Analysis: Why Alinsky’s supporters lost out
The contract for the government’s community organisers programme has been awarded to Locality, which draws ideas from the Brazilian writer Paulo Freire. Mathew Little examines why the winner wasn’t early favourite Citizens UK, which follows the methods of the American Saul Alinsky
The biggest news about the government’s community organisers programme, a major part of its big society concept, is who didn’t win the £15m contract to run it.
A consortium headed by Locality, an organisation formed by the merger of the Development Trusts Association and Bassac, the umbrella body for community organisations, has been selected to train 5,000 community organisers and set up an independent Institute of Community Organisers after 2015. But they weren’t the favourite to get the contract – another organisation seemed likely to canter home.
Citizens UK, which has been training community organisers for 25 years, was widely assumed to be the obvious choice. On the day the big society manifesto was launched in March last year, the Prime Minister, David Cameron, even visited the group’s offices in east London.
Neil Jameson, executive director, Citizens UKLondon Citizens, a member of Citizens UK, was also named by Cameron as an "independent group" that was a candidate to train the organisers. His policy adviser, Steve Hilton, had been seen taking notes at London Citizens’ public assemblies. "We believed the tender was written for us," says Neil Jameson, executive director of Citizens UK.
So what changed? Citizens UK says it lost out on price, but there is evidence to suggest that the government’s expectations of community organising might have shifted.
When the initiative was unveiled last year, the plan was that the 5,000 organisers would all be full-time professionals and the programme would be based directly on the US community organising movement founded in Chicago by Saul Alinsky, who died in 1972.
In the event, 4,500 of the organisers will be part-time volunteers and the methodology they will be trained in owes as much to the Brazilian thinker Paulo Freire (1921-97) as it does to Alinsky.
Citizens UK works on ‘Alinskyan’ principles. The method is very specific: creating a ‘power organisation’ made up of other groups. Most commonly, these member groups are faith organisations – churches, mosques or synagogues. But community groups, schools and trade union branches can also be members.
Member groups identify the issues they want to campaign on and the main group then tries to establish a relationship with people in power, in the public or corporate sectors, to achieve the desired changes. Since 2001, London Citizens has worked in this way to convince the Greater London Authority and more than 100 companies, including KPMG and Barclays, to implement a living wage for their employees.
The method is confrontational and political. "It’s not about partnership working – it’s about establishing new relationships with people in power," says Mark Waters, participation and empowerment programme manager with Church Action on Poverty, which has sponsored community organisers in Manchester, Stockton and Bradford.
Though groups negotiate and compromise, separation and independence are cherished. There is no collaboration with other voluntary and community organisations. The idea is not to run services, or to get local people to take them over, but to challenge those in the corporate and public sectors that deliver the services.
This Alinskyan version of community organising does not mix well with Conservative big society aims, such as encouraging people to bid to run local parks or take over public services where the state is retreating or leaving gaps. The 5,000 organisers who will be trained in the government programme will follow a more consensual, broader concept of community organising.
Steve Wyler, chief executive designate, LocalityLocality has promised a "modern, indigenous English version" of community organising, and its chief executive designate, Steve Wyler, says it is particularly interested in the approach of Freire, author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed. He was opposed to traditional education and saw the learner as a co-creator of knowledge. His thinking emphasised critical reflection and the self-confidence that marginalised groups gain by achieving social change.
"Freire tends to use concepts about community animation rather than organisation," says Wyler. "It’s a way of bringing out those things that are suppressed and hidden within the lives of ordinary people. The reason that basic approach feels right for us is based on our experience of working with community organisations around social action and community enterprise over many years."
The group that will train people as community organisers is RE:generate – the Action to Regenerate Community Trust, working as a partner of Locality. RE:generate describes its work as community organising and animating. This involves listening to a community’s concerns, building trust between members, developing projects that might involve setting up social enterprises and writing a charter that clarifies a new power relationship with public agencies. The method is a combination of Freire and Alinsky that avoids the polarisation of the Alinskyan approach.
"Part of our enthusiasm for doing this is that we believe we can combine some community organising practices with what we see within our movement – the positive, problem-solving, entrepreneurial, can-do approach of development trusts and other organisations," says Wyler. "Community organising might involve challenge, but it will also involve finding solutions and working constructively with other agencies, service providers, people in power and people in local authorities."
Mike Harrison, a community organiser with Together Creating Communities in Wales, says he suspects that the kind of community organiser the government is looking for would fit into the model of councils for voluntary service. "They would become the animateurs, effectively supporting new, small organisations to provide services where the government is leaving holes," he says.
This wider concept of community organising permits a role for the community sector. Alinsky-style community organising groups form discrete organisations, such as London Citizens or Thrive in Stockton. Community organisers are employed by these groups and the relationship with the voluntary and community sector is minimal.
By contrast, the people to be trained as community organisers under the government’s programme will be found by existing community groups, such as Community Links in east London or the Barton Hills Settlement in Bristol. They will, however, remain independent. Community groups will provide assistance to the organisers through practical help, such as office space. "To be effective, they have to be seen as non-aligned," says Wyler.
"But it’s nevertheless important to them to have some structure and a base to operate from. There are certain kinds of community organisation that can provide that kind of base." And after the financial support for the 500 full-time organisers runs out after the first year, they might be funded by local community groups or charities.
The effect the organisers will have remains to be seen. Waters of Church Action on Poverty says that if 5,000 were trained on the Alinsky model "you’d have a very potent political force in the country".
He says: "I’m not sure the government has got its head around that yet, although whether what they call community organising and what they want out of it is the same as us, I don’t know. I don’t know if they know."
Jameson of Citizens UK says he wishes Locality well, but anticipates teething problems because the organisation has not been involved with community organising before.
"The statement put out by the Cabinet Office would have alarmed us had we won," he says. "To imply that the organisers are part of the government big society machine wouldn’t have been our intention.
"We are very serious about civil society, not about delivering the government’s programme. We deliver what our members want – that’s bottom-up organising, not top-down delivery of the government’s big society programme. There’s a contradiction there."
The Chicago Connection – How Obama worked with an Alinskyan group
Community organising "agitates individuals to get off their butts and act", says Greg Galluzzo, senior organiser with the Gamaliel Foundation in Chicago. "We challenge people to act in concert with others. We help people to understand how the public process works and create actions that will force public officials or corporations to listen to the people."
As founding director of the foundation, which follows the principles of Saul Alinksy, Galluzzo worked with Barack Obama in the 1980s. "When Barack was 22 years old, we recruited him to come to Chicago and be trained as a community organiser with one of our projects," he says. "He worked for us for three years."
Gamaliel has a presence in 18 US states and works with Church Action on Poverty to train community organisers in the UK. Galluzzo says community organising in the US is responsible for local and national policy changes. "It wins simple victories such as getting abandoned buildings torn down, and national victories such as forcing banks to lend in the communities in which they do business."
He is not convinced that the UK government’s community organisers programme is real community organising. "You can do almost anything and call it community organising," he says. "We have a very specific definition. It is clearly different from what the UK government is talking about."