Summary: how I’ve now joined the Big Society Network team with the idea of becoming their social innovation reporter. First story idea: why we need the Big Society Store as well as the Big Society Bank.
I’ve been writing a lot on the coalition government plans for Big Society over the past couple of months, and the Big Society Network, as you can see from posts here. That’s been mainly through general interest in ideas about supporting neighbourhood groups and social enterprise, developing new cross-sector partnerships, and shifting from consultation to the co-design and co-creation of local services … something I wrote a lot about on my earlier blog Designing for Civil Society.
I met and interviewed Network founders Paul Twivy and Nat (now Lord) Wei at their launch on March 31, before the election, and felt then that something special could emerge. However, as I wrote at the time, I might have been a little less interested if it were not for the involvement of Steve Moore.
I’ve worked with Steve on and off over the past four years, and admired him as someone who is an amazingly generous connector of people across different disciplines and sectors, and the complete antithesis of the sort of top-down, target-driven, project-managed, funding-led, jargon-laden programmes that have in the past done a lot to take the creativity out of civil society organisations.
Anyway, Steve is now a board member of the Network, and I was delighted when he asked if I would work part-time with him, Paul and others. So I’ve taken the Big Society Shilling.
I’m not quite sure yet how it will work out, but based on past experience the best approach is to join in the flurry of meetings, listen out, join up the conversations, pitch your ideas, and keep moving.
My currently thinking is that one useful thing I could do is act as a social innovation reporter … following through earlier ideas that I mindmapped about the essence of social reporting.
While Lord Nat Wei is pitching some fresh new ideas – like big society ISAs to help fund local activities – everyone recognises that there is already an enormous amount of good work carried out by volunteers, charities, social enterprises and other organisations that make up civil society. David Kane gave us the numbers over here. Let’s not re-invent the wheel … but start by displaying the many good wheels that we have already.
One useful thing the network could do is to help people both find existing sources of inspiration and advice, and also highlight the sort of innovative developments in local government and civil society that we’ll need in future. Two events I went to last week epitomised that. The first was Local by Social, organised by Futuregov and IDeA, and admirably summarised here by Dave Briggs. The second was We are Enabled by Design , hosted by Enabled by Design, and again supported by Futuregov. There’s a summary here.
There was a little overlap in those participating, and certainly plenty of shared comment on Twitter, where people followed what was going on through the tags #lbys and #WeEbD, as you can see through searches here and here. There was live blogging for #lbys http://bit.ly/9eWsjP and #WeEbD http://bit.ly/9loVyU and a terrific buzz … provided you were in London, or familiar with social media. That’s absolutely no criticism of the organisers who did a fantastic job with few resources, and offered the events for free. They were ten times the value of events I’ve been to costing hundreds of pounds (as a free-place social reporter I should say. Wouldn’t pay much for conventional events).
The difficulty is that some of the most exciting work and knowledge sharing is being done on a shoe-string, and those involved don’t have the time or resources to scale up their activities and engage more widely. Too often, when bigger agencies get involved, the events become more formalised, the ideas more packaged, the conversations more stilted.
I hope that one role for the Big Society Network will be to provide scale without losing creativity. The first launch document from the network talked about doing just that by creating a mutual society with 15 million members, and an online platform supporting connections, campaigning and feedback.
I think, for example, that the network could benefit from looking at the site developed by Enabled by Design, which has an Ideas Factory and Product Reviews showing one area of innovation, and also at the much broader Social Innovator site developed from the excellent Young Foundation Open Book of Social Innovation … and then take things one step further.
Next year we’ll have a Big Society Bank to help fund local projects, as Lord Nat Wei explained. Why not a Big Society Store, as I touched on here and here? (Or a Good Society shop, to pick up a term used by the Inquiry into the Future of Civil Society. One continuing problem with Big Society is that it continues to provoke political dissent because it featured so strongly in the Conservative party manifesto. Or it may be the Your Square Mile shop, a term used by the Network. It’s what’s on the virtual shelf that’s important).
Over the years we’ve had hundreds of toolkits, knowledge-sharing web sites, online communities and the like promoting social action … but my experience is that busy practitioners or activists seldom look at them. Those actively using social media don’t look much either – unless an item is highlighted in a compelling tweet. We need to try something different, particularly since funding will be very tight with even less for development and dissemination.
How about an online space operating as a sort of DIY civic society eBay, where people could pitch their ideas, events, products and services, some for free, and some paid for. I also think we need some way to develop an open business approach, as I wrote here, where consultants and clients in this field share their work in exchange for crowdsourced expertise … plus some of the thinking from Paul Hodgkin of Patient Opinion on gift economies (Paul here on the new economics of voice, and some notes here from a session at Oxfordjam).
One of the big ideas in Big Society is making social enterprise more central to the development and delivery of public services. Where better to start that with the Big/Good Society Store … making it a coop on the lines of the People’s Supermarket recently opened in Camden. I think it might then be possible to get the mutual membership the network aims for.
(Disclaimer: all ideas for the store are personal – I don’t know if it is somthing the network will go for. Just exercising a bit of inovation reporting license).