bus-carcass

Tonight at the Burlington Hotel in Birmingham around 70 people (including two children and four members of staff from Waterhouse Consulting Group) were presented with the findings from the ‘independent’ evaluation of Birmingham City Council’s Preventing Violent Extremism (PVE) Pathfinder programme.

The evaluation report, despite focusing on Birmingham’s PVE Pathfinder was strangely emblazoned with images of the bombed out bus carcass from the 7/7 bombings (see right), a London tube station sign with the phrase ‘We are not afraid’ written across it, and a London Evening Standard poster pronouncing ‘Terrorists attack London – many dead’ (nothing like reinforcing the stereotypes that you’re trying to combat). I hasten to add that there were also images of the bull statue from the Bull Ring as well as the Selfridges building, so at least two from five images had some relevance to the second city. Even more incredibly, the powerpoint presentation by Waterhouse Consulting Group’s Waqar Azmi also had the 7/7 bus carcass image included on every slide.

Somewhat unsurprisingly however, the overwhelming outcome from the independent evaluation was good. As the report stated:

Birmingham has fared well (p.8)

…it would be difficult to find another authority that would achieve a higher score (p.10)

…Birmingham has focused on the correct areas of work during the Pathfinder phase (p.10)

…the Birmingham Pathfinder projects have impacted positively on their participants (p.10)

…the success…in Birmingham was by having strong political leadership by the Cabinet Member on Equalities who, supported by senior Muslim officers working on the PVE Pathfinder programme, has been critical (p.12)

Clearly, the PVE Pathfinder in Birmingham has been an overwhelming success – despite a whole host of different individuals and organisations making suggestions to the contrary, I would suggest, somewhat justifiably (my post here, the BBC article here).

It is not surprising that the evaluation interpreted the Pathfinder programme so favourably. Of the 21 people that it interviewed (Appendix 2, p.50), four were on the PVE Project Management Board, ten were employed by either Birmingham City Council or Government Office West Midlands, and two were related (father and son or so I am led to believe). Only eight of those interviewed (just below a third of the total interviewees) were – as far as I can tell from the information provided in the report – commissioned to actually run and implement the projects themselves.

Interestingly, one of those interviewed was the Chair of the British Muslim Forum (BMF), Khurshid Ahmed. One of Waterhouse Consulting Group’s evaluation team was Zareen Roohi Ahmed. Zareen was appointed CEO of the BMF in 2006 but gave up her position to work for Waterhouse Consulting Group. I offer this observation purely in the interest of transparency and nothing more.

In the evaluation report it suggests that 11 different projects were funded through Birmingham’s PVE Pathfinder programme. Unfortunately, on the handout provided by Birmingham City Council, the number apparently funded was only ten. Whilst it would seem quite easy to know how many projects were funded, especially given how few there were, the evaluation report also doesn’t appear to include the ‘Universities & Colleges’ project that the City Council document identifies. Obviously, there was some confusion about who and what was funded or maybe they just used different names for the projects: be kind, it must have been difficult.

Maybe this confusion ensued because of the fact that the evaluation exercise appears to have interviewed so few of those that were funded. 8 out of 10 cats may prefer independent evaluations, but 8 out of 10 projects – and let’s stress that it is only 10 not 10,000 – really wouldn’t suggest that the interview and consultation process was either comprehensive or indeed robust. Surprisingly, despite Laura Zara MacDonald having a paper included in the delegate pack and seemingly being integral to more than one of the projects, she doesn’t appear to have been interviewed at all. Bizarre.

Even more bizarre though is the fact that nowhere does the report categorically suggest that project beneficiaries were interviewed. A brief acknowledgement is made in the ‘Acknowledgements’ section and the answer of one ‘respondent’ is included. If these are in addition to those listed in Appendix 2, why are they not named? If this is so, how can the evaluation really conclude whether or not the Pathfinder was a success or not, given that those interviewed had a vested interest in it being deemed a success: either as council/ governmental representatives/ employees or representatives of organisations being funded? Is this really an objective approach?

