It’s been an interesting day for Big Society watchers, or more particularly for those interested in the role of the Big Society Network.** (declaration of interest below).
Third Sector Magazine ran an analysis of the Network by John Plummer, together with the story that the “town hall tour” of a dozen or so meetings around the country had been called off following a “turbulent” first gathering in Stockport.
The Guardian racked it up a bit with ‘Big Society’ meetings cancelled over cuts anger – “Embarrassment for Cameron as meeting series meant to kickstart ‘big society’ abandoned due to public frustration at spending cuts”.
The Guardian piece quotes Nicola Headlam, Stockport resident and researcher at the Centre for Local Economic Strategies in Manchester:
“The mood was quite ugly by the end,” Headlam said. “There was so much anger about what the cuts are going to do to the voluntary sector when, at the same time, the vision of the big society is not being well articulated.”
I wasn’t there, but watched the Twitter stream, and saw the videos shot by John Popham and analysed here. My impression from that, and subsequent conversations with others who were there, was that there was anger at the cuts, but also an eagerness among some people to explore the possible opportunities. Most of all, I suspect, people wanted more clarity about Big Society and role of the Network. It fell to Steve Moore to try and provide explanations on all fronts, and also act as facilitator: an unfortunate conflict of roles.
In retrospect it was perhaps unwise of the Network to take to the road with an open space format – where participants set the agenda – and no mechanism for capturing discussions or ensuring they were reported to … who, Government? That worked fine at an earlier Open Night in London, with invitations mainly via Twitter, and many people knowing each other from the social media/innovation circuit. There was an expectation of a brainstorming occasion early in the season. By September expectations and questions were much sharper.
There had been an earlier event in Sheffield, in July, for the launch of Big Society in the North – where people were very realistic about tough times ahead, reckoned the north had some experience in these matters, and were looking pragmatically for ways to make the best of it without being co-opted to the Tory Coalition cause. Again, quite a few people knew each other, and there was an atmosphere of trust.
In Stockport the Network ended up with nothing much to offer, and flak catching for Government.
The Network does have a big project, called Your Square Mile, which I have detailed here, but at the time of the Stockport event there wasn’t much to say about its realisation.
That changed today with a brief announcement, also covered by Third Sector, that the ASDA Foundation would act as a partner and funder for the project. Brand Republic has a little more here.
In the light of that, it makes sense for the Network to reschedule its event programme for later in the year with a focus on the Your Square Mile project. Chief Executive Paul Twivy announced this on the BSN blog a few days ago:
Our development focus is currently on Your Square Mile: a citizens’ mutual designed to enable and encourage people to take actions that strengthen their local neighbourhoods. We’ve taken on board input from events over the summer and meetings with 50-60 organisations individual to learn best practice and understand how we might help them. And we’ve met many more in conferences and seminars. Thanks to everyone who has taken the time to help us out – and for your patience.
We’re now revising plans for a tour, putting together workshops and pilots in up to 15 communities around the UK to further develop ideas for Your Square Mile. We’ll post details here as things develop, but the timeframe probably won’t be until late November / December.
The Network also provides a Q and A here about its relationship with government and other issues. It’s easy to say in retrospect, but it would have been better to have that available in time for the Stockport event.
** I worked with the Network for a couple of months, and have great respect for the team – even if we didn’t always agree. Wearing the reporter hat it makes sense to push for openness, transparency, clear offers, wide engagement and so on. On the other hand it’s pretty difficult if you are a chief executive, juggling possible deals with sponsors in a very contested area without much start-up funding … so congratulations to Paul and the team for pulling off a deal.
In future I want to revert to a more independent reporter guise and take a closer look at the detail of Your Square Mile and other aspects of Big Society.
I’m not as cyncial about Big Society as this tweeter
But instead rather agree with this
So much of what may be good or bad about the Big Society idea lies in the local context. Broad brush declarations one way or the other are ceasing to be much help.
I’m very conscious that this socialreporter blog has been almost entirely devoted to the topic for a few months, and I’m planning to shift some of my writing back to another blog I started in 2003, called Designing for Civil Society. I mentioned that possibility in May, and now feels the right time. It’ll take a few days, and I’ll continue to cross-post on socialreporter.
Earlier BS posts here.)
Update: Very interesting post here from Nick Booth at Conservative Party Conference, including news of an independent commission.