The argument about community organisers which has been rumbling on for a while has been given new impetus but some surprisingly forthright comments by Lord Maurice Glasman, a key advisor to Ed Miliband and the guru of ‘blue Labour’. Speaking to the Public Administration Select Committee, Glassman described Locality, the organisation which beat London Citizens to the Community Organiser contract as "paternalist" and "well-intentioned busybodies". Locality’s Jess Steele has been quick to respond.
The underlying issue here has been vividly described in blog posts by my great friend, social innovator and active FRSA Tessy Britt0n. Glasman seems to favor an approach which sees community organising as primarily about mobilising resistance and driving campaigns. In contrast Locality, and Tessy, starts from a focus on solutions, seeking to develop constructive local responses in the face of local needs and shrinking publicly funded services.
Although I like Maurice and enjoy his work I am broadly on Locality and Tessy’s side in this argument. However, the problem is not so much principle as practicality. As I go around the place talking about the Big Society and associated themes I hear again and again people saying that it is grievance and protest which are right now the main drivers of community engagement.
Of course, we can all find examples of solution based organisations and initiatives, but – as I have said – the Government and its allies need to go beyond stories to explain why they are confident about the aggregate outcome of their approach. The other day I was chatting to LSE Professor Tony Travers who was telling me about some research he has been commissioned to undertake for London councils. I hope I have got this right – and also that I’m not stealing the thunder from his report – but Tony told me that few, if any, of the Big Society champions to whom he had spoken to could even offer a coherent account of why we should expect to see a largely spontaneous increase in the number of people giving up time and effort to community activities (after all rates of volunteering seem to have been stuck at more or less the same level for many years).
There may be two more positive ways of thinking about this conundrum. The first is to explore how community mobilization which begins as protest can in parallel be channeled into developing ideas and solutions. There is a view that if you start with opposition, its very dynamics make it extremely hard to move into solutions mode. This may be true, but London Citizens claim to have been able to do just this so it may be a matter of effective organizing and group work.
A bigger point is the role of local public services. Tomorrow the 2020 Public Services Hub here at the RSA is publishing a report calling for FE Colleges to shift from a model of churning out qualifications to one which sees colleges as economic, social and cultural hubs. I won’t say any more about the report as it is embargoed until tomorrow (when it will be available from our website) , but I am sure that the approach of reimagining public services as centres of civic engagement and collaboration is correct.
Yesterday, I did a talk at Edge Hill University (which is a very impressive place). In a discussion of these issues I suggested that public institutions like schools, libraries, health centers etc. need to rethink their value proposition. Instead of focusing exclusively on the core activity of processing people as students, patients or service users they should explore their scope to widen their impact by connecting to local civic networks, exploring reconfiguration and collaborations with other public and third sector services and, where relevant, developing new business models based on delivering locally commissioned social outcomes.
This is not a new aspiration and no one sensible says it is easy. As I said the day before yesterday, there is precious little encouragement for this way of thinking coming from Whitehall’s main public service departments, but it is surely the best and most realistic way to try to protect the public sphere whilst also helping achieve the Big Society goal of greater public engagement?