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A little recap on Big Society

I’m really enjoying Paul Twivy’s book Be Your Own Politician, which champions social action and citizen engagement, informed by his insider knowledge of how challenging it is to promote and negotiate support for that within the political establishment and Whitehall.

Paul recounts how he succeeded through work with Comic Relief, Timebanking, Change the World for a Fiver, and the Big Lunch, among much else – but not so much with the Big Society Network and Your Square Mile. His chapter on how this unwound is fascinating, and generally confirms my understanding as an independent observer and also paid-for socialreporter for the Network at one stage. Here’s the Big Society Wikipedia entry.

Paul recounts the point at which the change of leadership of the Network, from his initial role to that of Steve Moore, emerged through Steve promoting the fact in his bio for a TEDx event in Athens in November 2010. I picked up the bio reference – without any briefing from Steve – and blogged a piece “Steve Moore leads new Big Society Innovation Platform“.

I aimed to provide people with an even-handed update on Big Society developments, because they were so difficult to come by,  and declared I’d known Steve for a some years and worked directly for him and then the Network. I explain that Paul had worked hard on developing Your Square Mile, and this was due to launch soon.

Unfortunately Steve had jumped ahead of any official announcement, and Paul recounts in his book the difficulty and embarrassment this caused. (I didn’t appreciate until now that Steve had used Paul’s slides for his talk). May I offer a retrospective apology for my part in the upset? I probably should have checked, since I had worked for the Network, and owed it more than a purely journalistic relationship.

On the other hand, there was considerable public interest in Big Society and the Network, and I think it’s fair to say I was one of very few people trying to get behind the politics and provide a running account. I was frustrated by the lack of briefing – although reading Paul’s account, I can now better understand the reason for that. It wasn’t an open process.

Anyway, you can read that particular blog post here, and judge its tone yourself. The tag cloud on this blog – right sidebar – shows that that over the years I’ve written more about Big Society, Big Society Network, and Your Square Mile than most topics, starting with a report of the launch. That includes a video interview with Paul and Nat Wei, as well as David Cameron’s remarks. I subsequently joined the Your Square Mile mutual, reported the launch, including an interview with Paul.

I’ll leave the retrospection at that for now, although it would be interesting to reflect on what Your Square Mile was trying to achieve, and whether there are lessons for what’s now needed for local social action, blending digital and non-digital methods.  There may be some wider value in the work I’ve been doing with Drew Mackie on Living Well in the Digital Age, and the idea of local Living Labs.  Here’s some thinking on operating systems and social apps, connecting local frameworks with the DCLG Grey Cells model.

Big Society

Beyond Big Society towards Big Competent Citizens

I’ve been reading the latest RSA contribution to the contentious Big Society discussion  … or what used to be a lively discussion since it has rather died down in the past few months (earlier posts here).

Government has carried on with BS policies like localism, but toned down calls for citizens to do more for each other. That’s because promotion of BS as a brand was drowned out by shouts of “its all a mask for the cuts” together with “we’ve been doing this for years” and “no-one is going to volunteer for a party political idea”.

At the same time there’s been continuing muttering from a wide range of people that there are good ideas in there if we could change the name, recognise the many past and current traditions of community action, and de-politicise the whole thing. We need to move on – but how? read more »

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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?

Update

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No 10 talk turns from Big Society to small is beautiful, says The Times

A link in the always-informative Conservative Home newsletter prompted me to spend £1 subscribing to The Times online. The link teaser was: “Increasingly, Mr Cameron’s advisers have started to argue that “small is beautiful” rather than talking about the Big Society.”

The argument in the article by Rachel Sylvester – behind the paywall – is that No 10 is increasingly concerned that “too big to fail” won’t work as a strategy – whether that’s banks, the EU, or indeed the Church of England in the face of a tented village. Apparently they are listening to Nassim Nicholas Taleb, whose 2007 book The Black Swan argued that history is made by random high-impact events rather than day-to-day routines. A black swan is an event, positive or negative, that is deemed improbable yet causes massive consequences.

Stuff happens, you can’t see it coming, so it may be better to have more small projects, systems, organisations. The second edition of The Black Swan has ten principles for a robust society – of which “what is fragile should break early, while it’s still small” is top of the list, says Rachel. read more »

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The return of Big Society debate via its critics, friendly or otherwise

Just when we thought Big Society as call-to-action had faded into big society as policy framework – as reported recently by Third Sector, and earlier here – the Office for Civil Society has followed up on the open letter from Minister Nick Hurd, affirming BS, with a rather smart move.

OCS have commissioned four community and and voluntary sector organisations to report on what Big Society means for the groups they represent. In part this might be seen as consolation for the organisations having lost some core funding when they were dropped as OCS strategic partners.

More interestingly for the rest of us it will ensuring the the Big Society agenda is discussed within the sector in a deeper and perhaps more constructive manner than previously, when those voicing possible benefits were rather drowned out by those saying it’s all a cover for the cuts and/or there’s nothing new, we’ve been doing it for years.

