Participatory Budgeting: tough questions and real answers

I recently attended a discussion hosted by Lambeth Council’s Leader, Cllr Lib Peck, when council officers and councillors met with Josh Lerner, Executive Director of the North American Participatory Budgeting Project, Alderman Joe Moore from Chicago and Jez Hall from the UK PB Network. During the discussion a number of important questions were asked that felt pretty important to address if we are to adopt PB in UK on a meaningful scale. I thought it would be useful to others who are interested in PB, to share the questions, and the answers that were offered in response. The answers are based primarily on Alderman Moore’s experience of using PB in his Chicago Ward over the past 4 years, the PB Project’s work in New York, Toronto and San Fransisco and other North American cities. However I have also drawn on Jez Hall’s experience of PB in the UK and my own experience of using and promoting PB here too.

How do you prevent the ‘usual suspects’ from hijacking the agenda?
One of the most common questions asked about PB Project is ‘won’t more affluent communities dominate the process?’  From the outset great effort was put in to reaching out to the whole community to involve them, both in the planning stage and in voting. This does require some resourcing (but is essential). We thought about how to ensure we were being inclusive – where meetings were held, who was invited and how we made the process appealing and relevant.

At the outset people were nervous about vested interest and marginalised voices being overlooked, but the experience was that people were very conscious of an inclusive approach and keen to support projects that they didn’t personally benefit from. So projects aimed at improving disabled access were supported, despite the fact that disabled people are a minority – non-disabled people saw the benefit and supported them.

It had originally been planned to elect community representatives, but Alderman Moore decided (on the fly) not to go down the route of a popularity contest, but rather to allow anyone who wanted to ‘step up’ and take on the role to be supported to do so. Interestingly, it was not ‘the usual suspects’ who came forward to take on the role and many of those who volunteered were people who’d not been involved before who were intrigued by the new approach. These were not perennial meeting-goers and Alderman Moore explained; ‘I’d never seen them before’.

Another strategy aimed at reducing the risk of the process being hijacked is to design in the process a degree of ‘refresh’ of the people involved. Citizens who take on the role of community representatives for one year, can graduate the following year to join the steering committee. This builds renewal into the process ensuring new people are brought on as well as making use of the experience gained from being individuals acting as community reps.

How do you overcome cynicism and get people engaged with the process?
PB is fundamentally different to traditional consultation or asking citizens to advise elected members. Within PB control is handed over to citizens, but done so in a structured way. The boundaries around participation are clearly defined and people are asked to participate within them. It is a calculated risk but one that has worked well in Joe’s experience.

The process built on the area’s strong tradition of civic and civil participation and brought these community leaders and activists into the process. No one expected to be paid for getting involved – they just got on with it.

People step up when they are offered real power – not just tokenistic consultation. Involving people from the outset and throughout the process – from designing how the PB process would work, suggesting ideas for projects, through to developing proposals and voting on them gave them a real ownership in and engagement with the process. Given the opportunity to have real influence over what happens citizens are highly motivated and willing to participate. Apathy tends to occur when people feel decisions have already been taken, that their views won’t be acted on, or when what they are being asked to engage with is someone else’s agenda. As Jez Hall from the PB Network said: “One thing that PB does well is meeting people where they’re at. It works at a very concrete level – people can understand and relate to it easily. Once people start talking about their areas and thinking about how things could be improved in the future, questions, issues and potential solutions emerge.

How does PB affect broader civic participation and voter turnout?
Alderman Moore described PB as “the single most popular thing I have done in 22 years as an elected representative”.

In the previous election Alderman Moore did not receive a majority of the votes (resulting in a run off with his closest rival), eventually winning with 51%. Following the introduction of PB, he secured 72% of the vote. Whilst this increase cannot be exclusively attributed to introducing PB, Alderman Moore was clear that PB had positively engaged his constituents.

Over 1,000 people have voted in the PB ballot each year (within a ward population of 57,000 and 22,000 registered voters), though not all those voting were on the electoral roll. In the first year there was increased interest which resulted in over 1,500 people voting. There were lots of ideas for projects looking for funding, which were supported through the PB process. Making minor changes to the PB process helps keep things fresh and maintain interest, as does encouraging new people get involved each year (and offering those who’ve taken leading roles one year the chance to ‘progress’ to the organising committee in the following year).

