER, 2003)27 A Dyson et al, Schools and Area Regeneration (London: Joseph Rowntree Foundation,

2003)28 T-P Lehman, H Oswald,. and W Schulz, Citizenship and Education in Twenty-Eight 

Countries: Civic Knowledge and Participation at Age Fourteen (IEA, 2001)

29 Social Exclusion Unit, Bringing Britain Together (, 1998)30 P 6, Holistic government (London: Demos, 1997)

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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 ; 32 33 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)34 For example, see OFSTED, Excellence in Cities and Education Action Zones: Management 

and Impact (, 2003)35 Quoted in M Taylor, Public Policy in the Community (Palgrave, 2003)36 P 6, D Leat, K Seltzer and G Stoker, Governing in the Round: Strategies for Holistic

Government (London: Demos, 1999)

37 D Wilkinson and E Appelbee, Implementing Holistic Government (Bristol: Policy Press/Demos 1999)

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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, participativecommunities. 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 toconsult 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 localpopulation 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

38 6 et al, Implementing holistic government 39 Taylor, Public Policy in the Community 

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for social disintegration rather than cohesion if it is at the expense of 

connections between them.40

 This is a result of the close relationshipbetween 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 thatthis 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.

40 For an account of the riots, see the Report of the Independent review Team (the Cantle

Report)  41 M Granovetter, “The Strength of Weak Ties”, American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 78

(1973), No. 6: 1360-138042 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.

43 Taylor, Public Policy in the Community44 Granovetter, “The Strength of Weak Ties”

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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 energisedindividuals.

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 localcommunity 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

45 T Skocpol, Diminished Democracy: From Membership to Management in American Civic

Life (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2003)

46 R John, Spreading the News: The American Postal System From Franklin to Morse (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995)

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such organisations are expected to observe. Yet community and voluntary 

groups are much more than this – they are an integral and essentialcomponent 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

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47 A de Tocqueville, Democracy in America translated by H Reeve (London : Saunders &Otley, 1835) 

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responsible for, each other’.48 This emphasis on our mutual interdependence

is a founding tenet of the ‘governance paradigm’ in the social sciences. Thecommon 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 thanto 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 

48 M McCluhan, quoted in T Bentley and J Wilsdon (eds.) The Adaptive State: Strategies for 

Personalising the Public Realm (London: Demos, 2003)49 G Stoker, ‘Governance as Theory: Five Propositions’, International Social Science Journal ,

No 155, March 1998, pp17-2850 J Kooiman (ed.), Modern Governance: new government-society interactions (London:

SAGE Publications, 1993)

51 R Box, Citizen governance: leading American communities into the 21st century (London:SAGE, 1998)

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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.

52 For more on this idea in the context of education, see D Hargreaves, Education Epidemic:Transforming secondary schools through innovation networks (London: Demos, 2003)

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We know that neither family nor geography are as dominant as they used tobe 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 yearsis 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 ina 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

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‘my neighbor or the local police officer be my friend’. This allows

community and voluntary organizations to work with rather than againstthe 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 expectgenuinely 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 

53 M Castells, The Rise of the Network Society (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996)54 S Zuboff and J Maxmin, The Support Economy: Why Corporations are Failing Individuals

and the Next Stage of Capitalism (London: Allen Lane, 2002)55 W Davies, You don’t know me but …Social Capital and Social Software 

(, 2003)56 The Henley Centre, The Responsibility Gap (2003)

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Increasingly, enabling active citizenship is about structuring individualchoices 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, andassembling 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

57 T Bentley, ‘The self-creating society’, Renewal Vol. 12 Forthcoming

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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 servicedelivery 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

58 Quoted in Social Exclusion Unit, Reducing Re-Offending by Ex-Prisoners

(, 2002)

59 D Cutler, Taking the Initiative: promoting young people’s involvement in public decisionmaking 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 sohow?

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 anddurability 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?