Ben Toombs, blogging at RSA projects, explores the role of community organisers, now being promoted by one Labour leadership candidate as well the Coalition. Does anyone know what plans there are to train the 5000 organisers promised under Big Society? Will Citizens UK get the job, as they might have hoped from references in the Conservative manifesto?
How many organisers does it take to change our communities? Quite a few, apparently. The ballot papers for the Labour leadership election went out yesterday, with David Miliband having recruited 1,000 community organisers as part of his bid. In doing so he’s stolen a march on the Government, which has promised to recruit and train 5,000 of them to get the Big Society going.
So soon we’re going to have 6,000 new organisers, and the idea has new-found favour on both sides of the political divide. This, and the pre-election timing of both pledges, surely begs the question: are community organisers simply the latest must-have policy accessory, or can they really make a difference to our communities?
In that sense, the Miliband organisers are in a better position – they can align themselves against the establishment and draw on people’s anger to motivate and engage them. But the purpose of these organisers is overtly political, as well as social, in that they are Labour party members and intended to promote grass-roots engagement with politics. This worked well for Obama (him again) during his run for the presidency. But it’s a separate task, and I wonder whether it will diminish, or even conflict with, organisers’ focus on community issues.
There’s also a question as to how much duplication there will be between these organisers and the community development workers, local councillors, party members and others who are already active in their communities, only under a different name.
A piece of research I conducted at the end of last year indicated that the level of organisation in a community is largely self-perpetuating: organised communities organise themselves; those that lack that structure need a significant leg-up before they can reach that self-sustaining position. I do believe that organisers, be they Big Society or Labour, have the potential to provide that external leg-up, but their effectiveness will depend on who they are, how they’re presented to communities, what their agendas are, and how well they’re trained, funded and supported. If they’re being made available, they’re an opportunity for communities that should not be allowed to go begging. But we don’t yet know enough about them to judge.Read more at projects.rsablogs.org.uk