There is no Big Society Big Plan – and that’s no bad thing

All reporting – even the making-sense, joining-up, helping-out social reporting type – should have some element of disclosure to keep it interesting. So here’s a secret about Big Society, on which I have written a lot recently. Remember, it was the cornerstone of the Conservative election manifesto, has been re-launched several times by David Cameron, and figures in the programmes of government departments. But …
There is no Big Society Big Plan, and no-one is in charge.
Unfortunately, in the journalistic sense, it’s not much of story. For that you need a “how shocking” quote in the second paragraph, and someone to blame in the third.
The fact that Big Society is somewhat under-organised may be surprising to those experienced in the ways of the previous administration, where programmes were driven, targetted, promoted, logo-ed and of course funded. But in current circumstances having a nonorg nonprogramme is no bad thing. I’ll quote you a RSA pamphlet later to prove it.
(At this point I’ll remind you that I’ve been working as social reporter for the Big Society Network (BSN) for a few months, and will shortly explain why it is possible to let out today’s little secret with no sense of disloyality.)
The Big Society is about a Smaller State, with more action by citizens, social enterprises, and charities to provide mutual support and services. It comes at a time of big spending cuts, justified by the Coalition govenment as necessary in order to reduce the budget deficit. Even-handed briefing here from Urban Forum.
So it is no surprise that Big Society is widely derided as a smoke-screen for the cuts, and it may be rather convenient in a shallow sense that no-one is in charge, and there isn’t a lot of money behind it. It’s going to be a difficult-to-hit target for the Labour opposition when they emerge from the leadership elections, and Labour is advised to take it seriously.
Before going on, I should say that different aspects of Big Society certainly do have plans. At the political level you can read the manifesto commitments. At the next level of policy there a number of significant commitments – like the Big Society Bank, and national citizen service. Training for 5000 new community organisers has been promised. Four vanguard areas have been identified for trialing projects. Just do a search on the Cabinet Office site. The Minister for Civil Society Nick Hurd is much involved, and tweets about his Big Society work. Nat Wei, now Baron Wei, was one of the architects of the Big Society idea, and is an unpaid government adviser working behind the scene on various projects.
BSN are developing a project called Your Square Mile (info here and video of Paul Twivy explaining), while also helping promote other ideas like the Social App Store.
On the self-organising front, Julian Dobson and others developing Big Society in the North have decided that BS is coming – like it or not – so let’s make the best of it, and use the really positive promotion by Government of local social action to free up some fresh thinking, identify some new ideas, and pitch for what funding there is. If you want to approach Big Society Bank when it launches next year, I would suggest a similar approach … though I think it makes sense anyway, which is why I’m working with BSN.
So – there is quite a lot going on. But my time reporting on Big Society has convinced me that there is no Big Plan. This can be confusing for civil servants who naturally enough like order, and journalists, and people trying to find some one place in which to talk online about Big Society. However, it is in line with the notion that Big Society is an approach, rather than a policy programme.
That’s all very well, you might say, but will it work? Fortunately the RSA has just published a pamphlet by noted economist Paul Ormerod: N squared – Public policy and the power of networks – which explains why top-down heavily-programmed decision making is often not the answer. The pamphlet quotes David Cameron:

For years, there was the basic assumption at the heart of government that the way to improve things in society was to micromanage from the centre, from Westminster. But this just doesn’t work. . . .The success of the Big Society will depend on the daily decisions of millions of people: on them giving their time, effort, even money, to causes around them.

The RSA summarises Paul Ormerod’s argument:

This essay argues that to be effective, the policy framework for the 21st century must not only draw on the new insights that behavioural economics gives us, but also needs to be underpinned by an understanding between this and how networks influence our choices and how these change over time. Indeed, the impact of networks is potentially considerably greater than that of ‘nudge’. This makes creating good policy harder while offering huge potential for change.

Rose Beynon follows this up with an excellent post on Nudge versus the Network:

N Squared discusses the recent love affair with ‘Nudge’ – the popular face of behavioural economics that has influenced the Tories’ approach to the Big Society thus far – and commends the concept to a certain extent.  It has helped people to finally bin the idea seated in traditional economics that there is a universal mode for behaviour – it allows for uncertainty in human decision making.

Ormerod goes one step further – he thinks we should allow for more uncertainty.  Nudge is an insight into how you can start to steer a network of people towards a different pattern of behaviour, but ultimately the network will take the reins and choose whether they follow that course or not.

It is this recognition of the influence of social networks which Ormerod argues must become key if we are to engage with individuals and have a hand in the choices they make.  This understanding accepts the truly dialogical nature of an individual or citizen, an idea that philosophers like Charles Taylor have been banging on about for the last decade.  Humans reason and make decisions through exposure to and interaction with those networks or frameworks that surround them, whether that’s a Facebook group or a queue in the Post Office.

The truth is that policy based on a little bit of nudging and a greater understanding of networks is a rather daunting thought for a policy maker.  It presents a world which is disorderly and uncontrollable, where initiatives may fail and the network may influence unpredictable decisions.  But there is also an opportunity for huge pay offs.  A small intervention based on a keen understanding of the networks influencing individuals could make a real and tangible impact.