The report is full of holes and contains far too many bland yet sweeping – somewhat unsubstantiated given the report’s reluctance to reference or provide further evidence – generalisations. Rooted in the language and rhetoric of central Government’s documents relating to PVE, the report observes how:

Imams are best placed to provide the theological leadership but are not always able to convey their arguments to those most vulnerable to violent extremists (p.11)

…Women play a vital role in shaping society in general and influencing men and young people in their communities. It is critical for their voices to be empowered, heard and strengthened (p.11)

…Media plays a huge role in people’s lives. ‘Negative’ voices and stories make headlines even though they are not representative of majority mainstream Muslim community views (p.11)

And on it goes. Nothing new, nothing groundbreaking, nothing creative or relevant to really letting others know what has and what hasn’t worked well in terms of projects already funded. In fact, every one of the projects – if the report is to be believed – has worked well.

Strange then that the evaluation only gives Birmingham’s PVE Pathfinder a score of 2.5 (maximum available 5) when assessed against the 35 national indicators for ‘Building resilience to violent extremism’. Given that the score was underwhelmingly average, is it then slightly exagerrated to suggest that the Pathfinder was the genuine success that the evaluation clearly suggests that it was? Is there possibly some gap between the reality and the perception?

What is amusing is that the evaluation goes on to offer recommendations for Birmingham’s PVE programme: recommendations that will enable it to get a score of only 3-3.5 !!! Why not make recommendations to enable the programme to achieve a 5? Is it that the evaluation didn’t highlight the real reasons why achieving a 5 would appear to be so difficult or could it have been that the report/ team wasn’t informed or had enough expertise so as to enable them to make the recommendations? Either way, it would seem that the end product of the independent evaluation was – if nothing else – lacking.

And what of those recommendations? Here are a few to whet the appetite:

…dropping the term ‘Preventing Violent Extremism’ and replacing it with a far more acceptable phraseology (p.44)

…vulnerable individuals need to be engaged in a targeted way to ‘win back their hearts and minds’ (p.45)

…local authorities need to engage with those who are more informed within Muslim communities such as scholars and key community figures (p.45)

…the local Prevent work must focus [on] the side of the wall where young people are ‘hanging around’ {accompanied by a clip art image of a stick man ‘hanging around’ near a wall that has a fire on the other side] (p.46)

…the radicalisation of young Muslims may continue to grow without a ‘specific Muslim strategy’ (p.46)

Staggering at the breadth and depth of insight.

To end this ‘independent evaluation’ of the independent evaluation, the report contains an amazingly simplistic diagram. The diagram consists of three concentric circles: the largest is emerald green; the second largest is more grass-like in its green-ness; the smallest – described in the report as ‘a dot’ – is red. The circles are far from being produced to any given scale and are, mere circles. Despite this, they are alleged to represent the Muslim community in Birmingham AND the UK. Fatal error here being that the two are far from synonymous. As the report puts it:

The vast majority of Muslims in Birmingham (and the UK) are largely unaware of the complexities surrounding the PVE strategy. They are, like everyone else, trying to live a normal life. Some are practising Muslims and others are not. They do not generally possess the knowledge, skills or resources required to prevent extremism within their localities or even recognise the signs of self radicalisation of young Muslims. [These are represented by the emerald green and largest circle]

The tiny fraction (shown as a dot) of those within Muslim communities that actually sympathise with and are potentially vulnerable to developing dangerous tendencies are very small in percentage…Therefore, local authorities need to engage with those (shown as [grass] green) who are more informed within Muslim communities such as scholars and key community figures…(p.45)

Despite this being the culmination of the evaluation report, the diagram is mere speculation and doesn’t actually evidence or substantiate anything, whether that either such a small percentage of Muslims are sympathetic to extremist ideologies (and I would stress here that there is a big difference in terms of actual numbers of those who are sympathetic towards extremist ideologies as opposed to those who might undertake terrorist atrocities) or that such a seemingly large number of Muslims do not understand the alleged ‘complexities’ surrounding the PVE strategy.

In many ways the diagram is reflective of the entire report. Whilst no doubt some attempt at evaluating the PVE Pathfinder in Birmingham was intended – as indeed the diagram is no doubt intended to illustrate and substantiate a particular argument – rarely are those intentions or the associated outcomes ever achieved. Lacking evidence, robustness, consistency and insight, I doubt whether the report – despite its pretensions to independence – will alleviate the criticisms that have already been posited at Birmingham City Council or answer the many questions that – unfortunately – continue to remain unanswered.

When the report becomes available electronically, I will post it here or provide a link. Alternatively, you might want to contact either Waterhouse Consulting Group or the Equality Division at Birmingham City Council.

Creative Commons License Everything on this site by Chris Allen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 UK: England & Wales License. www.chris-allen.co.uk.

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