Uncomfortable truths

I’ve just finished reading Hannah Jones‘ award-winning Negotiating Cohesion, Inequality and Change, a book I bought last April but have only just got around to (sabbatical win). It is excellent, which, given the many, many reviews you’ll have read, you don’t need me to point out.

What makes it truly interesting for me is the people Jones speaks to. They are mostly policy practitioners working at the Local Government level, a role Jones herself fulfilled at Hackney Council working in community cohesion policy. Much of the book centers on Hackney, its ‘gentrification’, how it engages with the PREVENT agenda, and community relations. Jones interviews many of her former colleagues and merges the interview data, publicly available documents, and her own experience of doing the work at the time to explore the messiness of doing policy at this level. This insider status gives us so much more of the story than social policy analysis usually provides.

It is especially interesting to me, as I used to do (for a very short time) the same job. I was a policy practitioner working on volunteering and voluntary sector policy at Sandwell Council for six months, and it is astonishing to see the same themes pop up. One of the key ones is the complication and messiness of policy. Rogers Brubaker once wrote a book called The Limits of Rationality, and the title has always rung true. While we often think of policy in broad terms, and as rigidly imposed frameworks which will be carried out, one thing we always forget is that policy is thought up, legislated, packaged, and implemented by people. And people can be a bit crap. Or at least flimsily adaptable.

Jones recounts the story of Hackney Council being told to implement the PREVENT agenda to tackle extremism – an obvious example of policy as heat not light. The Council were undemocratically forced to take money they didn’t want, to deliver a policy they didn’t think would help, to tackle a problem there was no evidence existed. Even though practitioners think it’ll mess up much of their cohesion work and alienate large sections of the community, they find ways to bend it to their current agendas, and find a way of working within it which they feel comfortable with. Policy practitioners are not neutral or impartial as Du Gay (2000) hopes – this ‘useful fiction’ is an ideal type rather than ‘what actually happens’ (see page 19). I asked my Dad, who also worked in LG (but for forty years) whether it rang true, and he felt that managing the competing interests of agendas could be the most frustrating bu most fascinating bit of the job.

As someone interested in reflexivity, the book also provides an amazing example in how to do reflexivity in research – don’t be held-back by the impartiality mafia, but don’t allow yourself to narcissistically dominate. Stay smart, stay controlled, but don’t hold back as a researcher or writer if you have something personal to contribute.

I’ll be thinking a lot about Jones’ book over the coming months. It ties in very strongly to the volunteering policy as governmentality work I’ve done, my teaching on the community and local studies module, and the big society (which Jones perfectly describes as ‘slippery’). It reminds us that LG workers are so often forgotten but are so key in delivering the national ideas that are going to be (endlessly, pointlessly) rambled on about until May.

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