Ousourcing to Amateurs

Talk with David Barrie

‘What is missing is coalitions of activist organisations. The persons who want to protect heritage have to form a group, so they can fight. We’ve had experiences where those fights were translated into genuine action’

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JAKUB SZCZĘSNY: Something that attracted my attention while reviewing your blog, was what you called the “Coalition of the bold”. Can you tell more about this idea?

DAVID BARRIE: At the moment in the U.K., there’s a highly selective idea to empower small communities. It’s supposed to reduce the state’s oppression over the ordinary civic activity. The thinking is: if communities are given access to power, they can make a change. They might, for instance, form social enterprises which are commercially based, but deliver social values. The State has been rolled back on every front as a result of austerity measures. It’s also the triumph of large private sector service companies which were fighting for years now, like large accountancy firms. Some clever accountants were trying for years to put their hands on some “golden eggs” like the National Health Service. They’ve been trying to run it because they can make all these men’s fees. After all these fees which were gathered from privatisation there isn’t much money available, so global capital and corporate service providers have to shift elsewhere. To global cities, like Abu Dhabi, Singapore, Hongkong, Chengdu, et cetera. But they always had their eye on delivering fundamental social welfare programmes.

David Barrie, photo: private archive

Now we have a government that says “we have to roll back” and some of their new thinking is effective and about time. The idea is that basically you can empower communities to take control and deliver some services like a hospital, for instance. So doctors are now encouraged to come out from National Health Service, pull together and run their own business. One of the issues is that the sphere of possibilities of a single community group to effect change is difficult. Lots of community groups are happy being activists and advocates, but because they’re ordinary citizens with their jobs. They don’t like the idea of signing a piece of paper where they’re liable for delivering a service. They don’t necessarily want to form contracts with Central Government’s Treasuries to deliver, say, food for ten thousand old people. They’re OK with delivering to twenty five old people, but ten thousand – they’re not really equipped for that.

The idea of the Coalition of the Bold is, in my opinion, related to one thing, which is missing at the moment: coalitions of activist organisations. There has been examples where community groups, worker’s groups, activists have come together and formed a coalition and then they had a scale in which they could assure services and they were able to enter into negotiations with private developers and local governments.

So, in short, it’s about forming a strong group bound together by uniform interests capable of sitting by the table with big companies and with the authorities?

Yes. In the U.K. We understand citizen advocacy, we’ve learned social activism, we understand that the persons who want to protect their heritage have to form a group, so they can fight. We’ve had experiences where those fights were translated into genuine action.

David Barrie

Born 1964, entrepreneur acting in accordance to the idea of the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). He studied history and art history at the University of York. He worked as a journalist and TV producer for Channel 4, BBC, CNN and National Geographic. Author of the documentaries, like the film about the French National Front and movie about suicidal death of Michael Hutchence, leader of the rock band INXS.

Barrie has worked in the field of social entrepreneurship and urban space revitalisation since 2002. He works for the local governments, non-profit organisations and developers. His actions match the overall doctrine of sustainable development, based on the adequate proportions between economic growth, care for the environment and human social needs.

He was a panel member of the Masses of Culture discussion during the European Culture Congress in Wrocław.

If one tries to boost that civic instinct and also tries to give it, not only rights, but also responsibilities, obviously we need to bulk up! I’ve done lots of projects where for a community or people living in a housing development, where the State has rubbished it instead of maintaining it, the next logical step was to overtake the management of, for instance, the park. There were many examples where people finally had to pull back, because they don’t want hustle. They have day jobs, so in the end they have defaulted to the State. Yet we are in a moment now with all the Austerity Measures, new taxation, where this issue is raised. Conservative government wants to encourage civic activism and wants to encourage new responsibility policies.

O.K., so what than will be the carrot” for these organisations and for the society itself?

The incentive is having direct access and greater control over services related to social life in which you live, having direct responsiblity for it, because you’ve negociated it, so it’s yours. Than, it’s an opportunity to provide tax revenue, to simply pay less taxes, and in the end, obvoiusly, in longer term you generate savings. The thinking goes, that if you and a group of people look after a park, you’ll know what you want, you’ll know what your priorities are and because, maybe, you’re not institutionalised or bureaucratised or a lazy shit, your costs will decrease.

Yes, but in the end the difficulty is that this is looks just like another form of privatisation and of outsourcing of responsibility over things that once lay upon the authorities!

Yes, and it’s ousourcing to amateurs. On the other hand you have things that relate to direct interest of local people being managed by some global corporates! Hey! My building is better managed by an amateur association than the bastards who were taking fifteen percent of the revenue from the former landlady to fund their posh building in central London...

How so?

Previously it was owned by one person, she hired this particular management company who was crap, so there was legislation put on years ago, which over time, allowed us to pay her out and so we got rid of her management company and got our own management company, so we are bosses!

Intresting! Thus in this case the situation is quite clear, since the building belongs to you. In cases of neighbourhood communities we are dealing with mixed ownerships, different functions...

… and diverse ethinicities as well, which is very challenging when it comes to self-organisation.

Yes, still, I have a feeling it’s easier to manage these multi-layered situations from a position of an external “objectivised” entity...

