Tag Archives: localism

The official and unofficial connectors that may make localism work

Yesterday I was at the launch of a substantial report about “official” work in neighbourhoods, published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, on how councils can take forward government policies to decentralise control, promote active citizenship and maybe help realise big society.

The language was of good partnership working, civic responsibility, maximising the opportunities in devolution, community leadership roles for local councillors … and professionals working on this for years.

However, success also depends upon the less official matter of how far citizens are prepared to do more for their neighbours, and how councils can encourage people to engage more in providing local services formally or informally.

As Liz Richardson of Manchester University, the author of the report says, the key issue is about attitude as much as policy:

The big lesson is about trust and risk – transfering more control means you have to trust people that little bit more to do things by themselves. Sometimes they’ll mess up, sometimes they won’t. There has to to be some way of keeping that accountable, but allowing space for it to happen.

Liz has been working with Mick Charlton and other officers, councillors and residents in Bradford, where the council already had an impressive record of neighbourhood working before the coalition government developed big society policies.

JRF have been working there since 2004, so it is an ideal place to explore the issues in depth. As Mick explained in the interview, there have been two-way benefits of sharing ideas with researchers.

Earlier in the week I spent a day with a team of community builders at Forever Manchester, exploring how social reporting could help their work in local neighbourhoods – as explained here.

The talk there was of getting out and talking to people, making connections, helping people find skills and resources in the community … and aiming to be able to move on from the neighbourhood within a year or so once new networks were developed.

In London Mark Parker is telling the story of his work with a team of community organisers in Southwark. It is mainly on the street, rather than committee rooms, and in Noticing the unusual suspects Mark makes a distinction between those well-versed in the official world, and the unofficial connectors, a term he attributes to Cormac Russell. Mark writes:

Community leadership needs to be both horizontal and vertical. Some people are eager to speak their mind to the powerful and will tackle the problem they encounter head-on. These folk seldom have time for a deepening relationship with their neighbours and can be criticised as speaking for themselves alone. Others are the glue that link together people and places in any community. They are often well-known locally – in the street or on the block – either as that kind old lady (and often they are women) at No 6 or that old busybody! They hold a great wealth in social capital and are seldom seen at community meetings. Yet their role in bringing people together is vital.

So is there a divide between official, top-down, and unofficial bottom-up, as it is often characterised? I don’t think that’s a helpful way of thinking about it (and certainly not one promoted in the JRF report … they just couldn’t cover everything, and the full report has more about the community perspective).

We need both parts of the system, with more side-to-side connections and networks both in agencies and in communities.

Where the JRF research, and the community organising and building experience do join up, is in the focus on the importance of neighbourhood workers, builders, connectors – whatever they may be called.

Local service delivery is complex, and so are communities. We need the joining-up people. If we agree that, what becomes interesting is the philosophy, and style by which they work, which is something I’ll return to later.

Here’s the key points from the JRF report:

  • Neighbourhood workers are key to co-ordinate partners and services, broker agreements and solve problems creatively.
  • Active citizenship could be strengthened by tapping into the pool of ‘willing localists’.
  • Transferring more control to communities requires new mechanisms to share risk and reward between public sector bodies and communities.
  • Councillors can play a community leadership role, and be honest with constituents, tackle difficult issues head-on, and mobilise the wider community.
  • Central government could offer support, guidance and leadership for action at the local level on the shared challenges facing local public sector organisations and local government.

Links

Activists approve Tory Big Society, taxpayers object. Must be interesting


David Cameron seems to have successfully pulled off the first part of his launch of the Big Society – focussed on neighbourhood-based voluntary action – by getting broad approval from a Guardian commentator as well as the Telegraph, a seasoned community development specialist, and even in part a Labour List blogger.

The Taxpayers’ Alliance was hostile: The Conservatives plan to flood local politics with thousands of taxpayer funded radical activists … perhaps missing the point that the 5000 local organisers will also “have the skills needed to raise funds to pay for their own salaries”.

But the Alliance were right to be amazed that a Tory leader now should endorse the local organising tactics pioneered by Saul Alinsky. It surprised my friend Kevin Harris too, who blogged Let’s hear it for neighbourhood groups: Conservative party launch of the Big Society.

So there I sat, listening to a potential Conservative prime minister say that the role of the state is to agitate for community engagement (speech here). And I remembered the day in 1997 when I heard a representative of the brand-new exciting-new socially-dynamic Labour government say ‘we know things can’t all be done quickly, we’re planning for ten years’. I rushed back to my colleagues at Community Development Foundation with the message – c’mon, c’mon, we’ve got ten years to prove community development works.
Well, we didn’t. Now I reread the phrase in today’s document: ‘We will encourage mass engagement in neighbourhood groups and social action projects’ and it seems to me this is another chance; because the welfare state and a society of institutions are things of the past, and you can’t do without support for local involvement.

Further details of the plan below, and more mainstream coverage here.

I sat through three hours of the Tory seminar yesterday, followed by the launch the independent Big Society network (about which more in a later post) and was pretty impressed by both. Well, the substance of the seminar if not the style. Empowerment is substantially about attitude and trust, and talking at your audience for three hours with short breaks, few exchanges, and without even the relief of Internet access is not very empowering. Were phones blocked, or was it just the concrete in the Coin Street Community Centre? Not very smart comms either, since it meant no chance of live blogging or tweeting to spread the word. Maybe they were nervous, so we ended up with big lights, big cameras, not big conversation. Next time, trust the audience.

Despite the traditional event format, I felt like Benedict Brogan in the Telegraph that a set of well-developed ideas had been put together into a coherent narrative. Not new, but new for Tories. See my earlier post for background.

What’s going to be much more tricky is the second part – the detail. Organising at local level is messy and difficult. People disagree, and volunteers need a lot of support. It’s a point made strongly in the Labour List piece by Alan Painter and also by Will Horwitz at Links UK, who adds:

… many of the powers Cameron would like to see local groups exercising are notoriously complex, and without a lot more detail it’s hard to know how much would change. He’s not the first to have tried to engage local communities in local planning decisions, for example, and there’s no detail on how he’d do this differently from previous governments. Furthermore, we’d be the first to point out that local community groups complement rather than replace the role of elected officials and the state, both locally and nationally.

Making it all work will require development of these policy outlines into procedures, by diligent civil servants, and sympathetic local authorities. One wonders what’s going to be in it for them, when quite a few will be worried about the impact of spending cuts on their jobs. Still, that’s always been a problem, and I sense most community organisers would rather have the Prime Minister on their side, of whatever party.

Here’s the main new policies announced as part of the Big Society plan:

  • Neighbourhood army” of 5,000 full-time, professional community organisers who will be trained with the skills they need to identify local community leaders, bring communities together, help people start their own neighbourhood groups, and give communities the help they need to take control and tackle their problems. This plan is directly based on the successful community organising movement established by Saul Alinsky in the United States and has successfully trained generations of community organisers, including President Obama.
  • A Big Society Bank, funded from unclaimed bank assets, which will leverage private sector investment to provide hundreds of millions of pounds of new finance for neighbourhood groups, charities, social enterprises and other non-governmental bodies.
  • Neighbourhood grants for the UK’s poorest areas to encourage people to come together to form neighbourhood groups and support social enterprises and charities in these poorest areas.
  • Transforming the civil service into a ‘civic service’ by making regular community service a key element in civil servant staff appraisals.
  • Launching an annual national ‘Big Society Day’ to celebrate the work of neighbourhood groups and encourage more people to take part in social action projects.
  • Providing new funding to support the next generation of social entrepreneurs, and helping successful social enterprises to expand and succeed.

Full speech and document here