What links a taxi driver in Birmingham with an investment banker in New York? Or, for that matter, a farmer in Mirpur, Pakistan, with a care assistant in Hackney and a retired bus conductor in Barbados? The answer might be ‘six degrees of separation’. That is, the idea that no more than six personal connections is all it takes to link almost anyone on the planet. The world wide web makes it even more likely that the ‘Small World’ theory – based on work by Gurevitch and Kochen and experimentally tested by psychologist Stanley Milgram and others in the 1960s – holds. But how does Small World work, in practice, on a more local basis, say – a city. And could it be the basis of a real world approach to social inclusion?
‘Civil society’ is the stuff that sticks people together in cities. The sports clubs and cultural groups, faith communities, parents’groups, neighbourhood forums and all the other interests that overlap with neighbourhood communities are the medium through which personal connections are made across the boundaries of employment, ethnicity, age and other demographic and economic divisions. They are like glue.
What happens when the glue is weak? Regardless of economic wealth, city society starts to fall apart. What happens when the glue in some places becomes too strong? People get stuck into one way of seeing things and society becomes inflexible and less able to cope with external change and changing needs. What happens when the glue only holds in some places; when some people are excluded from civil society? The rioting that gripped some cities in England for days last summer gives a taste of how destructive ‘disconnection’ can be.
What do we have to make the glue effective; to spread it so that all parts of society are linked; and to stop it setting too hard in some places but instead enable society to stick and unstick itself and to reform itself to meet the challenges that a city faces over time? That might be the job of a city’s social inclusion policy?
3 Steps to Power
Three Steps to Power’ is an application of Small World thinking to social inclusion at city level. The principle behind it is that citizens should be no more than ‘three steps to power’. That is, there should be no more than three degrees of separation between as many people as possible and the people whose decisions affect the city as a whole.
In Birmingham, England, for example – a city of a million people – not everyone can be ‘in charge’. A relatively small group of people – perhaps 500 in total – are directly involved in making strategic decisions about the future of the city and its people. They include: the Leader of the City Council and their Cabinet, the Council’s chief executive and its chief officers; the Chief Constable of police and their assistants and members of the Police Authority; leaders within NHS Primary Care Trusts that serve the city and of other major public service providers; the owners and chief executives of major businesses and business associations in the city; and the leaders of faith groups and large non-profit organisations including, for example, housing associations. The decisions these people take affect the city as a whole. They are ‘in power’.
One Step …
A wider group of people – perhaps a few thousand – have regular links with people in power: they are ‘one step from power’. They include people with significant executive power of their own: people whose decisions determine how schools and colleges are run or the streets of neighbourhoods are policed etc. They also include people who have some influence over people in power: elected councillors and MPs, some people in the media, people who serve on boards and committees and, of course, the friends and associates of those in power. People in power tend to live in certain neighbourhoods in the city. In Birmingham, for example, if you live in (mainly) comfortably off suburbs like Harborne or Edgbaston, Moseley or Four Oaks, you are more likely to know people in power than if you live in the inner city or on a housing estate on the edge of the city. More of the people in power are men, very few are under 30 years old and they are disproportionately white. Their friends and associates – one step from power – may be the same.
Two Steps …
An even larger group of people in a city either know the people in the group above or have some position which brings them into official contact with them regularly. They include a large number of people employed in public services and business managers, trade union officials, members of political parties and some ‘active citizens’ – people who lead neighbourhood forums or resident groups or who organise community self-help. Probably between ten and fifty thousand people in Birmingham are ‘two steps from power’.
The majority of citizens are ‘three steps from power’. That is: they are employed in a job that involves some level of responsibility; or are members of a church or other faith group or a social or sports club; they may be members of a community group or a voluntary organisation. About half of them vote in local elections and to some extent they keep in touch with what is going on in local society. They will turn up to a public meeting if the issue directly affects them. They might sign a petition or write an email. If they need to, they have ways of making their voice heard in decisions that they feel affect them.
There is a large minority – possibly as many as a quarter of a million people in a city like Birmingham – who are excluded: there are more than three degrees of separation between them and the people making the decisions affecting them. They include large numbers of young people, disabled people, homeless people and people who have or have had some form of mental illness. They include many long term unemployed people and people in jobs at, or near, the minimum wage. Many migrant workers and refugees are excluded, as may be older people who are isolated; pensioners on low incomes. The excluded are not necessarily the poorest, in money or prospects, in society: they include a large number of students and some well-paid transient workers; travellers; people with some experience of institutionalisation and people with criminal records. A relatively high proportion of people living either in inner city areas or housing estates on the outer edge of the city are excluded.
Three Steps to Power is based on the idea of minimising exclusion by bringing as many people as possible to within three degrees of separation from power. One way of achieving it might be by increasing employment. A job is an important way of being connected. But not any old job will do this. Creating more low skilled jobs on, or near, the minimum wage probably won’t shift people closer to power. And there are two further problems with relying exclusively on increasing employment to tackle social exclusion:
1) many people who are unemployed do useful work that isn’t paid and, in many cases, they are already connected through social networks – so a generalised increase in the rate of employment could actually be a rather ineffective way of tackling social exclusion;
2) cities can do some things to increase employment – they can improve education and training; make it easier for business to set up and thrive; they might be able to borrow money to fund public works. But most of the things that would lead to more employment are beyond their control.
Increasing employment might be desirable from all sorts of points of view, but – on its own – it is neither necessarily an effective way of reducing social exclusion, or an achievable one. So what else can cities do to reduce social exclusion (and sustainably increase employment in the long run)?
Strengthening civil society
Three Steps to Power suggests that strengthening civil society in certain key ways would reduce exclusion. For example:
1) increasing participation of people (young people and unemployed people in particular) as members of civic groups including sports and cultural groups etc – especially if that also makes it easier for them to find skilled employment
2) enabling disabled people (in the widest sense, ie including people with mental illness or long term physical illness and older people who are isolated) to get involved as participants in civic groups as members (not just as the beneficiaries of charity)
3) paying at least as much care and attention to the rehabilitation of offenders when they have finished their sentence as is paid to convicting them
4) increasing the proportion of people who vote and take part in formal democratic structures by making politics relevant and the difference that taking part makes more transparent
5) positively and generously welcoming newcomers to the city into local civil society.
Taking a Three Steps to Power approach to tackling exclusion needn’t just focus on people who are excluded. If people who are three steps to power take a step closer to it, they bring their friends and associates a step closer too. So other relevant ways of strengthening civil society could include, for example:
6) devolving decision making to more localities within the city and creating opportunities for more of the majority of people to get a bit more actively involved in decision making
7) recruiting more people from under-represented groups into positions like magistrates and school governors or as officers in trade unions and voluntary groups
8) recruiting more people from under-represented groups as managers of businesses or public services
9) recruiting more people from under-represented groups into political parties and/or into the ranks of ‘active citizens’ – for example as members of neighbourhood forums.
People could also be brought closer to power by increasing the numbers of people who are only one step from power. This could mean, for example:
10) finding new and effective ways of involving more people in formal governance of the city – through, for example, involving them in the formulation and scrutiny of public policy.
These objectives are not necessarily easy to achieve, but achieving them at least lies in the hands of people locally – in a way that increasing employment may not. Moreover, increasing the economic activity and wealth of a city without addressing the glue that holds it together – the social capital – may only be storing up problems for the future.