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Social Capital

I don't have a lot of time for governmental buzzwords as they often have little relevance on the ground. However, I make an exception for "social capital".

Social Capital is well described in Robert Puttnam's book Bowling Alone it is a measure of the values in society beyond those which are purely financial. The statistic used to measure Social Capital is generally that proportion of people who trust strangers in different circumstances. It is important as a society in which people can trust each other is one in which people don't have to spend too much time protecting their backs. That means that people can work for a good quality of life for a higher proportion of their time/effort.

It is the concept of Social Capital that exists behind civil renewal (one of ODPM's buzzwords). Like many things, however, ODPM then through organisations such as the Neighbourhood Renewal Unit often work against their defined objectives. The NRU has gone around the country funding bodies called "Community Empowerment Networks". In Birmingham we have a particular problem with the pattern of behaviour of the CEN in that it is not democratically accountable, but instead is dominated by personal interests and friendships. It makes decisions which are skewed by conflicts of interest. It is, therefore, something that actually undermines Social Capital and discourages voluntary activity.

This is a general problem in the Community and Voluntary Sector where frequently bodies act improperly according to the Committee on Standards in Public Life The principles of handling conflicts of interest have been around for years.

People wonder why I get stressed about public funds being handled in a manner which involves people doling out funds to their mates. That is because this pattern of behaviour destroys Social Capital. It always has to some extent been important "who you know" as well as "what you know". However, in the public sector particularly this should not be the case. Things should be fairly decided and seen to be fairly decided. The failure of regeneration in part comes from the fact that the processes of allocation of funds are often mildly corrupt or even moreso.

The fact remains, however, that even at the level of Birmingham's corporatist City-wide Local Strategic Partnership (aka the City Strategic Partnership, aka the Birmingham Strategic Partnership) that the principles of "snouts in the trough" operate where funds are doled out to bodies with representation on the board. As the current chair of this body I am trying to resolve this, but am encountering resistance from the government.

It is, in fact, the existence of conflicts of interest that causes substantial damage to systems of government that have a corporatist (traditional) style of governance and lead from relatively anodyne conflicts of interest leading to substantial corruption over time.

Over time the UK has developed checks and balances to handle these conflicts. However, Tony Blair's third way (historic corporatism) is undermining these processes whilst the whole thing is ignored by the mainstream media.

Human beings are relatively easily corruptible. If you put people in situations which are likely to corrupt them then they will generally get corrupted. The real scandal of Blairism is that relatively secure systems of governance have been undermined to place people into positions in which the encounter pressure to be corrupted in their actions.


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