Creating the programme was one of the government’s flagship Big Society promises, do you think that’s a help or a hindrance?
“I think every time we hear the words ‘David Cameron’s Big Society’ it makes me cringe and I’m often on record saying ‘it’s not his, it’s either all of ours, or it doesn’t exist at all’. On the other hand I’ve always thought that the phrase, the concept of Big Society, is an interesting and useful input into a bigger debate. It’s really important and good that we’re talking about it. That doesn’t mean that it’s the right answer to the debate but it’s a really good thing to be talking about it at last because a lot of us have been working in this kind of field for a long time and struggling to be heard by any mainstream press or politicians at all. So, at the moment it’s interesting that you can get heard with ideas about neighbourhoods, about communities and about devolving power and shifting power downwards. I think that’s quite helpful.
At the end of the day, it’s a £15 million project. It’s a pretty small thing compared to the vast amounts of government spending on other programmes and the multiple millions it’s spending on war abroad – let alone on other activities within The Big Society. We’re in a really hard time for everybody. Huge welfare cuts will undoubtedly have more impact on the street than this programme can but I think this programme can have an impact. (Partly) because it’s so open-ended, because the organisers bring no specific message and seek no specific outcome: they’re not messengers from government, they’re not messengers from Locality – they are people who are trained and supported and paid to work with what they actively seek out and find on the ground. So, yes I think in some ways it can have a huge impact on how we think about The Big Society.
Do you think there’s a danger than people are going to say ‘I’m angry with the government, so I won’t engage with this programme’?
“That is a challenge for us and for organisers. What we always said was that the most important thing was to liberate the programme from government. I think they are being fairly helpful in letting us do that because this point is there is no specific outcome they’re seeking and they don’t expect us to send government messages.
A wider danger is the party politicisation of community organising and other (similar) kinds of activities, which I think is a very significant risk and is a terribly significant risk for the parties themselves as well as for everybody who cares about it in a non-partisan way. Because the minute the public associate a particular approach with a particular party, it doesn’t matter which party it is, it’s dead in the water because they’ll see it as being sold a party rather than being listened to. I think that’s extremely dangerous and something that the parties should think carefully about.”
So what, in your view, are some of the best examples of community organising that are happening already in the UK?
“There’s elements of it all over the place. Regenerate themselves have some great examples including a project that they’ve been working on for a long time in Bath which has expanded from a small neighbourhood: the council has picked it up and worked with them over a larger area. So that project shows lots of examples of conflict turning into work together with the council, of the whole process of listening and how it builds trusting relationships – mobilising large numbers of people. And there are examples in the Locality – http://locality.org.uk/ – membership, including Development Trusts of course and much older Settlements that have shown how to mobilise people and how to combine changing the powerful with a self-help mutual collaborative approach to getting things done. I think we draw on those histories too.
We also draw on Freire and Alinsky and on the success and the approaches of Citizens UK’s work bringing Alinsky to Britain, or to London. We draw on lots of different stories and want to do that. We’re building an online knowledge hub, which is basically a very straightforward way that people can upload resources – whether they’re scholarly articles or little stories about particular places, photos, videos, whatever. It’s a place where that can be shared both between organisers and be generally accessible to anyone whose interested. So, we want to share and comment on all those resources and stories.”
We’re based in the London Borough of Waltham Forest. The council’s not well regarded and the local organised professional voluntary sector isn’t very strong. There are lots of small community groups – meeting in small community centres, pubs or people’s homes – but they tend not to grow or move toward more formal activity. Is this the kind of thing the programme will be able to help with?
“I hope it will because I hope what (the organisers) will do is find and systematically listen to some of those people. People who’ve got loads of energy and are already well connected to groups with each other, groups which are quite big if loose networks. If we begin to systematically listen to them, one of the questions organisers can then ask is ‘do you know anyone else who thinks like you about these issues?’
“And rather than people just going ‘oh yeah, there’s loads of people’, you say well ‘can you picture them?’ ‘Yes, I can picture them, I’ve got them in my head – here’s the four or ten or however many people’. And then it’s ‘well, can we meet with them?’
So that cascading helps to, not necessarily formalise but reveal and value the links that are already there between people. There’s nothing wrong with the conversation in the pub but let’s take it beyond this as well, let’s start talking to people who are not like us because the danger of those very pleasant informal things is that they become cliques and they’re separate from each other.
