Understanding and building Big Society (whatever you call it)

Big Society resurfaced this week with a public administration select committee report saying people don’t understand what is, and there should be a new Minister responsible. Kate Wiggins assesses proposals in Third Sector.

NCVO and TSRC hosted a seminar to provide a critical re-appraisal, that yielded lots of tweets (thanks mainly to @commutiny). Slides and agenda are now here too. Pathik Pathak has blogged that it was illuminating, optimistic but adversarial. Panelist Matthew Taylor found it downbeat and rather grumpy.

The Big Society Network launched a new website, with a one-year-on report from director Steve Moore

A couple of commentators followed through, with Ruth Porter in the Telegraph on Building a Big Society from the bottom up (we need a Smaller State), and Janet Morrison in the Guardian Lose the egos and collaborate (charities must live up to their values). Each interesting, if predictably aimed at respective core audiences.

A few references to academic papers surfaced: Building the Big Society: evidence about civic engagement and community control from June, Empowerment or Abandonment? Prospects for Neighbourhood Revitalization Under the Big Society, lessons from Baltimore and Bristol, this month.

Urban Forum produced one of their concise and readable briefings, this time by Caitlin McMullin on the Localism Act.

This post isn’t an attempt at a comprehensive round-up, and my focus here is less on the substance of the reports and seminar than on the means of communicating the Big Society idea/project/initiative/brand … whatever it is. Previous posts here, including how the public call to action side of it has faded, while policies like Localism and Open Public Services are changing the framework by which government shifts the balance between what they do, and what we are expected to do for ourselves.

What struck me about the re-emerging Big Society debate was how distant it was from the way that people actually talk about their local community, and do things for mutual benefit (unless they are paid community development workers, in which case they naturally pay a lot more attention to diminishing career prospects, and are rightly concerned about policy developments).

I caught a terrific dose of community optimism last Saturday, when I went to an event in south London, celebrating the I Love Thornton Heath project. I’ve blogged about it here, as part of the work I’m doing with John Popham and Drew Mackie for the Big Lottery Fund’s People Powered Change.


As you’ll see from the post and videos it was all about the stories people want to tell each other about their neighbourhoods, and the scope for helping each other that comes from that. I’m sure it would have gladdened David Cameron’s heart, and that of Ministers like Francis Maude and Nick Hurd, responsible for Big Society … but I don’t think I heard the words once. (Nor did we hear much about the riots, which happened up the road: the starting point was strengths, rather than problems, although these were acknowledged).

The response from Cabinet Office, quoted by the Guardian, to the select committee report which claimed people didn’t understand Big Society, and that concerted action was needed, was:

Programmes such as Community Organisers, Community First and National Citizen Service will help stimulate more social action by bringing people together in the communities they live in to solve problems and make the most of opportunities and assets. And there is a clear plan of how government will support this. The Localism Bill give power back to local communities, while the Open Public Services White Paper will empower individuals by giving them choice over services and empower neighbourhoods to take greater control over local services. In addition the Cabinet Office business plan sets out a clear set of objectives for the Office for Civil Society.

I suspect that the response from people like those that I met in Thornton Heath might be something to the effect that we’ve being doing what you call Big Society for years, but we can’t quite see how the policies and programmes that you are talking about will make a difference. Not that they won’t – but it isn’t clear. We just don’t understand.

I hope I’m not putting hypothetic words into people’s mouths: I’m just connecting the conversations I had last Saturday with one I had with Eileen Conn at the recent People Powered Change workshop.

Eileen suggests that the way that informal community groups operate, with no paid staff, is fundamentally different from the more conventionally managed operations of funded voluntary organisations (and public services, of course). The groups work through horizontal person-to-person networks, while organisations operate vertically and hierarchically. Taking an analogy from physics, one is matter, one is more like energy waves. Thinking about joining bottom-up and top-down misses the complexity of the social ecosystem.

If you accept Eileen’s analysis, it goes a long way towards explaining why Big Society – as expressed by Cabinet Office – doesn’t play out on the ground. It’s not just a matter of “something invented by the Tories” or too tied up with the cuts: it is just from another planet.

So how can we develop some common understanding, between Government, central and local, other public services, voluntary bodies and community groups? I think there’s broad agreement – certainly evident at the seminar – that we need a mix of all of these.

Tessy Britton’s Social Spaces project has a game that provides a way of playing the issues through – and like Tessy and her collaborators I find that games are a great way to create spaces within which people from different backgrounds can have useful conversations (here’s one Drew Mackie and I ran about community spaces).

In Tessy’s game – described here – people sort through a collection of 100 skills that are printed on cards, and consider:

  • skills that the group can do
  • skills that their friends can do
  • skills that to their knowledge neither they nor their friends can do

My experience of the game is that people find that there are a lot more cards in the first set than they might expect. Tessy reports:

“Through workshopping with over 1800 people in the last 14 months we have discovered that this activity, but some miracle, did exactly what we hoped it would.

  • Without exception everyone enjoys this game – people always laugh and joke their way through the game which takes about 10-15 minutes – we have even had frequent demonstrations of ‘sitting in the lotus’ position.
  • It is informal and people interact in light ways that help them get to know one another better.
  • Of the 100 activities a group of 4 or more will be able to do, or have a friend do, over 90% of the skills. The percentage between how much an individual group can do themselves varies on size of group, but generally speaking most skills can be done in the community.
  • It does make people feel capable – we have frequently had groups spontaneously applaud themselves at their collective cleverness.
  • It genuinely surprises them how much can be done around the table – and through this are also blown away considering how much skill is lying dormant in the community.”

Tessy adds  you can buy a set of cards on the Social Spaces Shop – “BUT before you do, please be aware that you will be able to request a free PDF of the Social Spaces Skills Game in the new year, which we are making available free for community’s use via a Creative Commons [Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs] licence”.

I think that this gives us one clue to the challenge of how to help people understand and build Big Society (or whatever you choose to call the good stuff people do in their community). Create an open sourced store of games and other methods. I’ve previously called that a social app store.

Another very promising approach is emerging over on the Our Society site, where Lorna Prescott is inviting people to join development of a guide to Our Society. Lorna has picked up on a rather theoretical framework I developed back in January, and wants to assemble practical ideas and test them through the reality of life in Dudley. If people in other communities join in, the guide/store could evolve quite fast. I’m sure if we applied Tessy’s game strategically, we would find that we have all of the ingredients (to shift the metaphor to that used in the Transition Network Companion).

I’m planning to shift more of my blogging towards understanding what local people and groups need to develop our/big/good society. Bottom up? Grassroots? Energy-led? People-powered? Oh  dear, I can see language is going to be a problem. What would you say?


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