by Jessica Shepherd for The Guardian

March 1, 2011

As communities get the power to run their own public services, Jessica Shepherd attends a workshop on the art of influence.

The faces around the table are growing redder as both sides become exasperated. A council leader has agreed to meet with a local campaign group that wants to change his mind about shutting a centre for disabled people in the borough. "I'm afraid difficult decisions must be made," the council leader says. "I have another meeting now so we'll have to wrap up..."

Desperately, the campaign group's leader searches for a trump card. "We are inviting you to visit the centre. Will we have to tell the local press you won't be coming?"

"That's it! Use tension. Make specific demands. Speak to his self-interests," the session leader calls out.

No real council leader is present and the scenario is fictitious. I am at a two-day training event for would-be community organisers run by Citizens UK – the biggest alliance of community groups in Britain – and we're learning, through role-play, how to negotiate with, and win over, individuals in authority, such as council bosses.

"Don't forget how effective it is to use testimony," the leader of this session, Stefan Baskerville, tells the campaigners.

"Oh yes," one says. "We've brought along Fred, who uses the centre, and he'd like to tell you what a difference it makes to his life..."

"Good," says Baskerville, a recent graduate and a former president of Oxford University Student Union. "You have to practise this. Next time think: 'Have I got a plan, have I thought about their interests, what is their agenda?'

"Think about which of you is going to be in charge of keeping time, which of you will tell the story and which of you will be in charge of telling the media ... We are talking about the importance of a caucus."

Community organising is a way in which local groups can unite along shared interests to improve society and stand as a long-term force to be reckoned with against powers, such as the government, the City and the media. It was a technique that Barack Obama used to secure victory in his 2008 US presidential campaign.

The popularity of community organising is growing in the UK. David Cameron made the idea a centrepiece of his launch of the "big society". He has said the Treasury will pay 500 full-time community organisers £20,000 a year each and foot the bill for a further 4,500 to be trained to work part-time all over the country.

The importance of community organisers will be reiterated in next week's white paper on public service reform. Private companies, voluntary groups and charities will be given the right to run almost all of our public services. Meanwhile, Labour's Movement for Change is charged with reconnecting the party with its traditions of grassroots activism.

Citizens UK has tapped into this civic mood. It trains about 200 people a year on two-day courses, such as this one, or five-day residentials for "local leaders". The number of organisations that belong to Citizens UK has risen from 60 to more than 200 in the last six years. The courses are free for those who belong to a member organisation, but cost between £400 and £2,000 for those that don't.

In my group, there is a headteacher of a Muslim school, a detective inspector for Greater Manchester police, a head chef, a synagogue youth worker and a vicar.

After our masterclass in negotiation skills, it's time for a session on "power". We are asked to think of a definition of power. "The ability to compel," someone says. "The ability to act," says another. Later, we do a "power analysis" of London and are encouraged to do this before meeting people in authority. "There are two forms of power – organised money and organised people," says Bernadette Farrell, a lead organiser for South London Citizens, who is taking this session. "Power targets the weak ... Disorganised people have least power; organised people have more power," she says.

Then it's back to community interests. "If you don't understand the interests of those you are standing up to, then you are just people with placards and bumper stickers and those in power can say, 'They don't understand what it is like to make hard decisions and to have a limited budget.'"

Next, we are taught "the secret weapon" of citizen organising: face-to-face meetings. Citizens UK says this is the way to probe another person's vision, talent, energy and interests.

Over two-thirds of the people in my group are from churches, mosques, synagogues and temples. Why have so many of these religious organisations joined Citizens UK when they already have an umbrella group, such as the Church of England, to represent them?

Father Steven Saxby, of St Barnabas church in Walthamstow, east London, says his church joined in December to benefit from the network of organisations that Citizens UK engages with in the field of social action. He wants to help immigrants who have been in this country for years, but are paid below the minimum wage and have no permanent right to remain.

Chris Connelley has come on the training course because he is a founder of a community action group in Seven Kings, near Ilford in Essex. He has been campaigning against the closure of a local library and when I catch up with him a few weeks after the course he says he has used the techniques we were taught to good effect. "The threat to Goodmayes library has been lifted as Redbridge council has removed it from its cuts prospectus after the most massive local campaign – 5,000 signatures in three weeks," he says.

"I used a number of the methods and ideas from the course. Our sense is that they worked and established powerful new relationships ... which we are all now resolved to build upon and strengthen."

Could the establishment come to rue its newfound commitment to community organisers?

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