As I filled in my petition to keep the Gipsy Hill Post Office open, I fell to wondering what post offices are for anymore? Are they amongst the things that we do not use or indeed value until they are threatened with closure? We spend a lot of time agonising over how we can get the citizenry to join in and take an interest in consultation. The cynic would say that the infallible way to do it is to threaten to close something that few use but everyone values.
Add to this an improved facility somewhere else and you have the makings of a monster row. Post offices, hospitals it is the same – the actual function of the shop or healthcare unit is forgotten and it becomes an abstract symbol of the collapse of life as we know it. The challenge to those of us who believe in consulting people is to guard against it being an exercise that institutionalises nostalgia and turns its back on the future.
I did some consumer representative training some time ago with the newly established Postwatch and have some sympathy with the bind that closures put consumer ‘watchdogs’ in. They want to maintain some flexibility and not get frozen in a posture of nay-saying. While it would be easy enough to declare that further post office closure (or indeed railway services withdrawn) will only take place over our dead bodies, the results sadly are usually more closures and yes, a consumer body dead in the water because nobody takes it seriously any more. Always saying NO and always being igNOred.
Hospitals attract a similar set of emotional responses – nothing gets the elders on the streets faster than a whiff of service withdrawal. They are often disappointed because in a sense, the emotion and the outrage come too late in the process. Consultation is a conversation that has to be continuous and take in both the genesis of a project as well as its outcome. There must be an element of leadership in explaining why the future can in some cases actually be better than the past we know and are comfortable with.
The – rather undervalued – resource that is there and can perhaps monitor a developing situation in a way that a single person or group cannot is the local councillor. Our guess is that local government is going to become if not fashionable then better regarded in future. This will be one of the factors that will make LINks a success. If these new networks are heard by local politicians as well as health and social care commissioners and service deliverers, then they have a chance to drive change and create improvement.
We invite you to enjoy the alliterative feast of plosives – past postings on parks and parents (£38,000 down the slide) as well as our announcement about getting involved in a tender to work with a LINks host and a briefing from Andrew Craig about Section 242.
STOP PRESS: Just after writing this, I heard that in Essex, the local government is trying to buy post offices and re-open them promising lots of innovative service ideas – will they become consultation waystations where citizens make their views known?