It is very important that voters reflected the whole population and the use of pop-up voting stations in strategically placed community venues makes it easier for people to vote within their daily lives. Voter registration forms were taken to PB ballot stations to encourage citizens voting in the PB process to register to vote for District elections. Whilst it is hard to prove a correlation, the voter turnout in the ward has increased, from being in line with the City average to 3-5% above average since PB was introduced.

How do you make the voting process accessible?
Although the ballot paper used in Alderman Moore’s Chicago constituency is quite complex and text heavy, the process encourages people to help others to complete the ballot, which helps strengthen social capital and reciprocity.

In addition to area-based committees covering the whole ward, we also have a Spanish committee – reflecting the large Hispanic population in the area. The ballot paper is produced in Spanish too. The process is not just about voting, but also incorporates discussion and deliberation – talking about ideas and community needs and aspirations.

Has the use of PB led to other areas adopting it?
PB has now been established in 4 other wards in Chicago as well as other districts in New York, San Francisco and Toronto. The positive experience has helped generate interest in other wards – both among politicians and communities – that is gaining momentum.

The experience of using PB also helped to strengthen connections between the District and other public agencies in a common process that starts with citizens.

PB in the UK has been sporadic, ebbing and flowing with political support. When Hazel Blears was Communities and Local Government Secretary she gave strong support to PB and oversaw the development of a national PB strategy. This governmental support undoubtedly generated significant interest within local government and a number of local PB experiments ensued. These tended to be small discrete pots of money used to support local initiatives. As Coalition came to power and public spending cuts began to hit this discretionary funding began to dry up and we began to see a shift in how PB was regarded within local government. Whilst there were fewer small scale neighbourhood PB exercises, interest in how PB could support citizen involvement in ‘taking tough decisions’ about allocating reduced resources began to grow. This shift closely mirrors Lambeth’s own PB experience and thinking.

What is the role of officers in the process?
Officers are involved in supporting community reps to develop ideas and advising on feasibility/technical issues and processes. Strong political leadership and direction to ‘make it happen’ helped minimise obstacles and the role of officers became that of ‘enablers of community action’. Alderman Moore spoke of a shift in expectations that officers should “not saying no, but finding ways to help people say yes”.

How were costs for project proposals calculated?
The calculation of costs are done through discussions between officers – who act as technical advisors – and community reps working on developing ideas. The process has highlighted the great variation in costs across different projects and public agencies. This has been useful in demonstrating where efficiencies can be made and helped to address some of these inconsistencies.

Using PB has generated a number of new projects that have never been done before, so officers have had to develop processes and ways to deliver them. This takes time, but it also encourages innovation and collaboration.

What about the risks of deciding to hand control over to citizens?
“I decided to take a leap of faith” – Alderman Joe Moore.

The process has delivered strong social capital outcomes which straddle political, cultural and ethnic differences. PB is a good thing to do in times of austerity as it starts a conversation about trade-offs and tensions and increases people’s understanding of the realities of resource allocation taking place.

But of course, things can go wrong and the process is not without some risk, as Adrian Short highlighted, writing about the recent PB experience in Sutton. It is my belief that sufficient rigour can be designed in to the process to reduce these sorts of risks…but only if we understand what they are and how to mitigate against them happening. I’ll leave the last word to Alderman Joe Moore, of Chicago’s 49th District:

Of course there is a degree of uncertainty but the process has delivered real benefits in my community.”

A much more comprehensive set of questions and answers has been produced by the United Nations Habitat Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat), which can be found here:


Steps along the same path – Participatory Budgeting and Cooperative Council

Lambeth recently hosted the visit of two Participatory Budgeting experts from the US, as part of a study tour organised by Church Action on Poverty, as the culmination of their People’s Budget campaign. Josh Lerner, from the North American PB Project and Alderman Joe Moore, from Chicago met with elected members and senior officers at a roundtable event hosted by Leader Cllr. Lib Peck. 

The event provided an opportunity to hear first hand how PB is developing in the US and Canada and how it related to Lambeth’s ambitions to become a cooperative council. What I found particularly fascinating was to hear from an elected representative about their experience of ‘handing over power’ to citizens to determine how funding should be allocated to support local activity. The concept of citizens having far greater power in decision making is central to the vision of Coop Council and, like PB, is based on the underlying belief that the more people are involved in decision making the better the outcomes will be.

