Exploring the Big Society

Exploring the Big Society


Here in the UK, there is much talk, led by our new Prime Minister David Cameron, about what he calls the “Big Society”.  In his words;

“It’s time for something different, something bold – something that doesn’t just pour money down the throat of wasteful, top-down government schemes.

The Big Society is that something different and bold.

It’s about saying if we want real change for the long-term, we need people to come together and work together – because we’re all in this together.”

BBC Radio 4’s chief political correspondent, Norman Smith, explains;

“The ‘big society’ is David Cameron’s Big Idea. His aides say it is about empowering communities, redistributing power and fostering a culture of volunteerism.”

Returning to the PM’s words;

“The Big Society is about a huge culture change, where people, in their everyday lives, in their homes, in their neighbourhoods, in their workplace, don’t always turn to officials, local authorities or central government for answers to the problems they face but instead feel both free and powerful enough to help themselves and their own communities.”

“We need to create communities with oomph – neighbourhoods who are in charge of their own destiny, who feel if they club together and get involved they can shape the world around them.”

Over the past few weeks, I’ve spotted several people (many with considerable oomph of their own) writing thoughtfully about the Big Society.  This post is simply my way of sharing their thoughts;

As soon as I read this post by Adil Abrar (founder of  Sidekick Studios , I wanted to meet him.)  He writes;

“Is the Big Society fully-formed? No, but nor should we expect it to be. It’s early days, it seems interesting enough, and the fact that it isn’t defined and there is still space to create it, actually makes it more interesting. And that’s the ultimate point.”

“It’s up to us – social entrepreneurs, communities, technologists, public servants, business – to make it mean something. As far as I’m concerned, politicians should just set the direction, do the big speeches, and then get out of the way as quickly as they can. I’m not looking for solutions from them. We tried that. It was a bit rubbish.”

“Big Society isn’t about politicians. It’s about us. And the sooner we get on with it, the sooner we can start making it good.”

For many people, the quickest way to ‘get’ the big society is to see examples of it in action.  This excellent post by David Barrie has ten projects to be looking at.  He concludes;

“What’s exciting about almost all of these enterprises is that they tend to merge the profit motive with a moral imperative – and many directly confront social need through the businesses themselves.

Almost all of these ventures – in a politically non-partisan way – trigger volunteering and social action and act as touch-point for providing a public service, be it care for seniors, healthy living, food security, literacy or managing waste in the built environment.

Most are trading systems. Almost all elicit support by association. All are optimistic.”

Arguably the most diligent chronicler of conversations about all things big society is David Wilcox.  He is an extremely thoughtful guy who gives generously of his time reporting numerous events.   If you don’t have time to read some of his posts, then at least follow his updates on Twitter.

A note of caution is sounded by David Robinson, someone I got to know during my two years as a member of the Council on Social Action.  You would have to speak to practically everyone in Britain before you found someone with a bad word to say about David, and this, combined with his expertise around social action makes his reflections here all the more compelling;

“Arriving for work at Community Links in Canning Town this morning I passed a long queue of people waiting for advice or practical support in this, one of the UKs most disadvantaged communities. The questions I ask of every government programme are the same today as everyday. “How does it meet their needs? How does it tackle poverty, not just money but poverty of opportunity, and what more could be done?” I’m not sure that what I know about the Big Society, or what its leading minister, Francis Maude, had to say about it last week,  helps me with the answers”

“Criticism at this stage is of course just as empty as wide eyed enthusiasm. It simply isn’t yet time for the jury to return. We could however be thinking more about the criteria for   judgement, the basis on which we might   appraise the Big Society , challenge it, build it. Our Chain Reaction network has begun this work with a statement of principles sketching our vision of the good society, outlining the principles that might underpin that vision and suggesting the expectations, for ourselves and for government that might flow from this analysis.”

David mentions Matthew Taylor’s work, leading the RSA.  This post in particular  is worth highlighting, in which Matthew says;

“As an overall scorecard I would give BS ‘fair to good’ as a big idea. As a set of policy proposals – such as the Big Society Bank, national citizens service, your square mile – I would say ‘has promise but must show delivery’. But it is as a way of judging or shaping mainstream policies across Government where I think lies the greatest potential and also the greatest current weaknesses and dangers of the Big Society.”

