Philip Colligan - 15.08.2012
Last week Nesta and the RSA published a report by Ben Rogers calling for citizens to be trained in how to stop fights and intervene in anti-social behaviour. As you'd expect, the report generated some interesting debate.
The message from the Police Federation was unequivocal - police don't have time to train citizens, we're far too busy already. Others argued that citizens should stay away from trouble at all costs, that they'd only get injured or worse. Another popular response has been to blame the government's austerity measures and call for more police instead of vigilantes.
I worry that we may be missing the point.
Let's take the argument back to its basics. Over many generations, we have accumulated a vast amount of knowledge that can be put to good use if we can get it into the hands of citizens.
Often that's about helping people make better choices for themselves or their families. From the advice that our doctors give us to stop smoking or eat more healthily, to the advice that midwifes give new mums on breastfeeding. We have integrated knowledge transfer from professional to citizen into our model of public services.
I'd argue we haven't done nearly enough, but in lots of fields it's now core to what professionals do.
In some areas we've even introduced laws and regulations that require people to have a level of knowledge and competence. The Highway Code is a great example. As more people took to the roads in big heavy lumps of metal that move, it became important to formalise the knowledge about what constituted safe road use. For drivers, that led to the introduction of licensing and the driving test.
A more recent innovation has been the introduction of speed awareness courses as an alternative to fines, with apparently good evidence that the courses have a positive impact on future driving behaviour, while fines have no effect.
It's only a small step from these innovations to providing knowledge that can enable citizens to support each other.
It's not about public services retreating. It's about recognising that value doesn't only come from tax payer funded professionals doing things to people. With a little imagination, we can equip people with the knowledge and confidence to be useful to others.
This is the area where I think we haven't done nearly enough.
The inspiration for Ben Roger's report was Surgeon-Major Peter Shepherd who in 1878 came up with the idea of teaching first aid skills to citizens, and created the pioneering St John's Ambulance first aid course. At the time, the idea caused lots of worry about amateurs causing more harm than good.
Today, having a population equipped with basic life savings skills is so widely accepted that it's mandatory in parts of Europe - in some cases a requirement of having a driving license.
There is surely no doubt that we would all be safer in a society where most people knew the simple, basic actions that could keep us alive in those crucial moments before emergency services can get to us?
Once you accept that argument, then you open up a whole world of possibilities, some of which at least are already happening.
The Expert Patient programme, where people who live with a disease provide advice and support to others who share their affliction; the National Childbirth Trust, whose volunteers support thousands of mums and dads; or more recent innovations like FutureYou a new online platform where young people can get support and advice from volunteer mentors - themselves young people - about finding a job or training.
In all of these examples and many more like them, ordinary people - volunteers - are equipped with formal knowledge that they combine with their own experience, wisdom and judgement to help out other people.
We need more innovations like these and that's why Nesta has been working with the Young Foundation on the U, a new citizens' university that is testing new ultra low cost ways of teaching ordinary people useful skills.
Is first aid for antisocial behaviour all that different? Clearly there are those who think it is a step too far, but I wonder how many of us have seen something anti-social happening, wanted to intervene, but didn't have the skills or confidence to do so.
It's not about creating an army of have-a-go heroes, but simply putting useful knowledge that already exists into the hands of citizens so that they can put it to use.