Monday, August 23, 2010

Using lessons from extremism for the Big Society

Unfortunately, extremists and those who hate are often good at organising people to engage in collective action. In some ways, extremists are mastering aspects of the Big Society agenda for the wrong goals. They use social media, common causes and collective action to divide societies.

Take extreme organisations such as Islam4UK and the English Defence League (EDL) – they are often very good at bringing people together to address what they deem to be ‘social problems’, such as immigration and democratic participation. For example, the EDL has been effective at using social meeting to get hundreds of people involved in ‘street protests’, with damaging consequences.

Organisations that seek to counter extremism, and find positive alternatives for those who are vulnerable to extremism, such as the Active Change Foundation (who OPM have worked with on several projects), often argue that what they do is turn the methods of extremists on their head by promoting collective action and social bonding for positive rather than destructive goals.

Extremists famously take their members out for outward bound activities to create a bonding environment, as do charities that work with vulnerable people, but in this case to stop people engaging in extremism. Similarly, our work supporting the Young Muslim’s Advisory Group has highlighted the value of building social media infrastructure that allow groups to communicate internally and develop a stronger sense of shared purpose. It’s a case of ‘using their own methods against them’.

Those working on things that fall within the Big Society agenda, which focuses on developing a new generation of active citizens and community organisers, need think about how they can use positive alternatives to those used by extremists, such as outward bounds activities, social media and collective social protest.

OPM is working with Catch 22 to produce a paper that explores examples of good practice in community organising in which we will explore these concepts further.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Addressing grievances through the Big Society

With the Government likely to significantly reconstruct, if not entirely dismantle, the Preventing Violent Extremism Programme, it is important to consider what role the Big Society agenda can play in mitigating the risks of people becoming extreme or involved in violent extremism.

There are a range of risk factors associated with the process of radicalisation – the journey people take to become involved in extremist activity – that can be present in communities and provide the oxygen on which extremism thrives. One of these is the problem of grievances held by individuals, groups and sometimes whole communities who perceive that their values or way of life is under attack. Most extremist groups, whether the English Defense League representing far right extremism, or Al Qaeda representing violent extremism in Islam, exploit real or perceived grievances. These include grievances about immigration, housing allocation, foreign policy and the role of the police in undertaking stop and search.

So what can be done to enable people to address these grievances, challenge extremist exploitation and diffuse the tensions that this can generate? And in what way can the Big Society agenda contribute?

Recently, as part of the evaluation of the charity Creativity, Culture and Education’s (CCE) Prevent Programme, we assessed the impact of a range of projects, which give people time to explore and analyse grievances in a safe environment. Called Your Thoughts with Mine, CCE funded a number of community dialogues, which brought together of mix of local people to discuss a range of difficult and complex issues, including racism and extremism. The events were well received, and participants spoke of how they were able to explore complex issues from a range of perspectives.

Community dialogues like this can be a powerful way of building awareness, understanding and knowledge of critical social issues, help people understand the viewpoints of others, and provide powerful arguments to help people counter grievances. And the Big Society, as an engine for community engagement and empowerment, can maximize these types of opportunities in communities.

There is scope for the community groups that are to be created and supported under the Big Society to engage residents in dialogue on a range of complex and sensitive issues, such as the role of police, Islamaphobia or the impact of immigration. With the help of trained and experienced facilitators to provide a constructive platform for conversation, an increased use of community dialogues could not only help to reduce grievances as a risk factor for extremism, but also encourage more unified communities that are ready to respond to the demands of the Big Society itself.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Big questions for The Big Society: What role for local government?

In the preceding months and weeks, many discussions about the Big Society have been taking place at OPM.   Early indications from central government – particularly the promise of a general power of competence for local authorities – point to a need for local councils to articulate their role in developing the Big Society.  It seems likely that councils will need to start by mapping local voluntary sector capacity and interest in relation to different areas of service provision.

From what little the government has revealed about the Big Society, it is clear that local government will need a developed understanding of local community organisations and their capacity to deliver particular services or share decision-making powers (or some combination of the two).  Altering delivery models for ‘hard edged’ services like childrens’ and adult social care will likely be seen as most risky, while it is easier to envisage how local parks, leisure facilities, museums and libraries could see greater involvement from volunteers, perhaps from existing ‘friends of’-type groups.  When mapping local voluntary sector capacity and interest in building the Big Society, councils will need to begin by asking the following:

By Chris Reed, OPM research assistant and Rob Francis, OPM associate fellow.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The Collaborative City

This report launches the London Collaborative. It reflects its analysis and thinking about the key challenges for London and sets the scene for involving stakeholders in discussions about the most productive areas for collaboration.