I belong to the JFDI school of government – Just Do It. At a local level, this government’s programme of Community Organisers embraces the spirit of JFDI. Community Organising is the work of building relationships in communities to activate people and create social and political change through collective action. In other words, getting people together to make things better… just getting on and doing it.
Back in 2010, the government committed to train 5,000 Community Organisers by March 2015 – 500 Senior Community Organisers, who will in turn recruit and train a further 4,500 Volunteer Community Organisers to support their work in their local area. I’m delighted that we have exceeded that target.
The concept of community organising is nothing new. Look back to our rich heritage of social entrepreneurs and pioneering philanthropists who campaigned against the workhouses and child labour, for better sanitation and for universal suffrage. And look around today at the numerous local campaigns and causes, including to protect the local environment and to make neighbourhoods safer.
People have always cared passionately about improving the lives of their families and their communities. But this passion, this enthusiasm, has sometimes been capped by bureaucracy, or by power being held too tightly in Whitehall or a local authority.
We have worked to shift that power by giving communities ownership of their own local problems and the power to create real change. And we’ve learnt that it’s not just about letting go of power – as if all you have to do is open your hands and it will flow away. You have to push it away. You have to mean it. You have to make it stick.
We’ve made it stick by investing £26 million in the Community First programme, working alongside the Community Organiser programme which is delivered by Locality. This hasn’t been awarded as a big one-off grant, with all the bureaucracy you’d expect. Instead it has been used in smaller amounts to fund a far greater number of projects. That way, people don’t feel burdened by the responsibility or weighed down by the administration that often comes with larger sums of money. They can just get on and do it, using their local knowledge to fix a problem. We’ve found natural leaders, funded their ideas, given them the skills to organise and inspire and then got out of the way so they can do it.
And I’m impressed, not only by the hard work of organisers and volunteers, but by the impact it has had. These inspiring individuals have listened to over 150,000 residents; worked in 400 of England’s most deprived neighbourhoods; and supported over 1,500 community projects.
The stories behind the numbers are even more compelling. We’ve seen services and towns improved – the patient-led campaign to improve cancer services in Sunderland, the market set up to revitalise a run-down area in Stockport. We’ve seen young people fired up and making a difference – the group that set up a festival to promote local musicians in Lincoln, the students that created an app to help people with dementia publish their life histories in Kent.
The key is organisers talking to people in their living rooms to find out what they actually care about, rather than making assumptions. It’s amazing how often the top concerns are about really gritty things where people think they’re the only ones who care – like fly-tipping, litter and dog mess. Once the organiser establishes this, the next step is to organise social action to improve the locality, which in itself creates social capital and generates more pride and ownership in the local environment.
I’m proud that this government has supported these people to do more. Senior Community Organisers are paid whilst they train. The government has made available a £15,000 employment start up grant for each Senior Community Organiser to continue their work into a second year, if the organiser can secure enough match funding locally.
And true to the spirit of the programme, it will now be devolved away from government. From this summer, Community Organisers Ltd (CoCo) is the member-led training and support organisation that will take forward the legacy of the Community Organisers programme.
Our long term plan for the economy relies on devolving power away from the centre and into strong communities. These organisers and the local people they have inspired see challenges and problems and just get on with fixing them. They mobilise support and advocacy in ways that big central government can only dream of. May they continue to multiply in number.
Watch Francis Maude talk with Community Organisers about their challenges and successes:
Francis Maude hangout with community organisers
Find out more about how the Community Organisers programme has succeeded.