Alderman Moore described how after many years of determining how the discretionary capital improvement fund allocated to his Ward should be spent, 4 years ago he decided to adopt a PB approach and hand back $1m to local people to decide how to spend it. It was, in his own words ‘a leap of faith’. The first step was to introduce the idea of PB and also to tell people that there was this discretionary budget available (which many people were unaware of). An initial event, attended by around 70 people, brought together community leaders from the Ward – residents groups, school governors, faith leaders, ethnic community leaders and community groups. 

From this initial meeting around 40 people expressed interest in getting involved in helping to shape the process for allocating the money through PB. Over the next 7 months this group, working with Josh (and drawing on learning from PB in other areas) began to develop their approach. 

Meetings were held throughout the Ward where the idea for PB was set out and the parameters explained – the budget is specifically for capital improvement: no to more police officers (however good an idea that was) and yes to street improvement.

Towards the end of these meetings small groups began to brainstorm ideas that they would like to see happening and these were fed back to the rest of the group. Participants were asked if they were interested in becoming volunteers for the project – acting as community reps to further develop ideas – exploring costings, feasibility, scope etc. The ideas were then placed on a ballot paper and people voted for them. 

Two key modifications were made to the usual rules for voting in local elections; firstly the voting age was reduced from 18 to 16 to allow young people to participate. Secondly, there was no requirement to be registered to vote, people were simply required to prove that they lived in the area.

Over 1,500 people voted in the inaugural voting assembly. The results were markedly different from how the budget had been allocated the previous year, as the chart below illustrate. The significant difference between how Alderman Moore had perceived community needs and aspirations and what the community actually wanted was immediately obvious. 


Whilst street resurfacing had received 61% of the budget prior to the introduction of PB, when it was introduced, the community voted to allocate just 7% of the budget. The street resurfacing figure did increase in subsequent years to near pre-PB levels, as ideas for community projects started to receive funding; Alderman Moore has never looked back. It was also clear that the PB process generated ideas for projects that had never been done (or thought of) before.

Handing over decision making power over discretionary funding to citizens may feel quite different to giving citizens greater control over every aspect of the council’s activity. However it is important to recognise the journey that we are on in realising the Coop Council ambition. Lambeth’s residents and the council both need to gain confidence in a new way of working that establishes a more equal approach to coproducing improved outcomes for the whole community. PB may not be a panacea and it cannot be the total of our ambition, but it does offer a way of engaging residents in a more honest, transparent and knowledgeable debate about the difficult challenges faced. It offers a tangible step towards coop and one that will demonstrate our intention in a very practical way.

Find out more about the PB tour, including presentations from Josh Lerner and Joe Moore and videos of PB in action in Chicago and New York.


50 ways to save money? More like 50 ways to piss me off!

I’ve been mulling over whether to bother writing this post. While the publication of DCLG’s ‘50 ways to save – Examples of sensible savings in local government’ made me incredibly irritated, I’m not sure it warrants expending any energy on it…but I can’t stop being cross about it, so I’ve finally succumbed to responding.

The ideas Eric Pickles and his team put forward are a heady mixture of obvious, patronising, inconsequential, offensive, very occasionally sensible and downright bonkers. Here’s my response to some of the highlights:

1. Share back office services – Just like DCLG and all the other central government departments do, right? Nope. Two-thirds of councils already do share back office services.

2. Community Budgets – Bring staff and money together – This one may have some merit, but it’s a government programme and only involves a handful of authorities. I suggest DCLG roll it out quickly.

3. Use transparency to cut waste – publish your spending online and get volunteer ‘armchair auditors’ to do the work of the audit commission.

4. Tackle duplicate payments – stop paying people twice? Great idea. Why didn’t I think of that?

5. Clamp down on corporate charge cards – they suggest greater financial controls on credit cards. But hang on, don’t the government set the rules on financial controls? If they aren’t tight enough, why don’t they just tighten them up?

6. Special spending controls – effectively, we’ll save money by have more people signing off on spending money.

7. Tackle fraud – another staggering statement of the bleeding-obvious. I’m sure there’s not a finance director anywhere who has thought of that.

