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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.

Introducing Lobbi – with bold aims to change politics locally and globally

Downloading Democracy 2013 – Archived Live Stream from John Popham on Vimeo.

Earlier this week Lobbi, a new initiative promoting citizen engagement and action through social media, hosted a Downloading Democracy event in London. You can that see that it was a well-informed and lively affair from Mick Fealty’s excellent report, the live stream recording and Storify from John Popham.

As well as convening the event, Lobbi is developing a new online platform, outlined in this interview with Mick by the founder and initial funder of Lobbi, Hussain “Hoz” Shafiei.

As he explains on his Linkedin profile, and the interview, Hoz is “an Iranian by blood an Arab by birth and an Englishman by upbringing” with a passion to revive UK politics with an demonstration of what might also make a difference to other nations and cultures.

Hoz writes:

I returned to the UK in 2011 and decided to no longer work in a commercial industry and started on my journey to enhance global democracy. It is for this reason that I started Lobbi a project that will allow a real time connection between the electorate and their elected representatives….

Lobbi is an innovative and unique method of engaging the electorate to become re-enthused and involved with politics on a long-term basis. This is created through the ever-growing power of social media, with a Facebook/Twitter-esque interactive forum and information portal.

Lobbi provides the voting public with the means to discover current issues that affect them – instantly – via their smart phone, tablet or computer. In addition, they can get their own views across in the same way as they’d post on Facebook or Twitter. But more than this, it’s a two-way street, as politicians and elected representatives also interact, giving them a vital link to the public mood on a ‘real-time’ basis.

In short, Lobbi brings politics into the 21st century – and about time too…

You might ask, what’s new? I’ll come to that … but first, what’s not.

You can find a free event most months in London about how we need to revive democracy, and fairly frequent discussion of the role of the Internet.

We are still asking Is e-democracy now a reality? as the BBC reported in 2007, with periods of excitement around the role of social networks in the Arab Spring and the success of the Five Star Movement in the Italian election.

What’s certain is that we have plenty of online spaces for general campaigning, and specific systems for civic engagement, whether developed for citizens by mySociety or agencies like Delib.

Consumer Focus has sponsored a Digital Engagement Cookbook with 68 recipes, and Helpful Technology offers a Digital Engagement Guide of practical help and ideas.  For a wider perspective, just look at the programme for Personal Democracy Forum in New York next month. For advice on what’s worked or not, check in with Steven Clift who coined the term e-democracy in 1994 and has been promoting it globally ever since.

Steven is particularly informative on the hard slog of achieving an inclusive approach, which may come more by knocking on doors and using email lists than new social tech functions.

So how might Lobbi make a difference? At this stage I should declare an interest, because I’ve been engaged in discussions on a Lobbi Linkedin group over the past few months, and also invited to join a smaller group next week to help inform strategy. I’ve worked with Steve Moore, who is leading Lobbi development, on a number of projects, including in the early days of Big Society Network.

Steve is now developing Britain’s Personal Best (BPB) “which convenes thousands of organisations and millions of people to achieve a personal accomplishment over the course of one weekend each year”. He’s a man with the ability to carry though a big idea.

I don’t know what the Lobbi strategy will be. That depends in part on discussion next week. As Hoz indicates, a mobile-friendly system is under development that could, potentially, connect elected representatives in an area with citizens there, enable reporting of local problems to agencies, and encourage neighbour-to-neighbour cooperation. However, old hands in this field will warn that tech doesn’t do it alone.

Firstly, just build it … and they probably won’t come. Why should citizens embrace a new system  if they are happy with Facebook and its scope to create groups, pages and networks? Why should politicians and officials engage in a system that may not integrate with the ones they already have in-house?

Secondly, local politics and community action requires a blend of online and offline activity. That’s not just because a third of people may not be online – a point made by Chi Onwurah MP at this week’s event. Or that, in my experience, relatively few community activists are enthusiastic online activists. It’s also that getting things done, once you go beyond Clicktivism, involves building new relationships and trust, working through ideas and options, and making decisions in complex situations. Online isn’t enough for that.

Thirdly, if you do manage to get a lot of people online in the same place, you need to put a lot of effort into facilitation and site management. That’s a skilled operation.

The more ambitious you are, the more the costs and management issues increase. Where will the revenue come from, not just to manage and develop systems, but to fund the offline activity?

