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Owain Smolovic Jones
Post 1

20 Oct 2016, 12:46 Edited by Matthew Driver on 31 Oct 2016, 09:57

Week 5, Activity 2 Becoming a more agonistic practitioner

What kind of practices might you follow in order to become more agonistic in your approach with other organisations? Bear in mind that agonism does not mean open hostility but an engaged form of challenge filtered through the norms of liberal-democratic practice.

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Ian Jones Post 2 in reply to 1

17 Nov 2016, 06:50

For our work it is essential that we collaborate and work with other organisations. Our focus is on the resilience of individuals and the sustainability of communities. This cuts across many other bodies both in public services and voluntary sector. These can work in silos addressing narrow agendas and issues. We are therefore quite an agonistic organisations questioning the reason and rational for work that it taking place, looking at unintended consequences and adjacent possibilities. We always engage creatively from the perspective of the person or community we are supporting.

It can become difficult if a person from another organisation becomes very defensive and negatively hostile. This can be through spreading untruths etc. This has to be handled with care and not be personal.

We have held joint team meetings, joint events bringing in outside people with different perspectives in order to get the focus on service delivery and not institutional behaviours.

There are occasions when the problems are difficult to overcome, that is when we work with local elected members. There is an ideology within our current democratic system which makes some of them believe that they are the voice of the community that elected them. We try to work from the position that links representation with participation but on many occasions the elected member falls back to the legal mandate they have through being elected. There is still much agonistic work to be done in this area.

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Owain Smolovic Jones Post 3 in reply to 2

23 Nov 2016, 08:31

Hi Ian

I'm very interested to hear more detail about how you try to influence local elected members to interact more agonistically!


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Ian Jones Post 4 in reply to 3

24 Nov 2016, 07:49

Ha, ha, yes work in progress.

Locally the Council had a governance review, the problem was it was you can have either X or Y, no chance to question about alternatives A, B, C etc.

We keep trying to get members to question their role, some engage well others dreadfully. Many fall back on their democratic mandate as if it was one of the ten commandments. We keep on trying to get them to reflect on their roles, the changes happening around them in terms of community action and participation and how they can change to support this. Democratic Services in the Council perpetuate old practices and look at you as if you are an alien if you suggest new ways of engaging. Local election next year and we are seeing how we can collaborate with other voluntary sector partners to continue the agonistic challenge!

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Stephen Elsden Post 5 in reply to 1

29 Nov 2016, 09:53

This has been a very thought provoking topic.

As a CEO, I receive some challenge from certain Trustees, though this is sometimes more antagonism than Agonism. Part of the reason for this is the relative distance that Trustees (rightly) have from day to day decision making. Some Trustees are more comfortable with this than others. One of my challenges with the Board is to turn antagonism to Agonism, and the other is to stimulate more challenge from other Trusteea, who may currently be put off by the antagonism they sometimes witness in meetings. As I have a new Chair of Trustees I am hopeful we can take a fresh approach to this.

With my management team, I am continually encouraging open discussion and new ideas, though again, some staff respond better to this approach than others. And it is also true that there is little or no challenge on the wider strategic issues and direction. I like the idea of recruiting an 'Agonism champion' to get things moving in the short term.

Regarding partnerships, we usually seek out potential partners who have shares values and complementary services that will be of benefit to our service users. I am intrigued by the thought that we could seek out some partners who would open up an agonistic approach to partnership. This is a very new way of thinking, and may take longer to put into practice than the internal actions outlined above.

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Darren Smith Post 6 in reply to 1

5 Mar 2018, 13:00 Edited by the author on 5 Mar 2018, 13:04

Week 5 – Activity 2 Debating Independence and Agonism


Agnostic challenges must be a key component in stimulating policy change revisions throughout organisations, the sector, and into statute. Voluntary organisations deal with the void not fulfilled by public policy and the ongoing social struggle in people’s lives. In doing so, they accumulate invaluable data that forms a part of sector evidence that can be presented for future debate. And uncomfortable questions are a necessity surely? If policy change passes into statute without any “Heat” that could arguably be interpreted as having been neglectful in the first place.


Everything else in life, including life itself, depends on interactions. They are the fundamental principles which strive to search out the most effective ways of succeeding. So I am inclined to believe that agnostic interactions are an essential bed-fellow of collaboration.


It seems difficult to accept that any organisation is truly independent. The voluntary sector requires a workforce that is supported by volunteers. Funding is brought in from external grants and donations. The sector has steadily become more closely dove-tailed with dependency from the local council, which is a two way synergy that denotes partnership. And the sector is governed by the Charity Commission to oversee reporting and accounting. Therefore it would appear that the only semblance of true independence are the individual minds within an organisation.


So I would say; welcome engagement and celebrate difference. Our organisation has found engaging and challenging a local councillor, where votes are in their mind, works well. We also invite council officers into our charity, so they can directly front up to our patrons and their struggles.

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Jane Holdsworth Post 7 in reply to 1

20 Aug 2018, 12:50

Great discussion. The range of approaches we use as an organisation that aims to connect different sectors  and perceptions around community need are:

  • Bringing different perspectives together through events, often they are  themed forums and involve workshops where participants are working together on something tangible like how community hubs will work, suicide prevention plan ....
  • Ensuring a wide diversity of opinion - not always the  usual suspects
  • The importance of presenting data and letting it speak for itself to a degree. We recently presented our 'State of the Sector Survey' to public sector partners and the feedback and perceptions were enlightening.  Foodbank and Citizens Advice data have been well used locally to highlight the impact of benefit changes and zero hour contracts.
  • The importance of using skilled facilitators when working with sensitive scenarios - to enable open discussion without aggression and the defensiveness that arises from this
  • Celebration events- which remind people that there are more similarities between them than differences
  • Being assertive and challenging in meetings by asking awkward questions 
  • Erring on the side of diplomacy but also appreciating that sometimes the elephant in the room has to be acknowledged in a straightforward manner 
  • Appreciating the emotional human story in a rational debate