Big Society and community organisers

A few weeks ago I attended and participated in the national conference of the Society of Local Council Clerks in Durham. We work closely with the SLCC – who are the professional body for around 8,000 local council clerks – and whose national conference is always for me a highlight of the autumn conference season. I find conferences and events such a valuable opportunity to network and catch up with lots of people – and this year’s event was no different. It was great to natter to clerks from councils of all shapes and sizes and parts of the country, plus loads of other people who were there such as Sir Stuart Etherington, Chief Executive of NCVO and Learning Pool’s Dave Briggs.

Two people I always enjoy bumping into – and talking all things local democracy, community development and public services – are Elisabeth Skinner and James Derounian from the University of Gloucestershire. We have form with the University, in a good way, as they have made a massive and positive contribution to developing and delivering our National Training Strategy, as well being a flag waver for rural community development. One particular conversation with James over the course of the weekend focussed on localism and the Big Society and in particular community organisers. So I invited him to write a guest post to share some of his thoughts. Here it is.

Question: What is the difference between a community development worker and a community organiser?

Answer: Ask me in a couple of months!

Of course, famously, President Obama was a community organiser in Chicago. And, as interpreted by Prime Minister David Cameron, a UK community organiser can “bring communities together, help people start their own neighbourhood groups, and give communities the help they need to take control and tackle their problems.”

Under Big Society plans there are to be “5,000 full-time, professional community organisers who will be trained” – my University should be rubbing its hands! At face value this is a welcome boost to the community development/engagement workforce. Not least as many community development staff are already casting about for new jobs as public sector cuts start to bite and local authorities ditch non statutory work. So potentially community development workers could get their P45 on Friday and start as a new community organiser the following Monday!

But here’s the rub: there are still lots of unanswered questions about Big Society in general and community organisers in particular. They appear to be outsiders brought in to help a community, but then again they may in addition/instead come from the specific community. Are they paid or unpaid? How long are they engaged for, permanent contracts or the usual short-termism? And then there’s the history, as I do wonder if anyone in Government has actually read the work of US community organiser guru Saul Alinsky, in particular his 1971 handbook ‘Rules for Radicals’. On page 100 Alinsky argues that the “job of the organizer is to maneuver & bait the establishment so that it will publicly attack him as a ‘dangerous enemy’” – oh really?! I wonder if this is quite what the Coalition Government has in mind. Or how about organisers fanning “the latent hostilities of many of the people to the point of overt expression” on page 116?

On the other hand, Alinsky does offer valuable insights in pursuit of the Big Society: “ideal elements of an organiser” according to him include “curiosity, irreverance, imagination, sense of humour, a bit of a blurred vision of a better world, an organized personality, a well-integrated political schizoid, ego, a free and open mind, and political relativity, creating the new out of the old”. And in pole position he places ‘communication’.

What is clear, however, is the point that pundit, politician & journalist, Michael Portillo made in his address to the SLCC conference:

In relation to the Big Society and community organisers it is beholden on us “to write the blank pages”….those interested in democracy, society, mutuality and service have a real chance to mould what comes to pass. If we stride on to the ‘pitch’, we can play the ‘game’, if we do that then we stand at least some chance of scoring!

Let’s get stuck in.

James Derounian is a Principal Lecturer in Community Development and Local Governance at the University of Gloucestershire

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