Grassroots Cells, Devil's Architects
The Householders Guide to Community Defence Against Bureaucratic
Reviewed by Ulli Diemer
Northcote Parkinson, in Parkinson's Law, gave us a biting
guide to the internal workings of bureaucracies. A more modest and
less inspired, but handy, companion volume, a guide to fighting
bureaucracies, is The Householder's Guide to Community Defence
Against Bureaucratic Aggression.
This little (64-page) pamphlet outlines the organizational principles
and campaign tactics that communities should use in fighting projects
or developments being foisted on them by unresponsive government
bodies, whether by elected authorities or by civil servants.
With meticulous attention to detail, and frequent resort to dry
British humour, the author, Antony Jay, sketches the way in which
a local organization can best draw on its community's resources
and support to mobilize funds, publicity and experts on its side,
and utilize tactical initiatives in fighting the bureaucratic enemy
and exploiting his weakness and divisions.
He points out that "the crazy thing about protesting is that
the time when you are most likely to succeed is the time when you
are least likely to act. It is at the very beginning of the project
that you have the best chance.... Do not wait until something firm
is announced: firmness is the danger."
Jay advocates a cell structure for the community organization,
with different cells responsible for specific functions, such as
legal advice, fund-raising, and publicity, as well as "grass-roots"
cells responsible for organizing support on the street level.
Heading the structure he has an "Action Committee" which
co-ordinates the effort.
He details the various facets of the campaign: attacking the concept
of the proposed development itself, as well as the facts and figures
used to support it. This is accompanied by the presentation of an
alternative plan. He stresses the value of behind-the-scenes diplomacy
for gathering facts and achieving settlements, as well as of frontal
He points to the necessity of avoiding, wherever possible, situations
which back officials or elected representatives into a corner, giving
them no face-saving way to back down from the original plan. By
focussing on differences among the `enemy' and not provoking irrevocable
commitments, he says it is often possible to avoid the monolithic
opposition of an aroused administration.
He indicates the most fruitful lines of inquiry to be followed
up when attacking the plan:
"Is the plan necessary at all? Will it solve the problem it
sets out to solve or aggravate it, or create other, greater problems?"
"Has the plan taken into account at all the most advanced
thinking the most recent experience the latest technologies? ...
examples from foreign countries have a special glamour as well as
probably being unknown to the enemy, and hard for them to verify."
"The criteria. Nearly all these plans list, very early on,
certain criteria which any plan must fulfil. Miraculously, it turns
out that this plan fulfils all of them. You are meant to think that
the planners started from the criteria and eventually arrived at
the plan. In fact, of course, it happened the other way around.
No good planner begins to formulate criteria until the plan is complete:
he then evokes them by listing any plausible ones which the plan
can be shown to meet. Your answer is to challenge these criteria."
"Hidden alternatives.`There are two alternatives'; There are
three possible approaches' ... a little reflection can usually turn
up nine or ten additional alternatives".
"Factual accuracy. Do not expect all the facts to be accurate,
and try checking up on any that looks questionable."
"When the massive Breeching plan was published by British
Rail a Cheshire schoolboy thought there was something funny about
their figures for usage of the line behind his house. So he spent
a day counting, and found the line enormously busier than the report
"The unmentioned facts. The planners will have suppressed
a number of facts which damage their case. How can you find them?
The best way is to got to all the sources which they have used for
their information. They may not willingly disclose them, but a sharp
letter denying the accuracy of all assertions will usually elicit
chapter and verse, and you can then get to work on other chapters
and other verses for the less convenient facts."
"Selective deduction. Related to the hidden alternative. `The
low usage figure shows that there is little public demand...' It
may indeed. But it may show that the price is too high. Or that
the public does not know about it. Or that it is so inefficiently
run that people can't be bothered."
Jay exposes the motivations of the men behind the plan:
"They have been at it for months. It has generated several
major internal rows. There have been long negotiated compromises
with other departments. The chap who started it all off was promoted
half-way through and moved to Edinburgh. The first draft was produced
in a tremendous rush because the Minister/Permanent Secretary/Chairman
of the Planning Committee didn't give the go-ahead till three months
after the deadline date, and some of the flaws did not show up until
it was too late to do anything. The policy decision it stems from
was taken six years ago, and they are now talking about rethinking
the whole policy on a more comprehensive basis, so if it does not
go through quickly it may never make it. It has meant a great deal
of work and unpleasantness and getting home late for supper, and
the thought of going back to square one gives them all nightmares."
"In their internal dissentions lie some of your best hopes:
you must do nothing that will make them close ranks"
Jay at his best when proposing tactical manoeuvres. For example,
when discussing architects' drawings, he says:
"It will be the usual idealized fairyland picture - one car
in the park, two girls in summer dresses, bright sunny day, trees
in full leaf, exaggerated perspective, and the building bright and
shining in all its glory. You cannot fight pictures with words.
You must get an architectus diaboli to do an equally accurate architect's
drawing with bare trees under a leaden sky during the rush hour,
cars jamming, at the foreground washing hanging out with the paintwork
starting to peel and the white stonework staining to grey in patches
after a season or two of exposure to smoke and fog."
Or when dealing with a press reluctant to give a campaign event
the publicity it needs: "one group of protestors used to get
excellent coverage through a member who used to ring the press and
television the day before in a hectoring upper-class voice and tell
them not to cover this exhibitionist display by a tiny handful of
troublemakers, that it would be irresponsible to publicize people
who opposed the rightful authority, and that he would make trouble
if they sent their cameras and reporters just because the other
lot were covering it."
To be sure, The Householders Guide only applies to certain
kinds of community organizing. It is a strictly defensive, conservative
approach, useful for preserving neighborhoods, but having less value
for those seeking to re-structure blighted areas, or those wanting
to organize for wider social change.
Published in the Connexions
Digest #50, December 1989.
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