Citizens UK pledge, a catalyst for social change and community benefit

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By  Dr Catherine Durose, Institute of Local Government Studies
Reader in Policy Sciences at the University of Birmingham


The use of pledges in community organising provide a different way of doing politics, a set of political tactics to build community power…”

Citizens UK bring together locally-rooted member institutions, in the fields of education, community, trade union and faith-based organisations, and uses community organising to generate collective power for social change. Citizens UK have pioneered the use of pledges within their local campaigns on issues of social justice, where those with formal power are invited to commit publicly to action for community benefit.

Pledges are asked and answered within a public assembly. Amidst the celebration of Birmingham’s recent assembly, which focused on the city hosting the Commonwealth Games in 2022, Citizens UK sought pledges from the head of the organising committee, Leader of Birmingham City Council, Councillor Ian Ward on a set of citizen’s guarantees to ensure community benefit from the Games. These guarantees focus attention on the once in a lifetime opportunity offered by the Games for a catalyst and a legacy of social change for the city.

Building on the example of the pledges that London Citizens secured in advance of the 2012 Olympics, Citizen UK: Birmingham called for a working relationship to deliver ‘a living wage games’ with a legacy of opportunity for children and young people from across all our communities in Birmingham, ranging from paid work experience, access to sports facilities and permanent affordable social housing.

The use of pledges – a political tactic

The use of pledges is significant as a political tactic contributing towards building a publicly accountable relationship between citizens and those with formal power. These pledges may be understood as part of an ongoing political conversation, building a relationship between the electorate and the elected beyond the ballot box and providing a public means of holding to account.

The public nature of the pledges is important, inviting an elected leader to make a pledge in front of hundreds of voters covered by the local media, is deliberately difficult to refuse. However, when refusals do happen, they can provide a moment for honest dialogue, explaining the reasoning for the decision and offering a compromise or alternative.

Pledges are a conscious intervention in political debate aiming to deliver social change for community benefit, but they also provide a public assertion of community power, allowing citizens to say what matters to them, to put that on the political agenda and create a focus for collective action.

Insider and Outsider positioning

The public aspect is part of a political strategy that seeks to facilitate both an ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’ positioning for Citizens UK. Seeking pledges within a well-attended public assembly evidences popular ‘outsider’ power, but also provides a basis for negotiating an ‘insider’ position, at their core, the pledges are seeking a commitment to work with and build an ongoing relationship with Citizens UK. In an earlier Birmingham assembly, Citizens UK sought a commitment from the then leader of Birmingham City Council to re-settle 50 Syrian refugees in the city, the leader agreed, but initial progress was slow. Citizens UK responded to this lack of progress using the ‘insider’ route, by reverting to an ‘outsider’ tactic. Citizens UK organised a symbolic delegation of 50 leaders from member institutions to attend a meeting of full Council to re-state the pledge and push for a commitment for 500 refugees to be settled in the city. The Council agreed.

Community benefit does not only come from the pledge being met or the relationship with formal power. It is also important to understand where the pledges come from. Citizens UK use repeated ‘listening campaigns’ consisting of hundreds of structured conversations or 1-2-1s between organisers, leaders and members of institutions. These listenings are intended to encourage voice, explicitly asking members about the issues that are affecting their lives, but also to encourage collective action, by finding out what members would be willing to act on with others. Such listenings shape the pledges and importantly generate testimony. Testimony is used to underpin each pledge by giving a personal narrative of the impact of the issue at hand. Testimony is deliberately sought from the most under-represented voices, providing not only an important opportunity for voice, but a powerful, democracy-enhancing contribution to debate.

Pledges are a conscious intervention in political debate aiming to deliver social change for community benefit, but they also provide a public assertion of community power, allowing citizens to say what matters to them, to put that on the political agenda and create a focus for collective action.

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