Civil Society, Communities, Community, Professor Gary Higgs, Social Capital, Wales

WISERD Civil Society: Community-level social capital and the provision of public services; the need for a stronger evidence base

WISERD Civil Society WP3.2: Implications of Spatial & Temporal Variation in Service Provision for Inequalities in Social Outcomes

This work package will undertake a comprehensive review of the literature on social capital with a particular focus on community level measures at a range of spatial scales. The ultimate aim is to critically assess the suitability of existing secondary sources of quantitative data in investigating levels of social capital within communities in relation to changing levels of provision of key public services.

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“There is a chance of more resilient and active communities taking direct responsibility for organising resources themselves. This needs to ensure social capital is utilised where it is available, and enabled or still supported where there is less of it” (Local government cabinet/authority member)

Quote taken from Auditor General for Wales report (December 2015) A Picture of Public Services 2015.

Social capital seems at first glance to be one of those ‘malleable’ constructs that researchers have variously justified and adapted in their attempts to describe the role of social cohesion on outcomes in applications ranging from understanding the concentration of small businesses to monitoring the impacts of natural disasters. This is reflected in a large body of literature adopting a wide range of qualitative, quantitative and mixed methods approaches that span disciplinary divides. It is also testament to the continued pre-occupation with attempts to examine the influence of social networks, trust and other constructs of social capital in a wide range of environmental, social and economic application areas. But the social capital paradigm is not without its critics and a wide range of underlying problems both of a conceptual and of an empirical nature have been posited which, at least to some observers, guard against its usefulness in enabling policy insights.

The shear range of approaches also highlight a lack of consensus surrounding both the definition and measurement of social capital.

With regard to the latter for example, many studies to date have adopted indirect approaches to proxy for social capital often without an obvious theoretical justification; thus limiting the transferability of findings to other policy contexts.  A major impetus for the study of social capital resulted from the work of Coleman, Bourdieu and Putnam in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and in particular the publication in 2000 of Putnam’s Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (1). This seminal work drew attention to the decline in civic engagement and social networking, both formal and informal, in the United States in the1980s and 1990s, from peaks in a whole host of measures of social capital in the 1960s. The impact of this research, the potential explanations posited for these trends and Putnam’s ideas for restoring such levels of civic engagement and participation, cannot be understated on a whole host of levels. Subsequently Putnam and colleagues have drawn attention to some more optimistic signs of improvement in a wide variety of social capital measures in the US context, partly influenced by impacts of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York, in areas such as rates of youth volunteering and awareness, trust in government and engagement in political events/news. Such trends, and renewed interest in the potential impacts of collaborative computer-based technologies, have led to a major resurgence of interest amongst academics. Subsequently research has been conducted in wider international contexts at individual, meso- and macro-levels and has seemed to veer from the measurement of different types of social capital (bonding, bridging and linking) to its arguable relevance in a whole host of areas including monitoring and explaining variations in health conditions, economic impacts and degrees of involvement in political activities. At the same time, the general public may be wondering whether such debates have any relevance whatsoever to their daily lives and experiences at a time of budgetary constraints and loss of public services.

The quote at the outset of this article, drawn from a recently published report on the state of public services in Wales following an initial period of cuts in the delivery of state provided services, draws attention to the need for studies concerned with investigating the role of social capital in mitigating the impacts of changing levels of provision and with gauging the consequences of poorer geographical access to services at the community level.