8. Claw back money from benefit cheats – funny how there’s nothing in here about clawing back money from white collar fraud, or unscrupulous banks in here. Hmmmm.

9. Get more for less by improving procurement – how many of Whitehall’s finest were needed to come up with this one? I must abandon my own plans for worsening procurement straight away.

10. Buy together – okay. I can accept that collective purchasing could save some money.

11. Stop the scope for procurement fraud – if the Government weren’t so anti-regulation, maybe they’d act to stop this directly, rather than suggesting others do it.

12. Utilise £16 billion of reserves creatively – woohoo! A sensible idea.

13. Improve council tax collection rates – see no.9 & replace the last bit with ‘worsening collection rates’

14. Encourage direct debit and e-billing for council tax – and don’t worry about further excluding all those people who can’t get bank accounts.

15. Close council cash offices – and turn them into ‘gold offices’? they seem to be doing really well on the high streets, after all.

16. Better land and property management – that’s something government are really great at.

17. Hot-desking, estate rationalisation and sub-letting – who’s renting all that empty space at Eland House (DCLG’s offices) then?

18. Open a ‘pop up’ shop in spare office space – DCLG have had whole floors empty for well over a year. Coulda popped up a whole lot earlier, or did you only just think of this one?

19. Close subsidised council canteens – like the subsidised bars in Parliament? No, thought not…our MPs and Lords deserve a cheap glass of Chablis after a hard days law-making.

20. Cancel away days in posh hotels and glitzy award ceremonies – I know, it’s impossible to get a room in a posh hotel these days with all the local government officials staying there.

21. Open a coffee shop in the library – don’t worry about that £80 black hole in your budget, you can open a coffee shop in the library (which you can’t afford to keep open) and everything will be okay.

22. Cut senior pay – even better make anyone with any experience and knowledge redundant and you can just employ junior officials on half the salaries. That’s worked marvellously at DCLG. [NB this comment does not mean I believe no senior officials are overpaid!]

23. Share senior staff – see 22. Actually, while I think of it…with all the cuts to public sector spending going on, why do we need so many Ministers being paid salaries and with staff to support them? Shouldn’t we cut the number of Ministers by, say, 20% too?

24. Scrapping the chief executive post entirely – okay and do we really need so many Ministers? Can we scrap some of them too? Especially with this whole localism agenda, surely decisions are now taken locally…so why do we need the same numbers of Ministers?

25. Introduce a recruitment freeze – and do what exactly when people leave?

26. Freeze councillor allowances and end councillor pensions – yup, we only want to have councillors who can afford to do it for free. “even Ministers have cut Ministerial salaries” we’re proudly told. Yes, because they’re all millionaires who don’t need the money.

27. Cut spending on consultants and agency staff – yeah, because no local authorities are doing that.

28. End expensive ’leadership’ courses – obviously Common Purpose have pissed off someone at DCLG and are now getting a dig. Aside from that, we don’t need any training or any leadership anyway…obviously.

29. Cut spending on head hunters and expensive adverts – now I do think some of these firms charge extortionate rates for not very much. But I’m not sure that the advice to just advertise online is gonna be the answer. Reading this line – “publish job vacancy information online as open data instead” – I can only assume that someone thought that if they included ‘open data’ in there it’d make it sound cool and meaningful. *sigh*

30. Review and reduce absenteeism – Staffordshire Council may have saved £100,000 a month by “providing support for staff with musculoskeletal problems” but I’m sure that HR departments up and down the country think this idea is a Christmas present come early…I can hear the uniform cries of “why didn’t we think of that?” from town halls across the land.

31. Scrap trade union posts – I simply cannot believe that this blatant union bashing is being offered up as a serious recommendation by a government department. Describing union officials as ‘non-jobs’ is highly subjective and philosophically motivated. Don’t mince your words, just tell us what you think.

32. Charge for collecting trade union subscriptions – and improve industrial relations in the process. Sure to save bucket loads of money, as you can charge what you want, so it’s bound to well worth pissing people off to do it.

33. Stop spending money on commercial lobbyists –at last, something I can wholeheartedly endorse. Ah, but hang on, councils are already told not to in DCLG’s own guidance. Errr, maybe the government should just deal with any councils that aren’t following this.

