Community service and the usual suspects

What do you get if you drink for twelve hours, then make a hoax call sparking a land, sea and air rescue mission costing thirteen thousand pounds? (This isn’t the setup for a joke, by the way.)

The Save Our Library Management Committee

The answer, for David Williamson from Whalsay in Shetland, is a two hundred hour community service order. He was sentenced yesterday at Lerwick Sheriff Court.

Think about the phrase. Community service …. order.

Now let’s talk about localism. The Government wants councils not only to have more power themselves, but wants them to pass on more power to others. Whitehall looks forward to a rich network of small providers springing up, from the public, private and voluntary sectors, taking over swimming pools and parks and social services and making everything more responsive, cheaper, and closer to the community.

It seems a bit risky to have, at the cornerstone of your localist vision, a presumption that everyone wants to do something that that the legal system uses as a punishment.

What if we had localism and no-one came? That’s a risk, according to ResPublica’s new report Civic Limits which shows that less than a third of people (mostly middle class and well-educated) undertake nine tenths of all volunteering and over two thirds of all civic participation.

Worse still, I can imagine a few local government officers saying to themselves, what if we had localism and people did come? We know who that third of people are – they are the (imagine a jarring chord) usual suspects.

The purpose of my workstream at the conference is to plan ways in which local government can get past the usual suspects.

This doesn’t mean developing a strategy to ignore them. As the Respublica report shows (and as I think we already knew) eager volunteers and active citizens are a scarce resource. Too often, calling people “the usual suspects” is a way of downplaying or disregarding criticism, as a CLG civil servant might call a letter from fifty chief executives “unrepresentative”.

We will be looking at how democracy and accountability can be spread beyond the tower blocks of existing local public services, and into the network of public, private and third sector providers we will see in coming years.

We will be hearing expertise from around the country on new ways of bringing in public voices, and creating places where citizens and councils can come together as partners in issues rather than antagonists.

We will be thinking about the new realm of online politics – whether there is a way to harness local participation, and change online debate from a particularly vicious “dunk the council” circus stall into something that makes a valuable contribution to service delivery and need assessment.

This is one of the most important issues facing local government – perhaps the most important after finance. As the only local body with a direct democratic mandate (at least until police and crime commissioners arrive), they can become the hub of a much broader, more participative and more open democratic conversation. Without that, localism will mean less accountability for services, more trench warfare over funding, and lower public trust and confidence.


About Anthony Zacharzewski

I founded and currently run the Democratic Society (
This entry was posted in Proposition 3: Put democracy back into localism and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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