It’s been a bad couple of weeks for Big Society if you are sitting in Whitehall … but rather a good time if you believe that there are some useful principles and opportunities in the large bag originally promoted as central to the Conservative manifesto. They are just in the wrong ownership.
We need to unpack the bag, re-assemble the pieces, claim them for ourselves, and stick on some different labels. After all, Big Society is meant to be about shifting power from central to local, and enabling citizens to take control. These days social media means we don’t have to accept brands created in our name, or organising methods from another age.
The bad/good fortnight started with a front-page splash in the Times, prompting “end of the beginning” analysis and ended up with Liverpool council pulling out of the vanguard area programme. In between we had lots of “Big Society in crisis” blogging, including a “you couldn’t make it up” piece from the Wall Street Journal. In Liverpool Phil Redmond said he stuck by the principles, but “the marketing slogan is not the best” … and the BBC’s Nick Robinson said Big Society should be high on the agenda for the PM’s new messenger Craig Oliver.
The comments from Phil and Nick show what’s wrong with Big Society communications … as well, of course, as the problem of people thinking it is all about volunteering (that’s just part of it) and cuts undermining local support systems (they need changing, but not this fast, at this cost).
Big Society isn’t – or shouldn’t be – a promotional, marketing exercise. It should be a something to be co-evolved, co-designed with a wide range of interests … but Government doesn’t know how to do that (even though co-production is much promoted as part of the Big Society agenda). So we’ve had a mix that comes across as part hectoring and part “just make it up for yourself”.
It hasn’t helped that there are quite a few government or close-to-government voices – No 10 with its Big Society awards, Lord Nat Wei, Big Society Network, and various government departments – not always in tune.
At Big Society Network Steve Moore, its new director, is promising a programme to Convene, Curate, Narrate ideas and stories with events and a new web site. I think that’s very promising – and have talked to Steve about helping – but I’m doubtful whether it can be done successfully under the Big Society banner and mainly from London. I’m keen to see what coming.
More promising at the moment – in my view – is Our Society, where I’ve been volunteering some time with Julian Dobson and the group who originally set up Big Society in the North. It is an open forum, that may evolve into a network and enterprise. You can read its aims here. I don’t believe it is helpful to promote Our Society as an alternative Big Society … it comes from a different direction and process that’s bottom up, organic, and sensitive to the needs and passions of those involved. Although, on reflection … isn’t that what Big Society should be?
The need to move on is not entirely lost on those in Government, and the well-connected ResPublica blog offers a very clever spin by suggesting that all is fine and we are just moving towards Big Society 2.0. It’s not a crisis:
In fact what we are seeing over the last two weeks is something far more positive, and necessary, if the Big Society is to succeed: the start of a transfer of responsibility for mobilising and leading the project from central government downward to our neighbourhoods and communities.
Adding, that real potential is about to be released through the Localism Bill, when that is enacted. Communities and neighbourhoods will take advantage of new rights over assets, land, building and services.
Maybe … though it is difficult at present to see how that will work without close collaboration with local government, and strong local support systems: both being severely eroded by the cuts. To his great credit, Phil Redmond made that point very strongly.
It will also be important that local initiatives are able to share their ideas and experiences, and if we stick with “Big Society” as a label that is impossible. It is seen by many of those at grass-roots level as a tainted Tory brand. I happen to believe that Big Society, in the minds of David Cameron, Lord Wei and others in power, is a sincerely-held set of beliefs and commitments that would chime with many on the ground.
But it doesn’t really matter what they say or believe from the top: the meaning of a message lies with the receiver, not the transmitter. And Big Society advocates are mostly in transmit mode. They have failed on the first principle of co-design – offer a trusted space for people of good will to get to know each other, listen, learn and begin to evolve something together.
How might that be done? Well, it’s not for me or anyone else to say. Tough though it may be, we need to co-design the process … not just add 2.0, launch a new web site and run some London events.
It’s pretty difficult to get that sort of process going bottom-up.
Fortunately the tweets from me and others yesterday led to a message from a nation newspaper asking if I would write 600 words on the topic. The old hack in me thought – great, here’s a chance to push some of my ideas. The socialreporter replied, use the opportunity to crowdsource the ideas from others, and see if we can develop something together. Make sense, join up, help to evolve. My contact readily agreed to use mainstream media leverage to help this bottom-up process.
This piece is by way of ground clearing, and I’ll follow up with more about the process linked to the article … which hopefully will help lead towards new substance for whatever-we-might-call Big Society from now on.
Meanwhile, feel free to leave a comment here, tweet something with a tag (I’m suggesting #claimBS thanks to a helpful suggestion), find me on twitter @davidwilcox, email me firstname.lastname@example.org … or even better come over to this same post on Our Society and join the discussion there. You have to register, but it is simple, and worth the effort. Big Society is the government’s story, Our Society is our story … or choose your own label, and share it.