Putting social capital in the centre of policy-making
Whilst economic capital and human capital have been readily incorporated into policies on regional and community development, it has been much harder for policy to get to grips with social capital. To some extent, this is perhaps a reflection of the difficulties researchers have had in defining and operationalising the concept, but there are signs now that the objective of growing social capital is increasingly recognised as an important strand of policy, particularly in current debates about re-balancing responsibilities for public services between the state, professional service providers, communities and service users.
The essence of the concept of social capital is in the networks within and between communities and individuals, and the access to trust, shared vlaues and resources that such networks can generate. If public services are to be increasingly developed and delivered closer to and by communities, so community strength, community capacity, and the full appreciation and utilisation of community assets becomes paramount.
There are some emerging demonstrations of the benefits creating social capital can bring. At an event last week, (The Guardian, 16 February 2011) Martin Knapp showed, for example, that timebanks cost less than £450 per member to run , but the community benefited to the tune of £1300 per member. Other studies were reported which showed significant benefits from befriending and community navigation schemes.
Social capital grows out of the links that develop between individuals in communities, and between community groups and organisations. This might be informally through recognition of communities of interest, the growing developments in place-based social networking, or can be facilitated through innovative partnership arrangements between community groups and local government agencies. Case studies illustrating the benefits from projects which promote social capital will help too.
National and local government organisations have to think through how they can facilitate this process, and support innovative outcomes. Members of governmental organisations need to recognise that they have to give a strategic lead to secure the benefits which social capital can bring through innovative service provision: co-identification of issues for local policies and co-commissioning and supporting of solutions can only strengthen communities whilst bringing service responses appropriate to community needs.
There is evidence now that this thinking is beginning to emerge, and practice to be shared. There is still a long way to go, but the importance of social capital seems now to be increasingly recognised as a practical and valuable outcome of policy development.