Designing the Big (Civil) Society – it's DIY time

Summary: there’s now a fair amount in the open about The Big Society, but still many questions about just What Is It Going to Be. The answer is – the Government isn’t going to tell us the whole story. We are going to have to do it ourselves. So who is interested in Designing for Civil Society?

Detail: We now have a Minister for Civil Society in Nick Hurd, the launch of the Big Society programme at No 10, and a lot of online comment. Here’s my bookmarks, and previous posts on this blog.

The main points of the programme reflect the pre-election vision presented by Mr Cameron: more powers for local government and communities; encouraging volunteering; National Citizen Service; supporting mutuals, co-operatives, charities and social enterprises; funds from a Big Society Bank; training for local community organisers.

The comment includes warnings from existing organisations … don’t start without us; don’t forget the old lessons of community; a plea to bring capitalism into the mix; plus some healthy scepticism. We are getting daily roundups from Patrick Butler at Guardian Society Daily.

We have become rather conditioned by the central policy-making and programming of the previous government to expect a blueprint for what happens next. We’ve had one from the Respublica think tank, promoting the idea of local social hublets.
However, I think Adil Abrar at Sidekick Studios gets it right when he says Big Society Means Us.

Is the Big Society fully-formed?

No, but nor should we expect it to be. It’s early days, it seems interesting enough, and the fact that it isn’t defined and there is still space to create it, actually makes it more interesting. And that’s the ultimate point.

It’s up to us – social entrepreneurs, communities, technologists, public servants, business – to make it mean something. As far as I’m concerned, politicians should just set the direction, do the big speeches, and then get out of the way as quickly as they can. I’m not looking for solutions from them. We tried that. It was a bit rubbish.

I’d go further even. If in 5 years we look back and Big Society is seen as a failure, I think we should be looking to ourselves first and foremost. How imaginative were our solutions? How good were we with executing the ideas? Did we manage to convince public sector to procure our solutions? Where we able to articulate our impact? Did we scale our amibition sufficiently?

Big Society isn’t about politicians. It’s about us. And the sooner we get on with it, the sooner we can start making it good.

There will be government initiatives, led by Nat Wei, but the spirit of the Big Society is in large part Do It Yourself. Much of the detail will have to be worked out at local level between community activists, social entrepreneurs, local government and many other interests. The best way to do that is not around committee tables, but using some of the creative methods both face-to-face and online that have been developed in recent years.

At the SHINE unconference last Saturday Cliff Prior and Geraldine Blake led a workshop in which a group of social entrepreneurs discussed bottom-up and to-down what’s needed locally and nationally to create a good environment for social innovation – report here.

Last month Amy Sample Ward and I helped run the Transformed by You event with Kent and Medway councils, where local activists got together with council staff and social tech experts to evolve innovative ways to improve public services.

We’ve run the Social by Social game many times both for real and at conferences to help people think through how to use social media in organisations and localities … and there are scores of other facilitators with their own methods for collaborative design. Tessy Britton and David Gauntlett have some really inspirational examples in their Social Spaces project proposal.

A common theme in a lot of comments is, don’t re-invent the wheel. Build on past experience. The problem, of course, is that this experience is very widely distributed in dozens of toolkits, and other publications, on scores of blogs … and anyway people don’t generally read the manual. Unless they are writing yet another toolkit. Networks like Chain Reaction are a great way to share knowledge, and I’m really looking forward to the ideas session they are holding in June.

But in my experience, whether it’s a group of activists, social entrepreneurs or local government officers, you can’t assume people will easily start co-designing new stuff together – particularly if that involves adding technology. People need to get to know and trust each other, tell stories about what’s worked and what hasn’t, filter inspirational ideas against local realities, think about who does what, where the money comes from, and so on. That’s particularly difficult when you are doing that with less funds then before – as will certainly be the case.

This led me to think about a web site and events that would focus specifically on the challenges of designing new approaches for local social action, as I wrote earlier here. Maybe I should use neighbourhoods.org.uk which I registered some time back.

Then I thought … Minister for Civil Society … Designing for Civil Society … which is the name of a blog I wrote from 2003 – 2008 with lots about community engagement, collaboration and social media. As well as the dot org domain used by the blog, I’ve got dot org dot uk.

My thinking is a modest site, with free games and workshop techniques at the heart, linked to project examples, and more detailed howtos. Everything would be free to download and use … but it would also be a place whether specialists could promote their facilitation services provided they did a little helpful blogging and threw in some free goodies too. A sort of DIY store for the Big Society.

What do you think? Want to join in?

Update: I’ve posted some further ideas on how co-design for civil society might work here on the socialbysocial site

One comment

  • May 21, 2010 - 2:30 pm | Permalink

    I just blogged again myself, thinking of ways in which universities can get involved in the Big Society, following the recent launch etc.

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