On 5th May British citizens will be asked to vote on their preferred voting system; First Past the Post (FPTP) or the Alternative Vote (AV). One of the boldest claims that the proponents of the AV make is that it will give voters “a stronger voice”.
If this were true (I have no idea if it is true I’m afraid) it would be an attractive offer to a lot of people. According to the Citizenship Survey just over a third (37 per cent) of the UK adult population believes they can influence decisions in their local area whereas almost three quarters (73 per cent) feel that it is important to have an influence and 44 per cent said they would like to be more involved in decisions made by councils affecting their local area.
Of course voting is only one part of this problem. There are a number of ways that we can influence the world around us ranging from voting to campaigning to getting out our brooms and cleaning the pavements ourselves.
The government has recognised this and have announced that they will fund the training of 5,000 community organisers; to act as “catalysts for community action at the neighbourhood level”. This has proved to be a controversial decision. There are even those who argue that community organisers should never take money from any government, ever.
Tessy Britton has written a couple of blog posts (here and here) with an interesting take on these questions. I think she is arguing that an Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) (http://abcdeurope.ning.com/) approach is preferable to an Alsinky style community organising approach if you want to build stronger communities.
You might crudely boil the question down to; “do we want to run projects or campaigns?”
I think the discussion can usefully be split into three parts (As Matthew Taylor has written it always seems to be three parts…); building campaigns, building stronger communities and building more empowered communities.
The main achievement that the London Citizens like to boast about is their success in securing the ‘London Living Wage’ for a number of workers, for example cleaners at major banks. This campaign used a number of classic Alinsky style techniques including focusing their campaign on one individual (normally the CEO of the bank in question).
These campaigns are able to achieve certain types of change. They are good at changing the practices of organisations that benefit from a community but are not rooted in that community (e.g. slum landlords, employers that pay low wages etc…).
Building Stronger Communities
The Alinsky model for community organising brings together existing organisations (e.g. churches, trade unions etc…) and gets them to focus on campaigning. Part of Tessy’s argument is that this approach is not conducive to building better connected, creative and stronger communities. Since the campaigns are designed around conflict and attack there is little space for creative collaboration. Instead, she argues that we should use an approach that brings people together in shared spaces in a way that celebrates and builds on those things that people already value. An example she gives of the type of project she supports is the People’s Supermarket.
This type of approach can be very successful, especially in areas that have a large amount of “hidden wealth” i.e. community assets (broadly defined), that can be connected or mobilised.
Building Empowered Communities
This suggests the tricky question; which of these approaches will give people the influence that they seem to want and that AV is promising?
Alinsky’s supporters point towards visible changes that happen directly as a result of their campaigns, whereas the ABCD enthusiasts point to the spontaneous emergence of new projects that arise out of their approach.
You will have to make your own mind up on this question. However, I do see a deeper similarity between the approaches than might be apparent.
Both approaches rely on building and utilising relationships within communities.
The Alinsky model works on the assumption that there are more or less formal associations already in existence within a given area. The organiser’s job is to bring these associations together, to connect the connectors, with a sense of purpose.
The ABCD model also tries to make new connections, although these are often between individuals rather than formal associations. Once these connections have been made the creative collaboration can take place.
One might even speculate that a community organiser using the Alinsky method would be much more successful if they worked in an area that had benefited from one of Tessy’s Traveling Pantries than if they worked in an area where there was much weaker levels of social connection.
But perhaps I am drawing connections where none exist?
Apparently the Chief Executive of Nokia has written an internal memo to his staff likening his firm to a “burning platform”. He argues that the introduction of the iPhone and Google’s own mobile phone platform has had such an impact on his industry that Nokia must adapt or die.
For me the key quote is
“Apple disrupted the market”
The idea of “disrupting the market” is at the core of Apple’s approach to developing new technology. Steve Jobs once said that his purpose was “to put a dent in the universe”.
Within business and technology literature the idea of a “disruptive technology” (when a new and unexpected technology arrives on the scene and changes everything) is well established. So too is the idea of “creative destruction”. It would be fair to say that this approach has not been tried or particularly welcomed within government, which has often proved to be ‘path dependent’.
But is this all changing?
Some have argued that the current government are undertaking such a broad reform of public services that they can be described as “Maoists”. Steve Hilton, the government’s Director of Strategy has said he wants to “change everything”. I think that the government’s approach to changing things borrows quite a lot from the idea of disruption.
Everyone knows that the government is cutting funding to public services and reforming them at the same time. The way they are reforming them is, I would argue, an attempt to add disruptive elements into communities to shake up the way public services are delivered. They are adding elected police commissioners, GP consortia, and giving community groups the ‘right’ to bid to run services. All of these reforms, and many more, can be seen as adding assertive, challenging new presences that will be fighting their own corner.
This is quite a contrast to the previous government’s approach, which was typified by (forced) partnership working whereby a range of different local agencies had to sign up to grand plans and strategies for their area.
There would be very few people who would march to save Local Strategic Partnerships. You can hardly imagine people chanting “What do we want? A Sustainable Communities Strategy! When do we want it? After the statutory consultation has been undertaken!”
However, the question does spring to mind, who will bring a diverse range of neighbours, businesses, government agencies and charities together to agree a common vision for an area?
