In defence of community development officers

You’ve seen the headlines:

‘Council wastes YOUR money on politically-correct non-jobs’

‘Read this and GET ANGRY!’

Even ministers have gotten in on the act. One of the much-maligned posts is that of the community development officer. This post is in defence of them – made all the more stark by the recent events (at the time of posting – early August 2011) in North London.

I met a number of community development officers during my time in the Whitehall, and saw first hand the excellent work that they do. For those of you wondering what this entails, have a look at the Local Government Association’s description, & a profile at The Independent. In a nutshell, these are people who are often the first line of contact for the people living in communities the former are based in. More often than not, they are based in areas that suffer from a number of problems – such as high crime rates, poor levels of health/life expectancy, high unemployment and low levels of educational attainment. In some cases there may be problems of ‘community cohesion’ – different groups of people who, for whatever reason having problems getting on with each other.

Quite often, community development officers are fighting against problems that are far outside of their control – things like poor quality housing stock, segregated communities and schools and local stigmas against the area they are based in from the wider town or city because they are seen as ‘bad’ areas.

Like any profession, an excellent community development officer is worth more than their weight in gold. The problem facing community development officers is that a lot of their work is “preventative” – thus making it difficult to measure the impacts that they are having day-to-day. This makes them easy targets for cuts – especially in these times. How does a community development worker fight for his or her job and demonstrate value for money when their main output is improving the quality of life for people in the communities that they work in? What does a community development worker do when a council, housing association or charity decides it can no longer pay for the upkeep of the facilities that they are based in? As I type this, the TV news channel is broadcasting the comments of a number of people talking about the impact of the closing youth clubs.

Ten years ago, at the time of the race-riots in the North of England, I asked a taxi driver who also worked part-time for a youth charity what he thought should be done. “Reopen all of the youth clubs. Give the kids something to do!” was his response. He wasn’t justifying or excusing what was happening then, just as commentators and the wider public need to acknowledge that trying to understand why civil disturbances happen is NOT the same as excusing violence or law-breaking. This is what people need to bear in mind with the events in North London.

The community development officer that I learnt many things from was Maxine Moar, who spent much of the past decade based in Oldham picking up the pieces after problems there in the early 2000s. I met her during my time in the civil service – of which she was to later join on secondment after winning a Home Office award for her work. Like myself, both of us have now left the public sector on the back of the cuts – which just goes to show how even the best public sector workers are vulnerable to the cuts. And she’s just one of many.

It was through Maxine that I was able to meet a number of current and former police officers who, for all the problems being faced by the Metropolitan Police, are the final port of call when things go wrong. What I learnt was ‘an education’ to say the least. I’m glad to say that I’m still in touch with her – and no, she hasn’t paid me to write this either. (At the time of posting, she wasn’t aware I was blogging on this – which is a bit naughty of me – sorry Maxine!)

It’s a shame the civil service doesn’t take on more community development officers and other frontline workers into its ranks – and ditto with civil servants going the other way. Unfortunately with the scale of the cuts to the public sector, it will be several years before any systematic movement of frontline staff into and out of Whitehall can happen as recruitment freezes and restructures are orders of the day. I’ve found that bringing people with frontline experience into a policy-making environment amongst other things reduces the likelihood of policy-makers making the mistakes of the past, and leads to improved policy-making overall.

The challenge for the public sector is whether it can link up together to ensure that movement of people to and from Whitehall and the frontline becomes a matter of course rather than having a system of ad-hoc secondments that individuals who just happen to be motivated enough to do have to fight for.


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