Acceptance of this irrational world would be scary for policymakers and those of us working in communications, if it wasn’t so exciting.  Here is the opportunity to get a greater understanding of what and who influences citizens, enabling them to make choices that benefit themselves and those around them.

So that’s why I feel OK breaking the non-story that there is no Big Society Big Plan. However, I do believe we need more than is being attempted at present. As a reporter I feel a duty to help people make sense of what is going on – and I’m sure others do too. We have lots of tweeting and blogging, but that is not aggregated or curated anywhere effectively. I made a start with a wiki around the BSN Open Night, but it needs expansion and updating.
If we want to amplify the positive potential of Big Society then we need more networking. This is the vision behind the BSN plans for Your Square Mile, but I also think we could do more by helping join up existing networks in the field.
In addition, the Big Society vision is attracting attention from sponsors who want to support projects. We need a way to join up project proposals with funding resources.
But who is the “we” in the ideas I’ve listed above? Partly Big Society Network, but also anyone else who wants to have a go. There is no plan. No one is in charge. You don’t have to ask permission. If you can, just do it.


  • August 26, 2010 - 3:11 pm | Permalink

    As a community sector person this is the way of working I am most comfortable with viz no plan and no one in charge. This may sound counter intuitive to many in the wider sector and government however it does not mean chaos but really a greater level of trust and sophistication in how we work with each other. So very much applaud this and well worth BSN stating this from the off.

    What I would also like to see amidst the creative ambiguity and messiness is a clear focus on how we describe and articulate the support and development needs for very local, small and informal groups.

    I’m already getting a sense from the early rumblings of the localism bill that we may be in danger of falling back on the old top down ways of operating, focusing on council and voluntary sector sub contractor worlds but not addressing the 9/10th of the VCS who never had any money or contracts in the first place and whom, rhetorically are the most obvious Big Society constituency.

    I want to see the messiness of community development, very early level community enterprise and all the simple encouragement and support that local people can access, being made much more concrete – because history and experience tells us that big words and expectations have a habit of not translating.

    The Community Empowerment agenda and neighbourhood renewal promised us a 20 year plan and abolition of neighbourhood inequality so we have been here before many times and often.

    Big Society is right to focus on the grassroots of civil society but we’ll all have to work very hard to ensure we not only adopt a very open and freeing approach – no plan, no leaders – but also ensure we don’t leave to chance the real distribution of power and resources and ensure this does not become a vacuum or vacuous so that people fall back on always doing what they’ve always done.

    If you’re a hard pressed well meaning council officer having to write a committee report to your local cabinet committee on ‘enabling the Big Society in Humberside, Harrow or Hackney’, chances are, under pressure, you’ll still stick to the tried and tested capacity building and command and control and the most easily available trusted few in the VCS, so that is my challenge to myself and others on this one

  • Laura McInerney
    August 27, 2010 - 8:57 am | Permalink

    If there’s no plan *and* no-one in charge isn’t that just… ‘life’?

    Also, if Big Society requires more of anything – in this case you say, ‘more action by citizens, social enterprise and charities’ – how will you get that without a plan and/or someone in charge? I believe ‘wing and a prayer’ is a somewhat short term strategy.

    I seem to remember that most of this centralisation came about precisely because when people were left to their own devices services became very patchy and tended to focus only on notions of ‘deserving poor.

  • August 27, 2010 - 9:28 am | Permalink

    Thanks Matt and Laura for crystalising one of the key issues I see in the Big Society approach: how much central, how much local, and how much may be down to third sector/civil society. If the latter can they do this on reduced budgets? Or is there a fourth way – mass engagement on the lines of Comic Relief? That’s something Big Society Network is proposing through Your Square Mile

  • August 27, 2010 - 9:44 am | Permalink

    Funny how things just pop up in Twitter when you need them. Louie Gardiner has a great article here arguing that it will take a co-creation process to achieve some shared vision and purpose for Big Society to succeed.
    “There is no simple formula to creating the Big Society eg. ‘hand over the running of public services to charities, social enterprises and voluntary groups’. It takes a more systemic recognition of the scale of the challenge; it takes mutual understanding and appreciation not only of current and potential partners, players, people; it takes a different enquiry about the nature of the power that each has available, as well as a curiosity about their vested interest (ie what is ‘in it’ for each of them to effect change rather than maintain the status quo); and then it takes a willingness to engage by enough people to create the tipping point into a new way of being in society. Change will not come from an enlightened individual. The challenge is: how to grow enough of us, who are aware enough, to generate critical mass”.

  • August 27, 2010 - 12:43 pm | Permalink

    Great post David – measured and unpatronising. As a healthy cynic I *want* to see the concept work (and tools like microvolunteering, such as the Orange product launch I saw you at last week will help empower us to ‘do our bit’); but I would feel better about it should there not be this transparent flattery of the third sector, buttering us up to deliver much more with much less..

    I will not be a reluctant participant in Big Society, but will remain a whistleblower of broken promises.

    Best, Rob

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