34. Stop translating documents into foreign languages – yeah, sure. Why waste money making sure people can understand what you’re saying. Come to think of it, maybe that explains why government publishes so much gobbledygook! I thought it was just because they can’t do ‘plain English’, but maybe it’s a deliberate ploy to stop people understanding?

35. Reduce the number of publications and media monitoring – makes perfect sense not to pay to find out what people think of you, if you don’t care what people think of you. Simples.

36. Earn more from private advertising – oh, brilliant. That should sort out the £60m savings we need to make to our budget. And I’m sure putting adverts on town hall noticeboards (as suggested) is bound to raise morale and make for a greater sense of civic pride.

37. Cease funding ‘sock puppets’ and ‘fake charities’ – anyone who quotes the IEA’s outrageously poor report on charities’ dependent on the state deserves to be put in the corner with a big dunce hat on. It was ridiculous when it was published and it’s not aged well. I won’t waste any more time on this crap.

38. Scrap the town hall Pravda – quick, someone tell the comms department that we need to change the name of newsletter, Eric is on to us. For god’s sake. Referring to Pravda only serves to highlight how ridiculously partisan and politically motivated this rubbish is.

39. Stop providing free food and drink for meetings – now, I don’t expect to be fed and watered by the state, but things at DCLG have got quite ridiculous to the point that staff are buying biscuits out of their own pockets because they’re embarrassed to sit in a room with a bunch of people they’ve invited to come for a 4 hour meeting over lunchtime and they can just about rustle up a glass of water (if you’re lucky).

40. Reduce first class travel – sensible…but is there really any evidence that we have public servants across the land travelling first class?

41. Cut mileage payments – we’re told councils spent £400m on mileage allowances and that some authorities are paying more than the HMRC figure. Okay, sort it. move on. Even better, don’t let staff out the town hall – nail them to their chairs and they’ll be even more productive.

42. Video conference instead of travel – bingo!

43. Help the voluntary sector save you money – by calling them fake charities and stopping their funding (see 37).

44. Cut printing costs – I’ve no real problem with digital by default, as long as you ensure that people who don’t have access to the internet aren’t excluded. We’re not anywhere near that point…so until then we’re going to have to print a fair bit.

45. End lifestyle and equality questionnaires – yeah, being old or disabled is a lifestyle choice, so let’s stop  worrying about it. And telling councils they don’t need to spend time and money on Equality Impact Assessments is another politically motivated attack on vulnerable groups. Charming.

46. Sell services – if the picture of councils painted by these suggestions is anywhere close to the mark, there’s clearly so little business acumen in local government as to make this suggestion laughable. And even if there were now’s bound to be the best time to launch a new business. Or perhaps it means councils should charge for public services? Hmmm….isn’t that what our taxes are for?

47. Hire out the town hall – and retire to the Bahamas. Another one no one has ever thought of doing….ever.

48. Lease works of art not on display – to make money?

49. Save money on computer software – go back to chalk and slates

50. And finally… ask your staff for more sensible savings ideas – unless you work at DCLG, in which case, I probably wouldn’t bother.


Merry bloomin Christmas, to quote Raymond Briggs!

Help for citizens in hard times, or just a load of rubbish (collection)?

George Osborne’s announcement in his speech at the Conservative Party conference that he was making £805m available to local authorities to freeze council tax in 2012-13 comes fast on the heels of news that Eric Pickles has found £250m for councils that maintain weekly bin collections. These are, as the Chancellor reminded us ‘challenging times’ and money is tight. That over £1bn has been found over the last few days might seem amazing, but find it they have.

The decision to offer local authorities cash to freeze council tax, a continuation of arrangements for the current year (2011-12) has been presented as evidence that “this government is absolutely committed to helping people through these times”. Putting to one side the fact that this will save the average person just £72, there is at least some evidence to suggest that the ‘help’ offered to citizens will actually be negligible.

The council where I live, the London Borough of Barnet, has for some time been committed to avoiding any increase in council tax. So it was hardly a surprise that they – like every single local authority in the country – decided to freeze bills for 2011-12. So far so good.

But with council funding severely cut, their budget has been put under great strain and so (again like every other local authority) they have been trying to find ways to balance the books. Efficiencies have been sought, costs cut and services reduced, but that appears not to have been enough. So attention has turned to ways of boosting income – charging more for some services, or introducing charges for things that had previously been free.

