Recent blog posts by Nat (now Baron) Wei, unpaid adviser to the Big Society programme, give further clues to government thinking about the way that local services should evolve, with more support for groups at neighbourhood level. (Earlier posts here). I’ve been pulling together some tools and links that may be useful – including reports of a couple of sessions using a neighbourhood media version of the SocialbySocial game. I played the one above last week in Holland.
First Nat Wei’s posts. In this one he emphasises three key ideas: encouraging people to join neighbourhood groups; the co-design of public services with citizen users; and seeing neighbourhoods as a mixed ecology including agencies, social enterprises, private companies, local groups and other interests.
In a further post Nat Wei identifies three types of funding and associated measurement that may go with the Big Society developments: more efficient delivery of services through nonprofits; holding spending bodies to account; and encouragement of local investment.
No doubt there are other ways in which money and civil society interact, but the point is that funding, whether from government, or from the rest of society, is not just about efficiency and productivity (a sort of lesser cousin of the “real” economy), but can also – even in relatively small amounts – be harnessed to express our preferences and priorities, and reinforce a sense of belonging to a place, community and/or group.
At the launch of the Big Society Network there was a lot of emphasis on the potential of online tools, reinforced on the blog in a post from Jonty Olliff-Cooper.
All this suggests that local authorities, local groups and social entrepreneurs will need to work closely together – and use social media. As I’ve written before, we’ll need a spirit of Do It Yourself rather different from that in the centrally planned programmes of the previous government. So what do we need in the DIY store?
For a start Government will shortly set the tone with a consultation on overall budget cuts. Former chancellor Lord Lawson claims these will be merely a PR ploy – but Laurie Waller writing on the Involve blog says this is to misunderstand the new model of engagement:
The key point is that the Big Society doesn’t necessarily see its final end as influencing government. The role of the state is to provide the platforms and tools for civil society to define its own ends. Rather than top-down public engagement processes in which the state defines the parameters, the Big Society relinquishes state control and offers engagement on civil society’s terms. This approach can influence government in many ways from giving pressure groups ammunition to lobby government to changing the terms of debate on an issue and allowing civil society to reframe old problems. The Big Society offers a move away from the state-centric approach to public engagement.
To see how this might operate at local level, we may get some clues from the work of online engagement specialists Delib, who today report on a project in their home town of Bristol. The Bristol Partnership have been running meetings to decide how neighbourhood budgets should be spend across the city, and are now taking this online in order to engage more people. It’s generating ideas beyond how to spend public money.
One final point to note, which may be of especial interest to local authorities moving to a more customer focused approach at the moment. A sizable proportion of the ideas submitted turned out not to need funding after all, and could be got on with more quickly. These ranged from ideas actually being issues that were able to be passed directly on to council officers for action, to users being able to help each other. In one instance, one user suggested it would be good to fund having bus timetables on your mobile phone, and another replied saying that they’d already worked out how to do it, and gave instructions on how to do so!
If you involve citizens, they’ll come up with smart ideas on how to do things better – something also shown by the Transformed by You project developed by Kent and Medway councils, where local people, council officers and social tech experts came together for a day.
How can social media help further? Last week I took another trip to Holland at the invitation of Ed Klute, who runs the Medi4Me network. They focus on the use of media for social cohesion, and Ed has worked with me on a version of the SocialbySocial game that we’ve played a couple of times over the past year. It’s now being used to help train media coaches who work within libraries, schools and other institutions.
Last Friday in The Hague we got together with about 30 people operating projects and small businesses delivering social technology on the ground in towns and cities – just the sort of entrepreneurs that Big Society advocates want to see prospering in the UK. We first of all invented a ficitious but typical neighbourhood, full of social problems, and then, as you can see from the second video, groups reported back on the solutions they came up with using ideas from a pack of cards. (You can see the cards here).
It’s perhaps no surprise that social media experts can think of ways to improve neighbourhoods. But can it work the other way around … can people whose main work is community development and neighbourhood renewal easily bring social media into their programmes?
A few weeks back I was delighted to be invited to a staff and trustees awayday for the High Trees Community Development Trust, where we explored just that. As you can see from the video, we took the area of Tulse Hill, London, served by the Trust, identified some key issues, and worked in groups with the game cards to generate some plans mixing social media and other activities.
Some of those present did have a bit of a head start, because the Trust hosts the Apps for Good project that I wrote about earlier, through which young people are developing smartphone apps to meet local needs. You can see the first three projects here, and I’m really looking forward to a graduation event for the first students in Brixton on Thursday.
I should also mention that the Chain Reaction Network staged an excellent event 10 days ago which brought together a wide range of people working in community development and social enterprise to talk through what policies and practical developments are needed. I shot some video, and Laura Hyde is facilitating continuing conversation here.
These are just a few ideas and items that might be useful for the Big Society – and we don’t, of course, have to use that term. Chain Reaction talks of stronger communities, and NCVO in their brief (pdf download) talks about good society … a term also used by the Carnegie UK Commission of Inquiry into the Future of Civil Society.
However, what seems to be particularly useful about discussions around Good/Big Society at present is that they are taking place when we have a period of political slack water created by the unusual circumstances of a coalition government. It may not last, and the Party tides and tribes may soon start pulling us back to old positions.
We have a chance to look not only at the recent social innovations made possible by social media, but the many older and just as valuable methods developed over the past 30-40 years (but often forgotten by each generation of activists).
Fortunately the Young Foundation, supported by NESTA, have been compiling The Open Book of Social Innovation
It describes the methods and tools for innovation being used across the world and across the different sectors – the public and private sectors, civil society and the household – and in the overlapping fields of the social economy, social entrepreneurship and social enterprise. It draws on inputs from hundreds of organisations around the world to document the many methods currently being used.
In other fields, methods for innovation are well-understood. In medicine, science, and business, there are widely accepted ideas, tools and approaches. But despite the richness and vitality of social innovation, there is little comparable in the social field. Most people trying to innovate are aware of only a fraction of the methods they could be using. This book provides a first mapping of these methods and of the conditions that will enable social innovation to flourish.
The book – together with other reports – is an incredibly rich documentation of good ideas and howtos. One slight problem is that it downloads as a pdf of some 224 pages, so you have to be pretty dedicated to run it through your printer, and it isn’t possible to link to specific methods and ideas. If we had a web version, available under Creative Commons licensing for chunking up and republication, it would be fine start for Big/Good Society store. Most of what’s needed for innovative social action is already out there. We just need to be a bit more innovative about making it usable. I’ll be looking out for more games, and talking to my game designer colleague Drew Mackie about building into our current version more about budgeting and the essential processes of building new relationships across different interest groups.