European Culture Congress – Wrocław, 2011

ECC was a meeting of leading personas of the European culture – theoreticians and practitioners, intellectuals and artists. A book, written especially for the occasion of the Congress, by prof. Zygmunt Bauman and prof. Anna Zeidler-Janiszewska, was its starting point.

ECC was one of the central events of the National Cultural Programme of Polish Presidency in the EU Council.

What’s happening to us is that we’re going the way of United States, basically. It’s where there’s no welfare. There’s insurance, where arts are utterly to do with filantrophy and there’s a huge professionalisation which goes around NGOs, non-profits, etc. I won some fellowship to go to America next year, where I’d like to have a closer look on local extra-governmental organisations which are copying many mechanism from corporate world, not to mention that their “bosses” fly first class... The challenge is how can we, the civic sector, assume responsibility and control some of the public estate and not end up mirroring some of the evils of private sector.

Right, but when talking about American NGOs we have to remember that their size, abundance and power result from favorable tax policy, high tax revenues in particular. Another thing here is that many of these organisation rely on one sole corporate donor or filantropist, naturally depending on them.

Back to the Coalition of the Bold. If I think back why some of the project which I have been involved with Urban Renewal were successfull in slightly changing the dynamics between the community and the end product, it’s because it aggregated communities. So, for instance, in one town I’ve managed to gather all local organisations together and than they became quite a force altogether in front of local authorities and their technical representants when discussing the plans for a future bridge. So they were able to say: “We want to choose the designer of our bridge.” The community was so persistant, that finally the politicians had to agree. In another project, there were lots of people who grew food in public places, because the land wasn’t valuable and people simply love growing stuff.

Guerilla alotments?

photo: opensource.comPrecisely! There were altogether some eighty four different sorts of organisations, schools, old people groups, through NGOs, ending with private people, like a receptionist doing her nails in a psychiatric hospital and a fat guy running a Jeep concession. They chose and legalised two hundred and fifty different sites across the town with around a thousand urban farmers. So the Coalition of the Bold idea is that, basically, if you can find ways to aggregate communities you can generate better economy, better quality and have direct control over reality concerning the members of the community.

It makes me think of discussion panel at the Congress with Ewa Rewers and Krzysztof Wodiczko about the ability of starting interdisciplinary projects thanks to availability of information from different fields guaranteed by computing technologies, which wouldn’t be possible some fifteen, twenty years ago. This way, artists can work today on projects involving engineers or scientists, while having access to resources, including economic ones, otherwise impossible to imagine. It seems like a parallel process to what you called “outsourcing of amateurs”.

Well, there are parallels: if you’re smart, have access to the internet, can act fast and you don’t get caught up by too much of details. In other words, if you’re clear in your narrative and clear on how long and where you want to go, you can pick and mix so much easier nowadays and you can do it globally in terms of expertise by creating collaborative community. Obviously it doesn’t translate into “offline” activity, because this is where people have to be payed.

You could challenge, for instance the scale matter, like in fast urbanism. The question is how can this thing be sustainable with its scale. The same size-related parameters and issues can be, to some extent, applied to urban development and NGO activities.

Yes, there’s less “canonic” boundaries established once and forever between disciplines and available ways of action.

There are other boundaries though. There’s an interesting one. I’m working in a very poor housing estate in the North of England with high unemployement. You ask people there what happens in this area: “Nothing.” “Are you good in anything? Are people here good at anything?”, “No, they're all useless.” And than it proves there’s a guy turning a van into a kind of Maserati, there’s a little old lady who’s baking bread and so on. So, my though is, that it would be great if we could unlock and share these skills. It may not be the case in Poland, but un the U.K., when your shoes got a hole in them and you take them to a shop, the repair guy will say: “Look, you’d better buy yourself a new pair of shoes”, because it’s so expensive. I’m working now with these people, we want to run like a “fix and repair” shop. One day it could be a “shoe day” and next a “TV Day”, because there’s this guy who goes around and tunes tv sets of old people. We’re also playing with ideas of sharing and exchanging works and favors, like a regular barter exchange. Probably here, in Eastern Europe people would laugh saying: “Hey, so this is progress?!”.

I’ve realised, that if you ask people in a right way “what are you good at?” you find out that they are actually pretty good in quite a lot of things. Yet people are not so keen on saying what they’re good at, because they’re afraid they might loose their unemployment benefits or state compensations for various things. And so, while the concept of the Coalition of the Bold is marvellous, smashing and super, many people depend on the State not only when it comes to the heritage and cultural references but also financially, so it’s not so easy for them to come out and play. It’s a small thing, but an important one.


Now, please try to recapitulate and answer briefly: what was this congress lacking in terms of discussions?

What lacked were talks about business, not just listing demands towards the State. We’ve been through it in Great Britain already, so it seems to me to be a bit passé. I was lacking discussions on new possible mechanisms of generating income by extra-governmental sector without depending on the government and without falling into the straight mercantile logic of private sector.

It’s a hard subject, I guess it could become the theme of an entire new congress...

The interview has been taken on 10 September, 2011 during the European Culture Congress in Wrocław.