Cat-herding, plate-spinning, hurtling towards hurdles, swimming through treacle… It’s an exciting time getting this programme up and running!
It’s a big, complex programme with a swathe of uncertainties to address. That’s challenging enough, but this one sits in a high-profile, highly-politicised environment. It’s my contention that ‘big society’ would be a fascinating and fruitful policy debate in any era but in a time of divisive and deeply wounding public and voluntary sector cuts, it is hard to have a ‘clean debate’ about the potential. But we have to try…
I want to answer a few of the questions and comments emerging so far:
- Transparency – Locality’s bid, submitted on 23rd December 2010, is available here and the holding pages at www.dta.org.uk/communityorganising include information about the bid partners. We will be as open as we can throughout the development and delivery of the programme without causing confusion or exhausting our energies on ‘comms’ to the detriment of implementation.
- Track record – some people have criticised the award of the role of national partner to ‘a new organisation’. That is simply a misunderstanding – Locality is the new name for the merger of the Development Trusts Association (established 1992) and bassac (established 1920) both long-standing independent networks of grassroots community-led organisations. Members of both networks voted overwhelmingly (96%) in favour of merger. Locality’s board and staff team have been drawn from the experienced people who led each of those organisations. Both have experience of initiating and delivering substantial programmes with a wide range of funders and both are resilient, enterprising organisations that practice what they preach.
- Some have said decisions are being made ‘top down’. Certainly being interviewed by ministers shows decision-making from the top, but Locality is a member-led organisation and ‘bottom-up’ is a concept that runs through our veins. Development and delivery of the programme has been and will be organic, growing from the ground rather than rained down from above. Our ‘hosted’ approach to the community organisers programme roots it in existing organisations, but will also encourage challenge and new thinking within those organisations. In the few weeks before Christmas we worked with our dispersed nationwide staff team to quickly identify ten ‘kickstarters’. These are dynamic organisations in diverse places who will hit the ground running to help shape the programme and act as pioneers and guinea pigs for this innovative approach, so that we can then open out a streamlined programme to hundreds of further hosts. We were delighted by the response and even before the bid went in we had a growing reserve list, as well as relationships with our network partners – Voice4Change England, Church Urban Fund, Faith-based Regeneration Network and Urban Forum – who are linking us to hosts who can reach more specifically into communities of interest and identity. Some have complained there are not enough rural kickstarters – but three out of ten ain’t bad (including Keystone, England’s largest rural development trust covering Norfolk/Suffolk/Cambridgeshire, Kirkgate Arts in Cockermouth, Cumbria, and Penwith community development trust in Cornwall).
- Will organisers be a ‘platoon of bureaucrats’ (Daily Mail), ‘bossyboots’ (twitter) or government messengers? No. Community organising is not about sending any message or bossing people about and it’s certainly not a bureaucratic pursuit. It starts with listening. 29% of people in England do not feel that anyone listens to their opinion. Organising starts where people are; it starts with listening and focuses on people engaging together to work out what matters ‘the generative themes’ that motivate people to act in their own collective interest. This is not ‘capacity-building’ that trains people to interact within the culture of the powerful but often fails to motivate them to do so. This is Freire’s consciousness-raising which draws people out of the ‘culture of silence’ to take on the challenge of the ‘untested feasibility’, the possibility of a different world. . It aims to convert the generalised ‘bad scene’ that so many people live with into a series of specific issues that they can take action to change. Once people have identified and understood the problem, they make a choice about the action to take. If they need to change the powerful, Alinksy’s techniques are a huge help. If they want to take collective entrepreneurial action they can draw on Santos de Morais (who took Freire’s critical awareness another level to describe entrepreneurial awareness). In most cases you’d want both types of action. We draw inspiration from these thinkers but we are tasked with nurturing an indigenous 21st century English community organising movement.
- Who will train the organisers? Locality is working in close partnership with Regenerate who will lead the training process as well as directly hosting 60 organisers during the life of the programme. Regenerate will begin with an intense train the trainers introduction. Those trainers will return for the main training for transformation course, joined by potential COs from each of the 10 Kickstarters. This first cohort of senior COs will be the pioneers for the programme, including identifying and supporting mid-level COs to mobilise local networks. The process will cascade as new hosts are involved and new COs identified. The National Communities Resource Centre at Trafford Hall will manage the trainer network. Accreditation will be developed with support from the Open College Network Yorkshire & Humber region and ongoing progression routes identified through our academic partners. The details and logistics of this process are under development during this early phase.
- Costs of the programme. Any new programme in such austere times must be scrutinised intensely for value for money. With ‘price’ given a 30% weighting in the evaluation, the tender process certainly pushed down on costs. There is no slack in our budgeting, in fact there is significant subsidy by the participating organisations. ‘Full cost recovery’ is an admirable ideal and we have been angry on behalf of our members that year after year they have subsidised public contracts. However, this is something different. People want to be involved in the programme for its own sake – because it offers something so special and important – the opportunity and encouragement for mass mobilisation, personal development linked to social justice and place-making, organisational development and resilience and, ultimately, genuine change shaped and led by local people. These contributions are weighed in the balance against the less than generous offer to hosts and other partners. No-one believes it will be easy but all the partners believe it will be worth it. This is a programme that requires us to take risks. Locality is so convinced of the need to ‘liberate this programme from Government’, and of the potential for other funders, sponsors and partners to contribute, that we deliberately risked £250,000 of the tender cost. We promised to raise at least this much in additional sponsorship, and if we fail to do so our own programme management budget (already rock-bottom at 3%) will be cut in half. The figure of £10M seems enormous but this is 500 x the £20k learning bursaries that will support community organisers during their first 12 months
Building on existing good practice – as a network of over 600 locally-rooted members, Locality cares fundamentally about what already exists in communities. As an organisation focused around enterprise, assets and social action, we are constantly learning and innovating. It is not enough to do what we do well; we must stay open to new ideas and approaches that could make it more effective. That’s why we put so much effort into cross-pollination, peer learning and mutual support – both between members and with an ever-widening network (eg through the Asset Transfer Unit and Advancing Assets, the Meanwhile Project, Community Sector Trading, Cultivating Enterprise, the Community Shares programme, and the Community Allowance). Since the announcement we have received dozens of emails from potential organisers and potential hosts and also from many voluntary sector and academic institutions offering their approaches into the mix. We very much welcome this input, though it is hard to respond in detail and at speed, so please bear with us. Those who say they are ‘already doing this’ are missing the point about the scale and ambition of the programme but many will have lessons we should learn. One of our early actions is to pull together a Lessons Log or Knowledge Hub, to bring together a wide range of thinking and practice relating to community organising. This will be an open space welcoming all contributions of relevant material.
- What about local government? There is apparently nervousness among local authorities about the community organiser programme and yet some are already approaching us to get involved, open to training their officers as ‘connectors’ to make organising more effective, adding to the resources so that more organisers can be placed in their areas, and interested in exploring the potential for ‘cashable savings’ through citizen organising. Generally councils are neither heroes nor villains but complex multi-faceted organisms under acute stress. Of course they would count as ‘vested’ interests and they hold powers that citizens will want to challenge. But where representative democracy can align with participative democracy and vice versa, each will strengthen the other.
Enough for now – please have a good read of the bid and the interview materials but remember that this is our baseline, we are developing the programme detail all the time.
See www.dta.org.uk/communityorganisers for more information
Follow the programme on twitter @corganisers, search and tweet using #corg
Jess Steele, Director of Innovation for Locality, Programme Manager for the Community Organisers programme