Whereas if those people are willing to go beyond that and say ‘ok, can we organise with people who are not like us?’ – whether that’s elderly people, or young people, people of a different ethnic group or people on a different estate. To explicitly take than leap beyond people like you is a really powerful thing to do and begins to create a different kind of network, which begins to become something which the powerful, whoever they are – elected or officials – have to respect.
Once they see it, they respect it without there having to be any great battle because it’s as Alinsky says: “the threat of what you’ve got is what they think you’ve got rather than what you’ve actually got”. You don’t necessarily have to take the action because people start to see that you’ve mobilised already and you’ve listened to people and they can’t push you into a corner and say that’s just the people from that area or that type or the usual suspects.”
I suppose for councils there’s a threat but it’s also a potentially positive thing? If there’s some people who can do something useful…
“Absolutely, we’ve had really surprising reactions from councils actually. We went to a council recently that was almost entirely Labour and you’d think perhaps that they might be fairly negative about a coalition programme but they were completely positive. They said, ‘we’re not interested in the coalition, it’s not about the coalition, it’s about our place here and how it works here.’ So I hope and believe that it’s not tied to party politics, it’s about the maturity of the approach that a local authority can take locally. And some of them are much mature than we give them credit for and are ready to take this on, others perhaps not.”
Recently, I was at a Respublica talk by Robert Puttnam of Bowling Alone fame, who’s now made a comeback with a new book about faith. His line is that religious people are nicer – by nicer he means that they do more stuff in the community. Not many of us in the UK go to church, is that a big problem in terms of community activity?
“I think it’s fascinating because the reason he’s right is because congregations are already organised so the point is: organised people do more – organised, mobilised networks are nicer in that exact way. You can have two reactions to that – you can go and do more congregational organising, and specifically cross-congregational between different faith. There is scope for that and certainly that is something that citizen organising has often been based on. Alternatively, you can say if we organise in neighbourhoods, perhaps we can create a secular version of the same kind of niceness, the same kind of capacity, mutual collaboration working together and mutual respect that you find in many faith groups.
Our reaction is the second. We respect and are happy with congregational organising but that’s not what we’re doing in this programme, what we’re doing in this programme is very much secular, neighbourhood, broad-based organising focused on geographical areas. So, I think he’s hit the nail (on the head), that you get niceness by being organised, mobilised and respecting each other. And by having some shared values but you don’t share values by birth…”
You don’t have to believe in God?
“No, you don’t have to believe in God. The point is to believe in humanity and each other and to build mutual respect. It’s a perfect lesson for us but it also shows this programme is an experiment. Can neighbourhoods build on the best of faith groups without importing the religion itself?”
In terms of the social enterprise movement, what can already existing social enterprises do to interact with this agenda and get involved with community organising?
“I think there’s probably loads of different ways. There’s a big difference, isn’t there, between community enterprises in local neighbourhoods – smallscale, very geographically focused – and big social enterprises, especially the kind of social enterprises that might come from public service spin-outs. I think what will happen is that social enterprises, particularly the larger ones, will actually find themselves challenged. They will be challenged just as much as councils and other providers of services and power holders. They’ll find themselves on different sides of this all the time depending on how they’re behaving and where the power lies in any particular interaction.
What they can do is what social enterprise and community enterprise has always been good at: sharing information, being open about the way you work and the things you’ve learned – helping to create that broad peer network. That’s always the thing that we value most in our members, that they have this give-get relationship with each other where they’re just completely open – in a way that a lot of private businesses are not open to others because there’s a different attitude to competition and benchmarking and information-sharing. It’s not the organisers that will create enterprises, it’s the communities themselves – and often those communities will be highly ambitious but potentially inexperienced in that area – so any help they can get will be really useful.”
But social enterprises can’t just assume that they’re representative of the community…
“They’re not, are they, because the vast majority of social enterprises don’t go out and listen. One thing that is really interesting is the market research angle to the listening. If you go out and listen to 3000 people, the quality as well as the quantity of market research that you’ve got there is enormous. Now, you haven’t gone and asked them ‘do you want my product?’, you’ve gone and asked them ‘what do you love about this place, what makes you cross?’ but out of that comes hugely rich market research.
So, if you are a community enterprise in a particular place then you’re going to want to be part of that because you’re going to get so much information about your potential customers and potential justifications for your service, as well as improvement ideas for your service that it’s well worth being involved.”
Thanks a lot to Jess for doing this interview.
Recruitment for community organisers is currently ongoing and the first round of training begins in September.