Community Organisers – Programme Manager’s blog

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:

  1. Transparency – Locality’s bid, submitted on 23rd December 2010, is available here and the holding pages at 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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).
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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
  7. 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.
  8. 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 for more information

Follow the programme on twitter @corganisers, search and tweet using #corg

More soon….

Jess Steele, Director of Innovation for Locality, Programme Manager for the Community Organisers programme

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13 Responses to Community Organisers – Programme Manager’s blog

  1. Colin Miller says:

    Congratulations to Locality, I think many of feel the contract has gone to trusted and experienced hands. There will be a lot of discussion re the role of the CO’s, and I would welcome seeing your views re the relationship with existing community development and other community empowerment practioners. What I am deeply convened about however is the course content of the CO training. It must address some of the core weaknesses of a lot of existing CD training (limited as it is). Most importantly the training must equip the CO’s with a theoretical background not only in CD and related stuff, but also ideas about organisations, how they function and develop and how they might be supported, also systems ideas, and so on. The CO must be equipped with an adequate knowledge of the importance of community organisations, not as deliverers of service, but as providing a collective voice, playing a core role in social capital, and strengthening communities. It is also important that the CO’s have an adequate grasp of how to support and facilitate co-production and co-planning.

  2. Thanks Jess, this is very helpful and provides some interesting insights into how the programme will be developed over the coming months. I’ll be interested to see how the trainers and organisers address equalities issues in practice, as well as dealing with the inevitable tensions and conflicts that arise in this kind of empowering work with communities. Good luck and stay transparently in touch with community development through blogs such as these.

    • midhal says:

      Thanks for the details, I would share the same concern as Alison, as to how you will embed Equalities into the whole programme, which is only mentioned in passing in the tender document. The rural proofing is welcomed, did you consider undertaking an Equality proofing exercise? Equality seems to be a missing component in the the current debate around Big Society, Look forward to more information on the project.

  3. Hi Jess, many thanks indeed, I look forward to hearing more in due course and wish you well with the programme

  4. Joe Taylor says:

    That was an excellent presentation you gave at the Adult Education conference today Jess. Nice to meet you in person too.

  5. Joe Taylor says:

    Do you think that certain Councils will see the community organiser programme as being politically motivated and cut support to community groups because of that?

  6. Joe Taylor says:

    Do you think that certain Councils will see the community organiser programme as being politically motivated and cut support to community groups because of that

    • Jess Steele says:

      Two questions here linking a whole bundle of complex issues:
      1. the reaction of councils to the idea of community organisers – there will always be the risk that work promoted and funded by the Government of the day will be interpreted through a party political lens. So far we have had some good reactions from individual councils as well as a general mood of wariness. This is understandable since organised communities will undoubtedly shake things up and make themselves heard. On the other hand, the great example of Bath & NE Somerset, where Re:generate have been working for several years, should give councils, police and other agencies assurance that organising can lead to superb results that actually help them do their job more effectively as well as enhancing community spirit and social responsibility.
      2. the misunderstanding (accidental or deliberate) of the role of organisers who in fact come with no money and no message as somehow justifying a cut to community groups. Of course, if organisers do their work well then local people will make their views clear, but it would be a waste of everyone’s energy if they were forced to focus on rear-guard action to prevent unjustified cuts rather than getting local people engaged in positive action of their own choosing to improve their lives & neighbourhoods.

      In general I feel cautiously optimistic about how local government will react as the programme unfolds. But then probably wouldn’t be doing this if I wasn’t an incorrigible optimist!

  7. Dear Colin,
    To add to Jess’s points.
    We will train community organisers in listening, building networks, engaging people and facilitating them to take actions to tackle the concerns they have and build the communities they want.
    There are, as you know, occupational standards for community development that have been emerging over the last 10-20 years and definitions of CD have been defined and redefined many times during that period. Our work and strategy takes account of these and goes deeper, engaging individuals and institutions actively in economic, social, political, cultural and environmental development and transformation – work that develops from people’s concerns and aspirations and through their actions.

    Joe, the political question is important because as we know people are not engaged in the political process – our fundamental foundation for democracy. We will train community organisers to work with politicians from all parties to encourage and support them to link to the community networks that they will create. This will promote our democratic system and enhance the relationship between a broad base of people in communities and their politicians from the different parties. An introduction to Regenerate’s Reform programme is on our website.

    Alison, Regenerate’s Root Solution Listening Matters process is at the heart of the training.
    We work in close partnership with CUPP at Brighton University and we are developing the related PGCE and MA. As you know from your research with us when you were writing your book on networking and it’s impact, the listening process links animators and their teams deeply into all parts of the community. As people emerge and engage they reflect on practice, action and reaction. Diversity and equality issues – including power dynamics and the roles individuals play in what goes wrong in society – are explored in detail and depth. Power, justice, equality and diversity are the bedrock of this work.

    • Thanks Stephen, for your response. It is reassuring that Re:Generate and Locality see equalities, diversity, etc as values that are fundamental to the the CO role and I have always loved your listening/networking approach (as you know).

      I still have some concerns about support for community organising/development practice, though, as it is not straightforward to challenge discrimination nor easy to confront (or even negotiate with) power and it is not obvious how the organisers are going to be trained and supported in this aspect of their work.

      I noticed that CDF are selling my little booklet on ‘Equalities and communities’ at a discount at the moment (their spring sale). It is very much about practice and related issues. Maybe you could bulk buy copies for your ‘trainees’! (I don’t earn any royalties from this book so I am only mentioning it because other people have said it has been useful for them.)

      All the best, Alison

  8. Colin Miller says:

    Hi thank you for your reply.
    I note that the question I asked re what you envisage to be the relationship between extising community empowerment practitioners, particularly cd workers has not yet been addressed. The CO’s and cd people (what’s left of them at least) don’t have to be in competition with each other, but can support and compliment each other. My key concern is that in the big society, the government sees community groups as taking over services, and as Gabriel Chanon and I have pointed out, this is a fundamental misunderstanding of what community groups are about, see our recent paper ‘The Big Society and Public Services’ is deeply dangerouse in terms of empowering communities. What role do you think the CO’s will/should play in supporting community groups (70% of the VCS), will it be similar to the traditional cd role. Community groups form the core collective voice of communities, not deliverers of services. Clarity is essential if this role is to be protected and supported.
    By the way our paper also discusses community organising and how cd needs to change.
    Best wishes

  9. Joe Taylor says:

    I was impressed by that paper after reading it when it first came out. You correctly pointed out that civil society comprises almost entirely of small community groups that pursue their own independent activates and are definitely not in the business of providing or taking over public services. They need very little background support to operate at full advantage but only a tiny percent ever get it. Only when these groups are able to hold public service providers to account and challenge decision makers successfully on a regular basis will there be a vibrant civil society – it’s all about empowerment.

  10. Joe Taylor says:

    There are now 68 entries on the discussion about community organisers on the NatCAN website Jess and quite a bit of confusion. Could you provide some clarity please?

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