Barnet’s leadership, in another display of support for the government, have maintained their commitment to weekly bin collections. So the Environment and Operations Directorate – the team responsible for parks, open spaces, waste, recycling and residents parking – have sought to raise revenue rather than cut costs. What this has meant for hard pressed citizens is an increase of 400% in resident parking charges – wiping out the entire saving of a council tax freeze in one fell swoop.

I’ve also been told of by the organisers of a community festival being told that the cost of hiring the park was going up from £140 to £3,500. That is an eye watering increase of 2,500%! This community festival has been running in the area for 100 years and is surely the embodiment of Big Society – something Barnet are allegedly very keen to support (though perhaps no one told the Parks Department?)

I don’t mean to unfairly single out Barnet for particular criticism, I suspect there are many others doing similar things. I just happen to see in more detail what happens in Barnet – as an individual citizen as well as the perspective I get from my work. Nor do I wish to bash local government – there are plenty of others unhelpfully doing that already. I am a strong supporter of local government and I have been critical of the government’s lack of support for councils – particularly the decision to front-load cuts to their budget in the Spending Review. I can also see a strong argument for providing additional funding for local authorities (particularly to help them protect services to the most vulnerable and maintain support for civil society). However, what I do take exception to is presenting this funding as ‘support for cash strapped households’ when (at least in some instances) there will be no benefit to citizens.

As for Mr Pickles and his bin fetish, I cannot understand why the ministerial custodian of localism has such an obsession with maintaining weekly refuse collections. The Secretary of State is clearly entitled to create financial incentives for certain activity – just as local authorities should have the freedom to accept or reject them. However, in view of the fiscal climate and the huge range of challenges facing local authorities, I do not understand the prioritising of weekly bin collections over anything else.

Is there really a person in the land who thinks that weekly bin collections are the number one priority faced by local authorities? Are citizens having sleepless nights about their bins, rather than job security, pensions, health or education?  I know there are some effective advocates who are campaigning to protect weekly collections, but I’ve not heard any of them say it was the priority we face today.

£250m is not, in the scheme of things, a huge amount of money for government. Nonetheless it would, as Simon Parker from New Local Government Network pointed out, pay for the residential or nursing care for 9,335 elderly people for a year. More significant is the signal is sends out, which is at best confusing and at worst downright damaging.

We must take a risk on Community Organisers

The Cabinet Office announced on Saturday that the contract to deliver the Community Organisers programme was being awarded to a consortium led by Locality (the organisation created by the merger of bassac and DTA).  Putting to one side the fact they chose to do this on a Saturday, the announcement was met with a mixed response in the media. The Daily Mail took an apparently unique line in referring to community organisers as a ‘platoon of paid bureaucrats’. Some responses were quizzical – looking at the programme as some curiosity in a freak-show, other reports were welcoming and positive.


Citizens UK, one of the leading practitioners of Alinsky-style community organising, and the organisation many had expected to win the contract, were quick to issue a statement expressing their surprise at not having won the bid. To be fully transparent, I should point out that Urban Forum are a partner in the Locality consortium, but we were also supporters of the Citizens UK-led partnership too.  I am less surprised than Citizens UK by the outcome of the commissioning process – though the decision is not quite as ‘done and dusted’ as is being suggested. If you read the small-print in the Cabinet Office press release you will see this is ‘a provisional announcement pending the completion of the procurement processes. Nonetheless I expect this is merely a formality to be concluded.


The Community Organisers programme is an inherently risky thing for government to commission. I have written previously that it represents a deliberate attempt to inject ‘creative disruptors’ into communities to shake things up and to challenge the status quo. My assessment is that without this disruption the government’s ambition for public service transformation and the Big Society agenda will be thwarted by vested interest, much as New Labour’s neighbourhood renewal goals to ‘narrow the gap’ were impeded. The government are commissioning this ‘neighbourhood army’ without too much idea of what the impact will be and without control over what they do. This is to be applauded. However, such a degree of inherent risk is not typical for public sector procurement officers (or Ministers). It is entirely rational therefore, for the commissioners of the programme to seek to minimise all other risks (that they can manage or mitigate against) in awarding the contract. So I believe that the Cabinet Office would have looked more favourably on a bid from an organisation with a track record of delivering major government programmes to time and on budget. In this respect, Citizens UK’s tradition of not accepting government money would have counted against them, and Locality’s experience would have been seen as a definite advantage. This is not a judgement on the relative quality of either bid, simply an observation of government’s procurement processes.