Perhaps you think that this will be a role for the government’s new ‘army’ of community organisers. However, as Toby Blume has persuasively argued, the community organisers will in fact be another disruptive element. They will “offer a challenge to all those who hold power, whether in local government, the private sector or the voluntary and community sector”.
The gains from having “disruptive technologies” introduced into communities include; innovation, challenging old and tired ways of doing things and, potentially, a better service for users.
However, there are downsides. Unlike in the private sector, people are loath to allow public services to fail and disappear. Nothing brings a community together better than a campaign to save a hospital which is threatened with closure. The possibility of organisations failing is an essential part of creative destruction.
From a communities perspective it is vital to recognise that certain issues can only be solved by bring people together. If we want to improve race relations, reduce isolation, or promote more trust between generations then we need to bring people together.
The Prime Minister has made it clear that his vision of the Big Society is one whereby “neighbourhoods who are in charge of their own destiny, who feel if they club together and get involved they can shape the world around them”. In this description, clubbing together is clearly a precursor to getting involved. The concern must be that rather than clubbing together, people will splinter into competing groups.
Tessy Britton has written of her worries that community organisers might be one degree of disruption too much. Instead she calls for “people that bring people together in positive ways that change and improve their communities”. The key point that she makes is that these “social artists” seek to create emergence, when new and coherent structures come out of complex systems.
If we accept that there will, in the future, be a lot more disruptive elements acting in communities, then there is a strong case to be made for the need for organisations and individuals that can act as conveners; bringing people together and facilitating cooperation and mutual action. This convening role should not be bureaucratic or controlling. It should be creative and fun and allow for the possibility of emergent phenomena.
How many organisers does it take to change our communities? Quite a few, apparently. The ballot papers for the Labour leadership election went out yesterday, with David Miliband having recruited 1,000 community organisers as part of his bid. In doing so he’s stolen a march on the Government, which has promised to recruit and train 5,000 of them to get the Big Society going.
So soon we’re going to have 6,000 new organisers, and the idea has new-found favour on both sides of the political divide. This, and the pre-election timing of both pledges, surely begs the question: are community organisers simply the latest must-have policy accessory, or can they really make a difference to our communities?
The cynical amongst us might incline to the former. Indeed, it is easy to see why they might do so. It’s pretty clear that the driving influence behind both initiatives has been the experience of Barack Obama – the Conservatives acknowledged this explicitly back in March, and David Miliband has used the familiar-sounding ‘Movement for Change’ as his banner for recruitment. There’s no mystery as to why politicians might want to nail their colours to that particular mast.
But how relevant is this US experience to communities in this country, in this moment? Obama, drawing on the teachings of the urban radical Saul Alinsky, worked in Chicago for a non-profit organisation that wanted to help improve people’s lives by bringing them together and winning concessions or funding for projects that would benefit them. And even he, with all his persistence and personality, and with unjust situations to arouse the passions, found it difficult to engage, motivate and empower local people. One of my enduring memories of Dreams from my Father is the sheer persistence, belief and personal drive it took to achieve what he did.
The situation in the UK is a bit different. The Conservatives have had to gloss over the conflict and struggle at the root of their policy, and have taken the organisers ‘in-house’. In doing so it seems to me that they will have surrendered at least some of the policy’s driving force. How much harder will the Big Society organisers find it to engage and motivate communities if, unlike Obama, they are seen as part of the establishment and therefore somehow associated with the very problems they are trying to solve?
Equally, how will they fare in the face of widespread suspicion that, in the current economic climate, there are few concessions or funding packages to be won? And with the best will in the world, how many will have the Obama-esque persistence and personality that they’re likely to need? Alinsky-ite organisers have been able to draw strength from people’s dissatisfaction and feelings of disenfranchisement. The Big Society organisers won’t have that luxury.
In that sense, the Miliband organisers are in a better position – they can align themselves against the establishment and draw on people’s anger to motivate and engage them. But the purpose of these organisers is overtly political, as well as social, in that they are Labour party members and intended to promote grass-roots engagement with politics. This worked well for Obama (him again) during his run for the presidency. But it’s a separate task, and I wonder whether it will diminish, or even conflict with, organisers’ focus on community issues.
There’s also a question as to how much duplication there will be between these organisers and the community development workers, local councillors, party members and others who are already active in their communities, only under a different name.
And yet we shouldn’t be cynical. Communities are going to have to organise themselves, and where there are barriers to that, they’re going to need some help. Better organised groups have stronger voices and greater opportunities, and in community terms that means less isolation, better services and a better quality of life.
A piece of research I conducted at the end of last year indicated that the level of organisation in a community is largely self-perpetuating: organised communities organise themselves; those that lack that structure need a significant leg-up before they can reach that self-sustaining position. I do believe that organisers, be they Big Society or Labour, have the potential to provide that external leg-up, but their effectiveness will depend on who they are, how they’re presented to communities, what their agendas are, and how well they’re trained, funded and supported. If they’re being made available, they’re an opportunity for communities that should not be allowed to go begging. But we don’t yet know enough about them to judge.
And a final thought, for anyone who’s still reading this. One of the first four Big Society ‘vanguard’ areas is the Labour heartland of Liverpool, which raises the intriguing prospect of red and blue-shirted organisers all trying to organise the same community. There’s already one rivalry between those colours on Merseyside – do we need another?