Community organization-action-development-work in the UK

September 27, 2016 § Leave a comment

What follows is highlights from a very useful essay I just discovered by accident on infed.org (full text here):

In the late 1950s and early 1960s accounts of practice and theoretical explorations began to appear that viewed community workers as a distinct occupation […] The Younghusband Report (1959) on social work was a significant turning point. It specifically drew on the North American division of social work into casework, group work and community organization, describing the latter as “primarily aimed at helping people within a local community to identify social needs, to consider the most effective ways of meeting these and to set about doing so, in so far as their available resources permit.” The first major collection of material (Kuenstler 1961) took up the notion of ‘community organization’, but it was the terms ‘community development’ and ‘community work’ that became popular – and tended to merge.

During the 1960s and early 1970s there was a growing recognition of the extent to which poverty remained a major feature of UK society (see, for example, Coates and Silburn 1970). There had also been a fairly substantial series of debates around the significance and importance of people’s participation in various aspects of government activity – perhaps the best known being the Skeffington Report on planning (MHLG 1969). Following the efforts of the Democratic administration in the United States of America to wage a ‘War on Poverty’, the UK government sought a similar, but cheaper, initiative. Self-help and resident participation were seen to be possibilities for the improvement of inner city situations. […] The result, in 1969, was the launch of the Community Development Projects programme. It was the largest action-research project ever funded by government. The avowed intention was to gather information about the impact of existing social policies and services and to encourage innovation and co-ordination. […] Workers in many of the projects came to reject the analysis and strategies of the original project proposals. They sought to organise and research around larger questions of inequality and deindustrialisation rather than more localized concerns around community organization. There was often a desire to bring about a much stronger link between the struggles of the workplace and those of the neighbourhood and community; and to develop means by which groups can join together in things like federations to better influence decision making on a city-wide, regional and national basis.

In some respects, the optimism and enthusiasm with which community work and ‘participation’ were greeted in the early 1970s and late 1960s waned with the realisation that many of the issues the work sought to confront were not resolvable at the local level – a realisation that was underlined by the widespread public expenditure cuts after the oil crisis of 1974. There was a considerable growth in the political awareness of community workers in the mid to late 1970s and this has been reflected in the adoption by workers of very different ideological stances. This is sometimes represented by the contrasting of so called social work or community development traditions of practice, with political action traditions.

[By the early 1980s] The nature of community work had shifted. While some workers still had the freedom, and were disposed, to encourage opposition to the social and economic policies of the Conservative government in Britain – and their impact on local communities (especially with regard to the closure of heavy industries, engineering works and mines upon local communities); the context in which many were employed had changed. The language of managerialism had spread through many local authorities recasting much of the work in terms of meeting organizational objectives rather than local community needs. Most particularly, the focus was upon the more effective use of resources and the efficiency of services – especially with regard to housing and care. There was a significant shift away from locating workers in local neighbourhoods in order to sustain and develop local groups and associational life.

[Today,] State-sponsored community work remains largely locked into the mix of care, economic development and service delivery improvement work that developed during the 1980s and 1990s. However, three particular areas of state-sponsored work did, to some limited extent, bring a stronger emphasis upon community-based organization and group-functioning in England. First, the emergence and growth of tenant management organizations has led to some attention being given to the cultivation of local groups and the deepening of their capacity to develop and run their own organizations. However, this has not been without tensions (ODPM 2002). In particular local authorities have tended to see tenant management organizations as extensions of their management activity whilst those involved are more likely to see themselves as community activists. They have also tended to see them as rivals. The result was that those employed to facilitate the development of tenant’s management organizations and cooperatives often slipped into either representing the view or policies of the local authority to the group or advising them on the technicalities of housing finance funding. The enhancement of local group life was commonly sidelined into a series of courses on ‘how to chair a committee’ and such like.

Second, the New Deal for Communities Programme in England – part of the government’s strategy to ‘tackle multiple disadvantage in the most deprived neighbourhoods’  – has involved an emphasis upon local community involvement. (New Deal for Communities was established in 1998 and expanded in 1999 to include some 39 partnerships and involving a spend of some £2bn). However, results from the interim evaluation of the initiative indicate that there is only patchy evidence of increased participation in local networks, neighbourliness and involvement in local groups. In contrast, there does appear to have been a significant increase in the trust invested by local residents in local institutions. As the evaluators stressed, community involvement and engagement takes time (Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research 2005: 67).

Third, the Sure Start programme, originally announced in 1998 and aimed at increasing the quality and availability of child care in selected areas in England, improving the health and well-being of children, and providing support for parents initially involved a significant emphasis upon community development and involvement. Some interesting and apparently successful locally-based work emerged.

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