Communities in today’s Ireland are a far cry from those twenty years ago.  Many of the future changes were for the good.  Some aspects were necessary, some not so.

Twenty years ago when I first got involved in community activism, local communities believed that they had a purpose and could add to the standard of living in an area.  Today this is often the reason many groups still operate.  In the 80’s there was a feeling that, ‘well if the government won’t do it, we will…’  Many of the community leaders we know of today came from this generation.  At the time, this was a difficult period of financial problems coupled with mass emigration.  Multiculturalism wasn’t a thought or globalisation an issue.  Jobless figures were constantly rising and the outlook was pretty bleak.

 

However, the communities got on with the tasks in hand.  Strategic thinking wasn’t apparent, nor was proactive action plans.  Committee structures were of the loose nature and meetings were held in someone’s house over a cuppa and a bit of cake.  Without having systematically analysed the problems they faced, they carried on regardless.  Yes they identified the problem using something of an unknown and little used concept today, Common Sense.  Common sense was used for most things.  Ideas were not tapped into an electronic devise to generate core outcomes or graphs.  Common sense was used to avoid making mistakes and people also used another little know attribute called ‘…using your head…’   These two basic concepts overcame many significant problems, indeed they contributed to what we have today.  But for this, common sense and using the head theory, our community landscape and voluntary sectors would be different beyond belief, primarily for the worse I’d suggest.

Having said (not identified as this is a process) what the problem was, they met to discuss how best to overturn or tackle this problem and in as short a time as possible.  Meetings had no structure, minutes & matters arising and note taking was a minimal thing.  Plans of action were simplified to ‘who could do the job’.  Participants of this unstructured committee gave many hours, but amazingly also, many had lives to lead and they led them.  Communities didn’t have to compete for funding, whilst grants were something of a new phenomenon, as yet uncharted waters by communities.

What is remarkable is that things got done.  Things happened and often the wider community didn’t know who done what.  Publicity for activities of what work happened, were a few people chatting outside mass of a Sunday mentioned something to somebody about what was needed and could they or someone help.  The end result was, things Happened and they didn’t take forever.  There was no consultation, no analysis, no auditing, no monitoring & evaluation and little paperwork if any.  The focus was ‘get on with the job and get it done’.

This doesn’t suggest that there weren’t issues or arguments, of course there were.  But there wasn’t a trouble shooting mechanism or policy to address every eventuality or conflict.  If there was physical work and someone cut their finger, there weren’t accident report form and health & safety officers to be informed. There weren’t claim forms and notifications to ensure doctor cover was in place.  There weren’t health & safety policies, or an authority to be informed for more severe incidents and not everyone had manual handling / health and safety / first aid training under their belt. They merely got on with it.

 

There wasn’t ‘a can do attitude….’ there was a ‘lets get it done attitude…’ Simply case in point.  A hole in the road, a large pot hole if you like.  I drove to the local authority works yard, asked if there was any spare tar around? I said, I would get a roller if someone could ‘throw over a bit of tar’.  Two hours later the hole was no more and didn’t re-open.  Of course I had to get someone to stop vehicles driving into me, but well that was it, job done.

 

If this was today in the 2011/12 year then it would/is a nightmare to get the same outcome.  Firstly you have to identify the road where the road surface has decayed considerably.  You must notify the road engineer either by email, fax, telephone or post.  Having identified the specific stretch of road, you must if required provide photographic evidence.  Once this is done, the internal mechanism of local authorities’ kicks in.  In brief, engineer must inspect and report to roads supervisor by whatever means as above (electronically normally) to place request for funds. Having completed specific proposal on health & safety considerations and traffic management implementation there is a budget costing to be completed.  There may be a necessity to bring the matter to a local area council meeting to get approval by councillors.  At this point I’m going to stop as you get the gist of the process, suffice to say it could take weeks of discussions, costing, time, energy and complete bureaucracy before anything is done.  Not to mention the hole in the road is most likely getting bigger and possibly damaging vehicles in the process.

I have never been adverse to doing things properly or strategically and yes including a value for money aspect.  I do have an issue of “bureaucracy gone mad”.  There seems to be an incessant need to over analyse and over complicate matters beyond what we would describe as normal.  Issues become larger than they should, and some reach public outcry.

 

Nowadays we look at the community & voluntary sector and how they must adhere to best practice principles, inclusive participation, gender quotas, operate anti discrimination and anti oppressive practices.  Groups need to be constituted and were possible have articles of association with no share capital.  In other words the state expects groups to be professional organisations and operate at the same level as they do.  The state also expects that groups can handle procurement matters and proper banking reconciliations, administrative & accountancy proficiencies.  The list goes on.

 

This may seem in some quarters as appropriate for these groups to be such, given they are getting public funds or materials.  However, the work to implement all the above diminishes the quality and indeed importantly the practical involvement of people in decision making processes.  For once to get a pot hole fixed was a minor matter, now it would be an administrative debacle.

 

There is another argument regarding the C&V sector.  Many view this sector as necessary to realise community needs as no one else is positioned to do certain tasks.  I believe, rightly or wrongly, that the growth in this sector is a direct consequence of the state inaction, disinterest, or not bothering attitude.  If the state were the all encompassing sphere of governance then they should have stepped up to complete the necessary tasks as identified by those within their catchment area.  This argument is for another time.

Much of the activities within cities, towns and villages across Ireland are based within the C&V sector.  Tidy towns, environment groups, family and community resource centres, care of the aged, sports clubs, neighbourhood watch and resident committees, festival & events committees, charity fund raising to mention just some.  Should the state be doing these activities?  They would most likely say they wouldn’t have time for these menial tasks. The evidence is they don’t want them anywhere near their institutions and the evidence is communities could do a better job if resourced to the same level.

Why is this?  In simple, the C&V sector gets on with it were as the authorities discuss and administer over issues before any real action is taken.  Wasting public money in these frugal times is frowned upon, but best practice seems more of a benchmark for delivering anything of value in our areas.

 

Worryingly society engages in issues that deflect the actual work and groups and institutions.  I mentioned gender quotas.  Go to a rural farming community and say you must have a 45% of your farm workers or farming forum female.  I don’t believe that it was ever an issue of keeping women out of such activities, naïve this may be, but to force groups to invoke gender quotas is not the way forward. 

Positive discrimination for a gender or otherwise doesn’t work.  Equality is and should be invoked as a fairness that no right minded group would object to.

 I remember organising a festival and someone mentioned having a bonnie baby competition. Objections to having children compete was for some too much, for others a separate prize for male & female was necessary and some mentioned the make up of the judging panel.  After all the details were literally hammered out, we decided not to have one as someone somewhere would be offended or even object.  Glamorous granny was also deferred due to what age a granny should be.  We have now moved into the political correctness gone mad.

 Having bureaucracy and political correctness we now have strangled the effect communities can have locally in any region of Ireland, even other areas across the world.  People say think big, act properly and produce locally with the global in mind.  I’d say, lets get back to the Common Sense and Using Our Head days that served us fine.

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