Organising and the Big Society

This week I met the other members of the Cambridge House community organising team – Nicholas, Zara, Kathy and Ahmed (pictured below with Giles Edwards Producer of BBC Radio 4’s Four Thought). The team is the result of a recruitment and selection process that started back in July when Locality was able to give the eleven KickStarter hosts the green light. This in turn was the culmination of a surprise promise made in the Conservative manifesto in March 2010 that, if elected, they would fund the training for 5,000 community organisers. When in May 2010, the Coalition government came to power, the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister affirmed their intention to carry forward this Tory pledge as Coalition policy. In response, the Office for Civil Society (OCS) at the Cabinet Office began a series of presentations and consultations about the shape and direction of the plan and finally in November 2010 issued an invitation for bids to run the programme over four years.

Organisers under tender

IMG_0914The commitment was to not only deliver a network of skilled grassroots activists but also to provide for their professional association in perpetuity; the government promised to endow the Institute at the end of the contract. The ‘Institute of Community Organisers’ was envisaged as a national voice for the new profession, to ensure standards of practice were constantly raised and that the training was codified and supported into the future. The tender envisaged funding 500 full-time trainees and 4,500 volunteer and part-time trainees over four years. The OCS plan was to support community organising to develop in those areas where ‘social capital’ (or community trust) was regarded as low, where the new government soon announced it would target the Community Fund as well, a new funding pot to help set up front-line community groups.

Challenging the Big Society

At the same time, the rhetoric of the Big Society was central stage. Both Nick Clegg and David Cameron spoke warmly of this vision of a more engaged and participative citizenry, taking more responsibility for their own lives and communities. The Minister responsible for delivering the policy across Whitehall was Francis Maude at the Cabinet Office. He emphasised that changing the relationship between citizens in local communities and the state required a change of culture and expectations on both sides. Community organisers were seen as a way to open up both local government and neighbourhood groups to a recalibrated relationship.

Big society or big blunder?

Many in both the government parties – including some within the cabinet itself – felt this objective was either spineless window dressing or completely meaningless. The blogs and the mainstream press were filled with sarcastic references to the Big Society and much humour was aimed at its apparent opaqueness for the average punter. In the policy world, most think tanks took the opportunity to use the term in their publications and across their events to appear up-to-date but the consensus was that Big Society was either vapid nonsense or a sinister cover for slashing the budgets of services for the most vulnerable. The debate over the cuts – for what it was – came at just the time when the Big Society faced it’s harshest critics; as a result, the two became combined in many people’s mind.

Surprise success

The community organiser training contract was finally signed in March 2011. To everyone’s surprise, it went to Locality rather than to Citizens UK who had been the frontrunners from the outset. Locality was a new merger of two national networks each with a long track record of delivering government policy initiatives. Citizens UK brought together an impressive alliance of partners but was unable to press home their advantage in the unfamiliar surroundings of government tender interviews. Locality put in a bid that whilst it was visionary and experimental  – in line with the spirit of the government’s intention – also managed to keep the price low by using a range of shortcuts such as widespread use of social media and using existing staff to deliver much of the support.

Contract or bursary

Extensive negotiations started between Locality and the government about how the full-time trainees were to be supported. Locality was keen to make their payment a learning bursary and to pay it as a grant to the individuals. The Treasury saw this as a training contract and so wanted the full-time organisers to be employed for their year, with all the overhead costs implied. Sadly the Treasury won this battle and in July, it became clear that the contract figure would now have to cover the additional employment costs of 500 trainees. An already low figure for each trainee was still further reduced almost to the Living Wage. The agreement reached, recruitment could start.

Ready for action

So the team has gathered for the first time on Thursday. We have been selected by our local host Cambridge House on the basis of a Locality outline job description. Our employer from 3 October will be Locality and we will be seconded to Cambridge House for the training year. The team is diverse each of us bringing a distinctive quality. We spent our first day getting to know each other and staff at Cambridge House, talking about the many unknowns of the programme and making some initial decisions about dates and working patterns. Next week, we go to Trafford Hall for three days residential training with RE:generate Trust and then we make a start in earnest back in Southwark.

Questions

Do you think the Big Society rhetoric has any substance? Is it just smoke and mirrors to cover the cuts or part of a deeper challenge to the Welfare State settlement?

How can community organisers – paid for by government – remain independent? Is the programme just another government-run scheme or can it fulfil the promise of breaking up a culture of dependency in communities?

Resources

The Conservative Party Manifesto included the pledge to train 5,000 community organisers, using the unfortunate phrase “a neighbourhood army”.

Locality has put their full bid online here which gives a picture of their plans as they stood in December 2010.

Jess Steele is the Director of Innovation at Locality and leads on the community organiser programme. She keeps the world informed about the programme and her opinions on her blog Spinning Plates.

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2 Responses to Organising and the Big Society

  1. Andy Gregg says:

    Good luck to Mark and Ahmed. Whilst I have serious reservations about the Big Society I hope the role of community organisers will be to subvert it to maximum in the interests of redistributing power and influence at the local level towards those that have always lacked it!

    • Mark Parker says:

      Thankls Andy – I share your distrust of the Big Society brand. It has been damaged by so much criticism from influential quarters and by being ignored by many others. As you say, perhaps organising can take the initiative back to the people and create a powerful alternative to the current elitist dogma. I know your support and that of people like you will be crucial to the success of organising in Southwark and across the country. Thanks for the good wishes.

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