We must take a risk on community organisers

The Cabinet Office announced on Saturday that the contract to deliver the Community Organisers programme was being awarded to a consortium led by Locality (the organisation created by the merger of bassac and DTA).

Putting to one side the fact they chose to do this on a Saturday, the announcement was met with a mixed response in the media. The Daily Mail took an apparently unique line in referring to community organisers as a ‘platoon of paid bureaucrats’. Some responses were quizzical – looking at the programme as some curiosity in a freak-show, other reports were welcoming and positive.

Citizens UK, one of the leading practitioners of Alinsky-style community organising, and the organisation many had expected to win the contract, were quick to issue a statement expressing their surprise at not having won the bid. To be fully transparent, I should point out that Urban Forum are a partner in the Locality consortium, but we were also supporters of the Citizens UK-led partnership too.

I am less surprised than Citizens UK by the outcome of the commissioning process – though the decision is not quite as ‘done and dusted’ as is being suggested. If you read the small-print in the Cabinet Office press release you will see this is ‘a provisional announcement pending the completion of the procurement processes. Nonetheless I expect this is merely a formality to be concluded.

The Community Organisers programme is an inherently risky thing for government to commission. I have written previously that it represents a deliberate attempt to inject ‘creative disruptors’ into communities to shake things up and to challenge the status quo. My assessment is that without this disruption the government’s ambition for public service transformation and the Big Society agenda will be thwarted by vested interest, much as New Labour’s neighbourhood renewal goals to ‘narrow the gap’ were impeded. The government are commissioning this ‘neighbourhood army’ without too much idea of what the impact will be and without control over what they do. This is to be applauded. However, such a degree of inherent risk is not typical for public sector procurement officers (or ministers). It is entirely rational therefore, for the commissioners of the programme to seek to minimise all other risks (that they can manage or mitigate against) in awarding the contract.

So I believe that the Cabinet Office would have looked more favourably on a bid from an organisation with a track record of delivering major government programmes to time and on budget.

In this respect, Citizens UK’s tradition of not accepting government money would have counted against them, and Locality’s experience would have been seen as a definite advantage. This is not a judgement on the relative quality of either bid, simply an observation of government’s procurement processes.

However, I think that there are other factors at play here. Since the Conservatives first published their Big Society policy paper before the election, where they first mentioned community organising, I believe there has been a something of a shift in their thinking.

Their initial plans referred explicitly to Saul Alinsky’s model of community organising. It is unclear to me whether, at the time, they were aware of other models of community organising, such as the equally effective approach based on the work of Paulo Friere. I also think, that in searching for new ideas whilst in opposition, they hadn’t thought particularly about what to do with ‘the old ideas’, in particular the role of community development (which I have described as being a ‘close relative’ of community organising) and participatory appraisal.

Once in government, ministers and civil servants began to unpick the manifesto commitment and to begin to turn it into a deliverable programme (a challenge that political strategist Stan Greenberg has said often sees new governments becoming unstuck). I was not alone in emphasising to ministers and officials that any successful community organising programme needed to accommodate different approaches. Different circumstances require different approaches and Alinsky, Friere, participatory appraisal and community development all have their part to play. I think that the Cabinet Office have taken this on board and have latterly taken a broader view of community organising. Indeed this was reflected in the programme tender specification where Friere and Alinsky were mentioned. I think this is a welcome development as we need more than one tool in our toolbox to support community action and deliver positive social change.

There remain however a number of risks facing the programme.

The first is the intense scrutiny on the programme from sceptics and supporters alike (and from across the political spectrum). On one side, supporters of the programme have incredibly high expectations, and there is a risk that community organisers will be seen as a panacea for all social ills. Not only is this (clearly) unrealistic, I believe it is also indicative of civil society’s growing unease with the Big Society agenda in the face of cuts that damage the foundations on which Big Society might be built. On the other hand, the sceptics are watching closely, no doubt in the hope that the programme spectacularly implodes.

Developing and delivering a programme under such intense scrutiny poses a major challenge to Locality, and they will need all their experience and political nous to deliver on the programme’s considerable potential. But I wholeheartedly believe that they will pull it off and I have complete confidence, both in Locality and in Regenerate, who will provide the training for the community organisers. We have worked closely with Regenerate for a number of years (indeed they are long-standing Urban Forum members and partners) and the feedback from local groups in areas where they’ve worked has been consistently positive.

The other challenge that needs to be addressed is engaging local government and in particular local councillors with the programme. It will be far harder to be successful without local government being on board, and at present there is relatively little knowledge of what the programme is and how local government should respond to it. Thankfully SOLACE has begun to address this and to develop a local government-led response to Big Society (including my own piece on community organisers). But there is still much work to do in raising awareness of the programme and responding to the fears and concerns of elected members. Community organisers will need the support of local councillors (or at the very least, their task will be far harder without them!), to unlock doors, to overcome barriers, to direct resources and to ground community action in our democratic institutions and processes.

The Community Organisers programme represents the best shot we’ve had for many years to bring about change in deprived communities and to tackle deep-rooted problems in a bottom-up way. Yes, there will be challenges and no doubt some areas will embrace the programme more effectively than others. We will need to ensure that the programme engages and supports the less powerful to gain power and influence. The programme cannot simply reinforce or exacerbate the current inequalities that are currently so damaging to society. Without becoming overly dogmatic and purist about what community organising means, we must also protect it from being bastardised and stolen from us.

Indeed there are already signs that the opportunists are appropriating the language of community organisers to give themselves a new veneer of community-led social change. And we need to move quickly and urgently… from the announcement on Saturday the clock started ticking and have only a short space of time to deliver real, substantive, transformative change.

Despite these challenges we must embrace the potential that community organisers bring, allow the programme to develop and to give local communities the opportunity to positively disrupt!


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