However I think that there are other factors at play here. Since the Conservatives first published their Big Society policy paper before the election, where they first mentioned community organising, I believe there has been a something of a shift in their thinking. Their initial plans referred explicitly to Saul Alinsky’s model of community organising. It is unclear to me whether, at the time, they were aware of other models of community organising, such as the equally effective approach based on the work of Paulo Friere. I also think, that in searching for new ideas whilst in opposition, they hadn’t thought particularly about what to do with ‘the old ideas’, in particular the role of community development (which I have described as being a ‘close relative’ of community organising) and participatory appraisal.


Once in government, Ministers and civil servants began to unpick the manifesto commitment and to begin to turn it into a deliverable programme (a challenge that political strategist Stan Greenberg has said often sees new governments becoming unstuck). I was not alone in emphasising to Ministers and officials that any successful community organising programme needed to accommodate different approaches. Different circumstances require different approaches and Alinsky, Friere, participatory appraisal and community development all have their part to play. I think that the Cabinet Office have taken this on board and have latterly taken a broader view of community organising. Indeed this was reflected in the programme tender specification where Friere and Alinsky were mentioned. I think this is a welcome development as we need more than one tool in our toolbox to support community action and deliver positive social change.


There remain however a number of risks facing the programme.


The first is the intense scrutiny on the programme from sceptics and supporters alike (and from across the political spectrum). On one side, supporters of the programme have incredibly high expectations, and there is a risk that community organisers will be seen as a panacea for all social ills. Not only is this (clearly) unrealistic, I believe it is also indicative of civil society’s growing unease with the Big Society agenda in the face of cuts that damage the foundations on which Big Society might be built. On the other hand, the sceptics are watching closely, no doubt in the hope that the programme spectacularly implodes.

Developing and delivering a programme under such intense scrutiny poses a major challenge to Locality, and they will need all their experience and political nous to deliver on the programme’s considerable potential. But I wholeheartedly believe that they will pull it off and I have complete confidence, both in Locality and in Regenerate, who will provide the training for the community organisers. We have worked closely with Regenerate for a number of years (indeed they are long-standing Urban Forum members and partners) and the feedback from local groups in areas where they’ve worked has been consistently positive.


The other challenge that needs to be addressed is engaging local government and in particular local councillors with the programme. It will be far harder to be successful without local government being on board, and at present there is relatively little knowledge of what the programme is and how local government should respond to it. Thankfully SOLACE has begun to address this and to develop a local government-led response to Big Society (including my own piece on community organisers). But there is still much work to do in raising awareness of the programme and responding to the fears and concerns of elected members. Community organisers will need the support of local councillors (or at the very least, their task will be far harder without them!), to unlock doors, to overcome barriers, to direct resources and to ground community action in our democratic institutions and processes.


The Community Organisers programme represents the best shot we’ve had for many years to bring about change in deprived communities and to tackle deep-rooted problems in a bottom-up way. Yes, there will be challenges and no doubt some areas will embrace the programme more effectively than others. We will need to ensure that the programme engages and supports the less powerful to gain power and influence. The programme cannot simply reinforce or exacerbate the current inequalities that are currently so damaging to society. Without becoming overly dogmatic and purist about what community organising means, we must also protect it from being bastardised and stolen from us. Indeed there are already signs that the opportunists are appropriating the language of community organisers to give themselves a new veneer of community-led social change. And we need to move quickly and urgently…..from the announcement on Saturday the clock started ticking and have only a short space of time to deliver real, substantive, transformative change.


Despite these challenges we must embrace the potential that community organisers bring, allow the programme to develop and to give local communities the opportunity to positively disrupt!



Toby Blume

Chief Executive 

Urban Forum 




Big Society – challenges and survival strategies – #bigsociety #localgov

A short film of my speech at the South West Empowerment Partnership’s Big Society conference.

My take on what Big Society is, what the challenges is poses are and how we can take advantage of the opportunities it offers.



Toby Blume

Chief Executive

Urban Forum