News and Comment

The more people know about the Prevent strategy, the more they are likely to support it

Friday 13 September 2013

The recent attacks in once again Woolwich reminded us about the threat posed by violent extremism (a subject which we have written about recently). In response to these events, the Government has convened a new Tackling Extremism and Radicalisation Taskforce to consider how best to prevent radicalisation taking root within Britain’s communities. Its report – expected in December – will have significant implications for how Prevent – the policy intended to stop people supporting or becoming terrorists – is delivered in the future.

One problem which has plagued the Prevent strategy since its inception in 2008 (and revision in 2011) is the lack of trust many people have in the policy. The Taskforce would do well to address such questions such as: why are people mistrustful of Prevent?; what concerns do they have that need to be allayed?; and how can the strategy be more positively communicated? The Prevent strategy itself was honest about this problem, stating that “Trust in Prevent must be improved”

A lack of support and buy-in for Prevent directly impinges on its ability to be successful, because those who don’t believe the strategy’s stated intentions are unlikely to help contribute to its success. Prevent is reliant on good community engagement for a number of reasons: to help people spot those who are vulnerable;  to access hard to engage communities; to ensure that local communities play their part in challenging and deconstructing extremist narratives; and to provide support with specific projects, e.g. in schools and universities.

A recent research study for Hackney (a Prevent funded priority area) is typical of many. It describes a number of people either lacking awareness of the Prevent strategy, or worse, being very mistrustful of the agenda. One participant told the researchers:

‘Prevent will always have a stigma attached to it. There have always been questions about whether it is an honest process, whether it’s intelligence gathering or mapping or monitoring and Hackney has the same questions.

Other respondents told Hackney of knowing little, or nothing, about Prevent, even though they did hold some concerns about extremism.

Our own research on prevent tells a similar story: a small minority of people are very distrustful of the agenda, while others are simply unaware of what Prevent strategy is all about.

So what can be done to help build trust?

Firstly, I think improvements could be made in making basic information about Prevent available, including publishing action plans and any research. Whilst some of these papers may contain some uncomfortable information, they do provide a clear rationale for why Prevent is doing what it is doing. Bradford (another Priority Area) has published its Prevent action plan, in an effort to become more transparent and I think this is a good step to have taken.

Secondly, there should be better and clearer messaging about Prevent. Our research for two London Borough’s recently found that most people would more likely relate to and support Prevent, if the messages were clearer about the end-goals of the strategy – i.e. that it is about tackling a minority of dangerous people and stopping criminality. Complex messages about Prevent that overuses terminology like ‘ideology’, ‘values’, ‘radicalisation’, and ‘sectors and institutions’ can confuse and put people off. Simpler messages about tackling all forms of violent extremism are much more likely to resonate.

Thirdly, dispelling myths and distrust about Prevent is better done face to face. Holding events and forums where people can raise concerns openly, and learn about different sides of the argument, can be good for building understanding. In terms of techniques, we would recommend deliberative engagement – a technique we have written about extensively – as an effective way of building understanding and support for an idea through a two-way engagement.

Fourthly, efforts should be made to try to build community leadership over Prevent, e.g. by letting local people become advocates for the programme, rather than leading through institutions, such as the police, which some people may already mistrust. One London Borough for instance has started encouraging a cadre of young people to speak out against extremism, in schools, social clubs and in friendship circles. These people are not coerced or paid to do this, they have bought in to the idea that tackling extremism is their problem, as much as the police’s problem.

Of course none of this is easy to do – but there are benefits to be had  if some of the above, and other, steps are taken. As the Taskforce contemplates where to go next with Prevent, a clearer strategy on building trust should be on their list of priorities.