It suggests that social capital is not some high convoluted term/concept/approach that has no impact whatsoever on the daily lives of people but rather is one that has even greater relevance given some of the changes that are being imposed as part of austerity-driven changes to public service provision in the UK. As some-one who grew up in rural mid-Wales I like to think I have some appreciation of the role of local services such as post offices, public transport, health facilities and employment and legal services on the well-being of such communities. The loss or scaling down of any such service can have a devastating wider impact on such communities which are not necessarily confined to vulnerable groups but include the potential for the types of break-down in civic engagement and social interaction/activities experienced by some of the US communities described by Putnam. At the local level, the loss of a village hall or the decline in hours of opening of a library, GP surgery or post office or the removal of a public transport service, can be traumatic for those individuals and families most reliant on such services. This may well be mitigated in some circumstances where there is a reservoir of social capital impacting on the numbers of volunteers providing or managing services once provided by the local authority or alternative types of providers. Often drawing on stereotypes of the rural ‘idyll’ it is (perhaps naively) assumed that ‘neighbourliness’, interaction within formal and informal networks, sense of community identity and cohesion, community participation and voluntarism are somehow all ‘stronger’ in rural communities and that this will somehow lead to the recruitment of a wider volunteer user-base that could help mitigate the impacts of such changes; but where is the wider evidence base that this is uniformly the case either presently or projected into the future and does this provide a ‘stop-gap’ for all types of currently externally provided services? How defensible is this dichotomy of ‘rural-high’ and ‘urban-low’ in terms of levels of social capital and does a strong sense of community identity and cohesion necessarily mean that individuals and those living within such communities are equipped to respond positively to potential reductions in the state’s provision of services?

Where are the ‘more resilient and active communities’ in Wales that have the necessary ‘reserves’ of social capital to either lobby against, or respond to, the loss of services?

Mirroring recent debates surrounding the definition of ‘neighbourhood’, how do we conceptually and empirically define communities in this context in order to derive appropriate measures that account for spatial scale, the ‘flow’ of services and the mobility of people across what are effectively cartographically ‘imposed’ boundaries? What about those communities, not just those located in rural Wales that do not have the resources, the stable financial base or a whole host of other characteristics which have been shown to influence the motivations or capabilities to facilitate a ‘direct responsibility for organising resources themselves’?

How can we provide a realistic measure that could be used to provide the policy basis and political drive to ensure social capital is ‘enabled or still supported where there is less of it’?

Should providers of local services be taking into account existing stocks of social capital to mitigate the impacts of any change in provision? Should policy measures be put in place to ensure that sufficient resources of social capital are in place to enable such communities to cope with the levels of changes in provision proposed in any programmes of service reduction? All these questions will by implication need to draw on a sound evidence base that provides spatially and temporally consistent and updateable community-level measures of social capital. A reminder of the need for such a database came in the form of a recent Freedom of Information request by the BBC (2) that revealed that there are just over 31,000 volunteers working in public libraries in England. The loss of just over 340 libraries and the transfer of 174 libraries to community groups, have led to concerns in some quarters that, rather than supplementing existing provision, such volunteers are replacing professional librarians in cost saving initiatives. Leaving aside the wider ramifications of such trends for the library profession and potential impacts on the quality of service provided to the library users, such changes in service provision also draw attention to the need for more research that attempts to gauge the ability of communities to respond to such changes and ‘plug’ the gaps in provision. Despite recent research surrounding the use of national measures of social well-being and social capital by organisations such as the Office for National Statistics and the widespread use of social survey instruments, arguably we still do not have a robust evidence base to provide reliable community-level small area estimates of social capital that encapsulate appropriate information on local circumstances pertaining to levels of civic engagement, trust, honesty and reciprocity that can be used to make such judgements. This data ‘deficit’ needs to be redressed to put in place policies that ensure those communities which lack a volunteering user-base that could potentially alleviate, or respond to, a loss of services are shielded from the worst excesses of public service re-organisation. To do so, we need an evidence base that reflects the propensity, ability and willingness of people within such communities to run services and that helps to ensure those policies that are geared towards reconfiguration are continually monitored through spatially and temporally consistent approaches to data collection and analysis. This then provided the rationale for a WISERD Civil Society work package which commenced in April 2016 that aims to investigate the potential for developing such measures using secondary data sources that can be used to investigate potential associations between current and projected levels of accessibility to public services and which will be specifically concerned with geographical variations in social capital in both urban and rural Wales.

Author: Gary Higgs

Project: Implications of Spatial & Temporal Variation in Service Provision for Inequalities in Social Outcomes

Research Theme: Civil Society

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