I’ve been dabbling on the fringes of local democracy. The small town where I live is noted for its outstanding heritage and excellent quality of life, but like many such places, it presently faces multiple challenges from various forms of development that are closing in. In the case of housing, the big builders frequently target such places because homes sell quickly there for a premium. But in the process, they very often ruin what was attractive in the first place.
Neighbourhood plans were a political initiative to give at least a semblance of local self-determination – it depends on how cynical you want to be. But my impression is that these activities are suffering from the same malaise that seems to afflict all of modern life – over-management.
I will hasten to say that I am sure those heading in this direction mean only well; it is just that for many people, professional life has become about little more than endless committee meetings and they can see nothing beyond this approach. It seems that nothing in modern organisations can move without a pile of policy objectives, dozens of meetings and tome of paperwork.
There are some people who glory in all of this – and I have met my fair share of professional committee-sitters in my time. The Healthy Schools Initiative was one; I spent a fair amount of time in meetings with people who seemed far more concerned with ticking boxes, writing policies and acquiring accreditation logos than actually effecting real change. And for all that the logos were indeed acquired, very little of real use actually changed. Certainly nothing that justified all the expensive professional hours spent in those meetings.
If local democracy is to mean anything, be it in schools or entire communities, it is surely about giving people the ability to make a real impact on the places where they live and work. That should not require dozens of sub-committees and expensive consultants and analysts. And when I put some practical ideas forward, it seemed as though, being ‘projects’ – as opposed to policies – they have to go in the box marked ‘aspirational’, for attention only at some ill-defined moment in the far future.
The cynic in me says that death-by-management is a product of a society that struggles to create enough ‘real’ jobs for its people. Equally, I know that communal activities do need to be co-ordinated, money accounted for, and democracy observed. But on that last point, the triumph of the professional committee-member is not democratic, for it excludes a whole tranche of people who do not operate in that way. Furthermore, such hidebound procedure strangles the ability of the doers to operate in their own, possibly rather esoteric ways; bureaucracy and committee-work are not known for their creativity and imagination, and history is littered with influential people who revolutionised their fields precisely by not following the rules laid down by their dullard masters.
Over-management kills stone dead the ability of such people actually to bring about real, on-the-ground improvements.