I wrote an article for the National Community Activist Network – tweeting through @NationalCAN – a voluntary network I was introduced to by Joe Taylor and Maxine Moar – the latter of whom I used to work with during my civil service days.
“During my time in the civil service I met enough stakeholders to make my working environment a vampire-free zone. Being on the receiving end of such lobbying gave me more than an interesting insight into how policy is made, how concessions are granted and how much control ministers really have. I also learned about some of the restrictions organisations – charities in particular, are under in their campaigning.
The three ‘shocks to the system’ what was the Voluntary and Community Sector (VCS), now the Civil Society Sector faces.
- Political change on the back of the general election in 2010
- The Programme of cuts brought in by the Coalition – one that essentially cost me my job and career
- The on-going economic crisis – or crises as we lurch from one to another.
“If you gave us a grant of £xx,xxxx we could do this really great stuff, Minister!”
“Sounds good – I’ll get my officials onto it!”
The above isn’t the recollection of a conversation, but if you are a minister who wants to see good things delivered, and you have a team of civil servants working for you, you can see how a conversation like the above could happen.
The problem ministers can have – especially those who have little experience of how large organisations function – is that they may not be aware of ‘due process’. Having sound systems and processes for assessing grant application forms and the procurement of goods and services means that ministers are not in a position to hand out taxpayers’ money to their friends – whichever sector they may be in.
Organisations that may have spent many years cultivating relationships with the Labour Party found themselves having to cultivate very quickly working relationships with the Conservatives, and also (and perhaps more unexpectedly) the Liberal Democrats. How do you go about earning the respect of other political parties when perhaps you are too closely associated to one?
The cuts ultimately cost me my job and career. There is a lot of hurt, pain and anger out there with a lot of people who have found themselves in similar positions. The nature of the cuts in terms of size and manner have caused more than a few difficulties for people working in the field of community activism and community development – in part because its their budgets that are at particular risk from local council cuts. How do you react?
The crisis of economics
Some of you may be aware that I studied economics at university. Such is the scale of the crisis that I cannot recall anything in any of the textbooks that points to a solution to what we are facing. This for me is reflected in ‘the impotence of politics’ to deal with it too. Given the current levels of unemployment – including the devastatingly high levels of youth unemployment, it’s not just the lack of jobs that is a problem, it is the feeling of a lack of hope for the future too.
How should community activists respond?
I genuinely do not know – and I guess there are more than a number of people in a similar situation. There are however, a number of things to be aware of in the debates that you are all having. They are:
Decentralisation: The days of large programmes administered from Whitehall are over for the foreseeable future. It’s not just because of shrinking budgets but also a view from the Coalition (underpinned by the Localism Act 2011) that ministers should not be micromanaging communities from Whitehall – hence the general power of competence (an explanation of which was provided to Parliament by the Dept for Communities and Local Government). This indicates that relationships with local authorities will become more important, and the opportunities to seek ministerial intervention (e.g. to ‘direct’ a local authority to do something) will reduce.
Outsourcing: The delivery of public services by other providers is something that we are likely to see more of as public bodies seek to cut costs further. Amongst other things this means being vigilant about the spending decisions of local authorities and other public sector bodies, ensuring that local people can feed into any proposals to outsource services. This in part also means educating people about how their councils work, because it may not be immediately clear as to what outsourcing will mean to people on the ground.
Use of social media: Social media is providing people with huge opportunities to make themselves heard, learn new things and meeting new people. My life seems to be spent entirely on it. That said, it is not a magic wand to solving problem. There are a number of pitfalls and challenges including:
- The rules of engagement – the conventions of social media are still evolving. What may feel like a conversation down the pub to some may be something far more serious to others – such as law enforcement agencies. It goes without saying that media outlets are now sourcing stories from social media. Be careful to ensure that you don’t make the headlines for the wrong reasons. For those of you in work, have a look at the guidance from ACAS to see what a social media policy should cover.
- Not everyone is using social media – some may have made the conscious decision to avoid social media. Whatever social media activities you do, ensure that you are not forgetting those who are not ‘connected’. For those of you who are training people to use social media, the best thing you can do for people is to connect them to other users with similar interests. Give them a reason to check their accounts and use them regularly
- Use a small number of accounts but use them well. There are a huge number of social media platforms out there. The risk is to sign up to lots and use them fleetingly – the result of which can lead to sporadic rather than consistent and continuous engagement. Think of having lots of social media accounts as like having lots of telephone numbers. Which one do you use?”
For those of you wanting to debate how community activists can respond to both the cuts and the bad economic climate, have a look at what people have said on the forums page.