This time discussion will be hosted openly by those who have, in the past, had to balance representing the critical calls from their members with the need to stay on speaking terms with Government. read more »

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More Big Society Awards: now help the winners tell their stories

Big Society AwardsI don’t know whether my  modest promotion of the Big Society Awards last May made the slightest difference, but the Office for Civil Society were kind enough to write with thanks a few days ago, saying 370 nominations were received, and it is time for another round. Would I spread the word again?

Closing date is next week, October 4 – details and past winners on the No 10 site.

The awards focus on promoting social action, empowering communities, and opening up public services. They are open to individuals, groups and organisations. read more »

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Big Society in crisis? It’s just becoming big society

Opinion surveys and a report from ACEVO – which represents the chief executives of voluntary organisations – have led to a fresh round of stories about how Big Society is doomed, the government must try harder, no-one understands it, and more seriously that BS policies will increase inequality.

The Independent on Sunday headlines The Big Society in crisis: Are the wheels coming off the PM’s Big Idea?. The Guardian says Government urged to take a strong lead in Big Society, Third Sector magazine reports Banks missed ‘historic opportunity’ to support voluntary sector and i-volunteer blogs that Forty percent of people still don’t know what the big society means.

There’s clearly substance in all the stories, although some are more negative than the tone of the ACEVO report (Word doc) which “embraces the Big Society as an agenda” while calling on the Government to “fill in the blanks” on contributions from banks, support for deprived communities … and also improve communication and leadership.

However, I think that the way which we can best understand Big Society is changing. (Warning: mixed metaphors follow). read more »

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Big Society in crisis? It's just becoming big society

Opinion surveys and a report from ACEVO – which represents the chief executives of voluntary organisations – have led to a fresh round of stories about how Big Society is doomed, the government must try harder, no-one understands it, and more seriously that BS policies will increase inequality.

The Independent on Sunday headlines The Big Society in crisis: Are the wheels coming off the PM’s Big Idea?. The Guardian says Government urged to take a strong lead in Big Society, Third Sector magazine reports Banks missed ‘historic opportunity’ to support voluntary sector and i-volunteer blogs that Forty percent of people still don’t know what the big society means.

There’s clearly substance in all the stories, although some are more negative than the tone of the ACEVO report (Word doc) which “embraces the Big Society as an agenda” while calling on the Government to “fill in the blanks” on contributions from banks, support for deprived communities … and also improve communication and leadership.

However, I think that the way which we can best understand Big Society is changing. (Warning: mixed metaphors follow). read more »

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Join Our Society for the Big Society anniversary reality check event

Big Society is reaching it’s first birthday as a manifesto, a network, and set of ideas and principles that have shaped many Coalition government policies. On Thursday in London the far more modest, less contentious, non-partisan Our Society is holding a big society reality check. I hope you’ll join us online or in person.

A year ago this week David Cameron, then in opposition, led a seminar to launch Big Society as the Conservative manifesto, and then walked down the road to the Thames-side OXO building to launch the Big Society Network, developed by Paul Twivy and Nat Wei.

Paul was the chief executive of the network, which was to be a mass-membership organisation. One of the ideas was a project called Your Square mile, to support local social action.

I received invites courtesy of Steve Moore, who I had worked with in the past, and who was doing a lot of behind the scenes organising.

I don’t think any commentators at the time expected Big Society to be as politically significant as it has been – like it or not.

Today Steve is director of the network – which is focussing on events, social enterprise, participatory budgeting and innovative projects. It doesn’t recruit members. Paul Twivy is heading up Your Square Mile, with £830,000 of Big Lottery funding announced last week as part of People Powered Change, with an ambition to have 15 million members. Nat Wei is in the Lords, as Government adviser.

During that year Our Society was formed as network, growing out Big Society in the North, to provide people with a space to celebrate their achievements in local communities, share experience, and work out how to survive and make the best of the changes Big Society was bringing. I’m a founder member, with others you can see here. We are volunteers, and currently have over 460 members. I think it is fair to say it is currently the only substantial, open, independent forum dedicated to discussion of Our/Big/Good Society. read more »

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BIG’s People Powered Change may catalyse a more bottom-up big society

With the launch this week of People Powered Change, the Big Lottery sets out its plans for a distinctive niche in the Big Society agenda, supporting local bottom-up community projects.
My interest in Friday’s launch in Salford has so far centred on funding for the York Square Mile digital platform. This aims at developing “8000 local democracies” for community-based action through a mix of advice, signposts to funding, local web sites and benefits for anyone who joins the mutual. Earlier stories here and here on this blog, with discussion over on Our Society. On balance, so far I’m in favour.
However, the £5 million-plus Big Lottery package is much broader, involving collaboration with Unltd on a BIG Venture Challenge, supporting social entrepreneurs; NESTA on its Neighbourhood Challenge programme; and the Young Foundation. One of the Foundation’s initiatives is to launch the Citizens University, with NESTA, providing training for local social action. read more »