How to measure progress towards a bigger society is a question that continues to puzzle policy makers, and it is in danger of losing momentum with the loss of Steve Hilton to Stanford University. If we knew what to measure, we would be nearer to knowing what how to make people more socially productive and more active in solving problems in their local communities.
Our recent technical review for Local Government Association and London Councils, ‘Are you being served? Benchmarking residents’ perceptions of local government’ is not meant to answer the question of how to measure progress towards a bigger society but it does offer up thoughts on what does and does not currently work in local surveys.
For instance, a number of councils measure community cohesion as the level of agreement with the statement:
‘My local area is a place where people from different backgrounds get on well together.’
This was previously collected as national indicator (NI 1) by local government and was a key question in the Government’s recently cancelled Citizenship Survey. In our view, this question doesn’t really work. For starters, there are too many interpretations of the phrase “get on well together” which range from the absence of conflict (riots!) to being actively sociable (e.g. going to each others’ houses). Secondly and more importantly, the dominant interpretation of “people from different backgrounds” refers to people of different ethnic backgrounds.
By contrast, an alternative question about community cohesion:
‘To what extent would you agree or disagree, that people in this neighbourhood pull together to improve the neighbourhood?’
is more uniformly understood to be about collective action to improve the local area. This question also more accurately reflects current Government focus on integration rather than cohesion, i.e. how to get different groups of people to hold shared values, how to generate social interaction and how to combat religious extremism.
Our analysis of the 2009-10 Citizenship Survey Community Action Topic Report (published by CLG December 2011) also shows that by far the strongest overall predictors of people getting on well together are area-based attitudes around respect and enjoying living in the area.
This is just one example. Through our work, we have started to unravel what sorts of things might more accurately predict and measure our progress towards a Big Society. Let’s just hope the Government does not run out of steam now that it is losing the driving force of its chief blue-sky thinker, to bluer and sunnier Californian skies.
‘Are you being served? Benchmarking residents’ perceptions of local government’
contains lots more interesting things about local councils’ performance measures on citizen involvement and empowerment.