Citizens’ Organising is immensely powerful in the United States but is not established in the UK. However, I suspect many development workers pick and mix insights from citizens’ organising and so it has not been without influence.
You can find out more about the history and background to Citizens’ Organising, including some reference works in my post Citizens’ Organising.
I took Citizens’ Organising leaders’ training in 1992. Whilst I had issues with their whole package, much of what I learned has been helpful in my community development practice. The method is not written down anywhere because citizens’ organising is passed from practitioner to practitioner; by mentoring not study. Be aware there are sound reasons for this.
Some Basic Citizens’ Organising Concepts
Organising starts with the churches. Why? Because churches are there for the long haul. In disadvantaged communities they can be the only institutions that maintain a presence. (While it is true that in the UK, churches are often the last institutions to leave some estates, the churches overall have less influence in the UK. There are fewer of them, fewer people involved and therefore they are less financially robust. Leaving aside any reservations churches may have about being involved in Citizens’ Organising, the reality is their presence is nowhere near as decisive as it is in the United States. It is hard to think of any other organisation that could take on the role in the UK.)
- Organising depends upon power analysis. The statutory, private and professional voluntary sectors access power through organised money. Community organisations cannot do this, as they have no money, so they access power through organised people. (In the UK, the grants industry usually drives community development. Citizens’ Organising in my city went down the road of applying for grants, presumably because it couldn’t generate the income it needed from its members’ dues. This had two effects: it subtly changed their approach. They made demands on community organisations that should have been their allies and failed to build a sustainable movement and so eventually closed.)
- Contributions from member organisations are the sole source of funding for Citizens’ organisations. This guarantees independence, as grant aid means they become beholden to donor organisations. Citizens’ organisations must unambiguously represent the interests of their members. (This is perhaps the fatal dilemma for Citizens’ Organising in the UK. With less potential for support from the churches, it cannot generate sufficient income from membership dues. This not only means they are prone to become beholden to grant making bodies but also they are unable to build a citizens’ movement. In grant dependent culture, organisations normally receive money to pay for community development and do not pay for it themselves.)
- Power tempered by love. Power is collectively exercised and used in a disciplined way that marginalises no-one. (In the UK, power language is somehow extreme.)A
- Anger and self-interest motivate the people involved. Anger energises leaders and ensures things get done. Self-interest is where I understand I benefit when I work for the benefit of others and so it is the wellspring of mutuality. (Words like anger and self-interest are not commonly used of community activities in the UK. Community is about people working together and so conflict is frowned upon. In reality, community organisations (and churches) are often battlegrounds because people do not know how to resolve conflict. Citizen’s Organising offers the structures organisations need to resolve conflict and help organised citizens be more effective. Whilst it is possible to use some of these insights they are not generally understood.)
- Leaders never occupy any position in the organisation for more than one year. They develop their skills by moving between positions and not remaining in them. This way they pick up new challenges and make space for others who pick up their old responsibilities. (Whilst UK groups do talk about succession, the most common reason is fear of losing the current leader. A lot of the conflict within organisations is because they become ‘self-perpetuating oligarchies’ and one reason for this is most organisations do not take seriously the training and education of their members for leadership. This is surprisingly common in the UK and indeed many churches face similar issues. Perhaps the best known failure to bring on the next generation of leaders is the current leadership election in the Labour Party. (They are enacting the consequences in the full glare of the media although all parties face similar difficulties.))
- They work by ensuring people with power, eg local politicians, business people, church leaders, etc are accountable through their own aims. (And this is something not generally understood. The first recourse needs to be to the aims of the organisation that is using power to the disadvantage of our communities. Malice does not motivate most institutions but they often act in self-defeating ways. This is often caused by failure of their own leaders who lose touch with their organisation’s purpose.)
- Citizens’ Organisations have no permanent friends or enemies, the aim is always to develop relationships. (This insight has become better known in the UK. Properly understood, it helps community organisations enter into genuine partnerships, helping powerful institutions meet their objectives locally. Where it is not understood, groups collude to make cosmetic changes and do not address deeper drivers of disadvantage.)
So, in Britain we have not yet developed an approach to organising that suits our own culture. I’m not sure it is possible if the churches are unable to provide support equivalent to churches in the US.
How would you apply these principles in the UK? Use comments to tell me what influence organising has had in your community. Perhaps you live somewhere where there is still a citizens’ organisation. If so, how do you fund it?