The Guardian’s Societydaily roundup quotes my remark that “It’s obvious we are going to see big cuts in local services whoever is
elected, so we had better get thinking” So here we go.
Patrick Butler writes in the Guardian:
I have some sympathy with the signatories of this letter in “defence of civil society”, from a group of social entrepreneurs who feel that the election knock-about over David Cameron’s ‘big society’ has somewhat obscured, misrepresented or trivialised some of the ideas within it – citizen engagement, community ownership, self-help, public services co-ops and so on.
Media cynicism about big society I expected. But I’ve been struck by how a combination of election fever and tribal loyalty has turned some liberal-minded friends and colleagues who I imagined might be sympathetic to some of the ideas in the concept into unfeasibly staunch defenders of the big state, as if what we had before us was a straightforward choice, one or the other. Friends who have for years bemoaned the decline in voting, the scarcity of cub scout leaders, and other signs of the erosion of social capital bristle at the chutzpah of Cameron for proposing to do something about it.
But if we can’t or won’t accept the need to find new ways of filling the spaces from where the state has seemingly no option but to retreat, the forthcoming cuts to public services are going to be even more painful.
The Guardian piece comes in the wake of a letter from Steven Clift, who has been promoting e-democracy and engagement across world for the past 15 years. He writes to 20 of his contacts:
Hey all, through about five different channels across different countries I’ve picked up on growing interest among community builders (particularly at the neighborhood engagement and local democracy level) in some sort of mix of digital guides and connecting tools that help people share lessons and civic energy across local communities. People want to move from talk to problem-solving and direct citizen engagement.
Some of you are into virtual guidebooks, others into Linkedin-like tools, local e-competitions, unconferences, or digital storytelling. I have my own interest in fostering multi-tech online communities of practice. What seems new to me is the level interest in connecting the active citizens (not just connections via trade groups or global sites like Zunia.org at the professional level) across communities directly via digital means. What is definitely new is all the simultaneous interest in channels that are not all that connected and some cases networks are that are new to me.
This is certainly the sort of thing that the Big Society Network wants to promote, and chimes in the exploration of social technology for local action on this wiki and the SocialbySocial network I’ve been developing with Amy Sample Ward and Andy Gibson, co-authors in the SocialbySocial handbook. It also gives me a nudge to do some joining up with guides I’ve written on participation and partnerships, and dig back into some entries on my old blog Designing for Civil Society.
The difficulty in blending social tech, social enterprise and older (but still very necessary) models of community action is that it is complicated … because local communities are complex. You can provide ideas for small scale actions by individuals and groups, but area-wide action involves building consensus among different interests, agreeing priorities, who does what, and so.
One technique I’ve found works (and of course there are others) are the various workshop games developed over the years with my colleage Drew Mackie, and more recently with Amy and Andy for Social by Social. They help people, working in groups, through the process of thinking about their situation, who they want to involve, and their goals, and then offer ideas for action on cards. There is then a follow-through in which people look at roles and resources, and the story of what may happen.
The most recent game focusses on social media, but Drew and did a Regeneration Game a few years back, for NIACE. It’s not now available from them, but we can easily reconstruct the cards and instructions, with ideas for nontech local action.
As a first step I’m planning to rework the local communities wiki with appropriate versions of the game (s). The different elements of the game (understanding your locality, involving others, choosing project ideas) can be linked to more detailed information, and where possible practical examples of neighbourhood action.
One of the most interesting issues for me, in linking tech-enabled social action with older methods, is how far the world of social media helps promote the principles and values we need for working together.
Amy, Andy and I had a lot of fun putting together a set of propositions for the Social by Social book, which you can see here. And just to show how things join up, I’m just off to a Net Tuesday event organised by Amy where David Turner will facilitate a discussion on the Cluetrain Manifesto which inspired our propositions. It has started me thinking about some proposition for redesigning civil society, big or otherwise. I’ll report back tomorrow. I’m expecting to re-inforce ideas about being open and human, generous … co-designing, learning from others, connecting across boundaries. I do know there will at Net Tuesday be people who think and behave that way … which is ultimate why social tech may help in our civic redesigning. It is people and collaborations that make things work, not tools, however smart.