Finally, in this comprehensive post, Lee Bryant from Headshift explains why he is drawn to the role that social networks can play in the Big Society;

“Instead of formulating policy, and then seeking to leverage social networks as a tool or a vehicle for policy, we should instead start at the other end of the chain and try to better understand the world, and the existing social networks, in which public services seek to intervene.”

“Healthy social networks are in many ways the connective tissue of a Big Society, and encouraging their development around issues of civic importance are a key part of the process of weaning people off a dependent relationship on the state and enabling them to help each other.”

It will be interesting to see how this Wikipedia page about the Big Society evolves over time.  Likewise, there are some interesting thoughts emerging through the Big Society Network, led by Paul Twivy, who I am a big fan of, and have enjoyed exchanging ideas with over the past few months.

The final word then, to the Times, which has described the Big Society as;

“”An impressive attempt to reframe the role of government and unleash entrepreneurial spirit”.

Put like that, it sounds like my kind of idea.  You can count me in!


6 Replies to “Exploring the Big Society”

  1. Good Post. Cameron and others could do with a bit of McKnight in their lives though.

    Understand the limits to government. If it replaces the work of citizens and their associations it will not create a healthy society – but a dependent one. The community will look to government to solve local problems and government will be unable to fulfil this role. Local problems will worsen. ‘Secure, wise and just communities are created by citizens and their associations and enterprises, supported by governments making useful investments in local assets’.

    There is more here: http://localenterprise.wordpress.com/2010/01/06/precautions-for-all-governments-john-mcknight/

  2. Excellent article Oli, and certainly a subject that needs discussing more. I agree that it’s a notion that’s not fully formed.
    The Big Society (what a crap name) for me, is about giving permission to all those people who were discouraged from taking the lead, and taking charge before. Those people who are naturally inclined to show initiative and get off their backside to make things happen. You could call them busybodies or activists.
    Whilst I think the idea is worthy of merit, I’m not so naive as to believe that this is not just a wooly, lentil-knitting, let’s fix the world notion. Just as Labour are claiming that the aggressive cutting of government spending is a cover for reducing the size of the state, I’d be shocked if there weren’t already firm (and funded) plans for hospitals, schools and other public services to be moved swiftly into the profit making private sector.
    It’s difficult to argue against a seemingly positive rejig of society, but think about it this way; Amongst those who will be most enthusiastic, are those who want to stop supporting the least able in society, who cost more than they contribute in taxes.

  3. I too am finding the negative press coverage frustrating. Big Society is a brilliant opportunity, not yet another top down dictat. However, I think the slow uptake by the country is also frustrating (and perhaps beginning to worry) Cameron and his team.

    However I’m convinced it will happen and am certainly doing my bit to encourage people in what I feel is the right direction.

    The British public are like a baby on the potty. They will do something when they’re fit and ready, but no amount of cajoling or tummy stroking will hasten the emergence of the much hoped for new movement. It’ll come out when it’s ready and I think that’s going to be pretty soon!

  4. Good post Oli. Coverage of the “Big Society” seems to be almost entirely negative both from Cameron’s political opponents and increasingly from the traditional right.

    We asked users of votetub.com, our online voting website, their first impressions of the big society. Here are the latest results as I write:

    Love it 29%
    Hate it 43%
    Don’t understand it 19%
    Never heard of it 10%

    Many of those that we speak to are concerned that this is just a smokescreen to push through deeper neo-liberal cuts.

  5. Nice one Oli.
    nice barometer of views
    for my tuppence, i like it as an idea
    now it’s out there, it’s down to people to pick it up and shape it, to make it relevant and useful.
    For me it feels like social innovation being let out into the wild.
    which i think is a good thing.
    I think people get really hung up on either or.
    we need combinations of ideas and ways to deliver public services
    experimentation is the way forward
    if a handful of networks start experimenting, with some support and seeding, then we might just get things moving.
    exciting i reckon 😉

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