I suspect that in further discussions to refine Lobbi, those experienced in the field will suggest either focusing on one activity that current platforms and programmes are not offering – and do that really well. Or aim to connect some of the very disparate online activities currently underway. And to be agile – try stuff out small scale, revise and redevelop.

My hunch is that given Hoz’s passion, combined with Steve’s contacts and convening skills, Lobbi might do well by aiming to be as much a movement and community as a new platform. What was very evident at the Downloading Democracy event was the number of people who’ve been around the scene in the last six or seven years welcoming the chance to meet up for a chat. After a burst of activity in 2007-09, and the failed hopes for Big Society, we’ve rather lacked the social spaces to bring together social techies, community activists, new-style democracy advocates … well, forget the labels, I mean people who want to do good stuff locally using a mix of methods new and old.

At local level, there’s general accord that it makes sense – particularly in hard times – to go for an approach that makes as much as you can from the strengths of local people, projects, and buildings before developing new initiatives from scratch and seeking funds that might otherwise support existing initiatives. Map existing assets and networks, and concentrate on community building. Social technology can help in that process, as I’ve explored here and here.

Maybe there’s a couple of new angles for Lobbi: one focused, one more open.

First, if looking for a niche, consider focusing on how to digitally enable the enablers who help build communities. What help do they need in the personal use of technology, how can they help others, how can they enable their organisations. Go person-centric.

Second, take an asset-based approach nationally. Map who is doing what in this first, and aim to build connections both personal and technical. Use that knowledge both to advise and build kits for the enablers, and to create a strong community and movement for technology-enabled social action.

Hoz and Steve have been generous in bearing with the challenges that I and others have raised during earlier discussion, welcomed new ideas and connections, and remained determined to press ahead. With that sort of spirit, Lobbi could be a catalyst for a fresh approach to politics and local action.

As Mick Fealty puts it more eloquently in his report:

There’s a term in evolutionary biology called punctuated equilibrium which suits the uncertain times we are living in. The gist is that big changes in living organisms largely occur in short episodic bursts when their external environment undergoes some form of drastic change. In such terms, the current multiple crises in democracy is being driven by sudden and rapid technological advances in human communication.

The resulting uncertainty is a necessary precondition for the emergence of novel theories and practices for how we might functionally respond, both as collectives (nations, communities, sharers of a global environment) and individuals (politicians, priests and citizens). None of us really know where any of this is taking us, though we can see and feel seriousness of the deficits that arise as a result of the disruption of ‘business as usual’. There are no road maps.

When life isn’t business as usual, we need people like Hoz and Steve. If only to get me blogging about this stuff again.

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

Your Square Mile launches new site and mutual for local action

ypursquaremile site

It looks as if the Your Square Mile initiative, headed by Paul Twivy and supported by the Big Lottery Fund, has found some middle ground between the Tory Big Society and Labour’s Good Society.

Tomorrow YSM will be holding a press event to launch it’s new web site http://yoursquaremile.co.uk now online; show a documentary about the pilot projects they have been working with around the country, and explain more about plans to make YSM a mutual owned by millions of citizens.

Unusually they are expecting both Nick Hurd, Minister for Civil Society, and Tessa Jowell, Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office, to wish them well at the event. read more »

Community activist hub: right problem, wrong solution

I’m puzzled by the recommendation for a “central information hub for community activists” from the Government’s Champion for Active Safer Communities, Baroness Newlove. Her report on Our vision for safe and active communities: Government Progress Update, has an introduction from David Cameron, and this as its first priority:

Creating an online ‘home’ for community activism. Building on existing online services, these easy to find and simple to use ‘hubs’ will provide community activist ‘starter kits’, together with useful links, contact details, up-to-date funding information and the ability to recruit potential volunteers online.

I’m sure that Baroness Newlove has good evidence of a demand for information from her work in local communities in recent months – so, right problem. What’s puzzling in a Government announcement is that it was only last year that Mr Cameron launched Big Society Network and Your Square Mile as a solution. You can see the video here. read more »

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 »

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 »

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 »

Big Lottery funds UK-wide Your Square Mile digital platform on SocialGo

As part of the announcement of a People Powered Change event this month, the Big Lottery Fund has confirmed that it will be funding the Your Square Mile initiative – currently part of Big Society Network – to build a UK-wide digital platform. It is part of a larger funding package that BIG will splash at the event in Salford on March 25.

The partners page says: ”There are 93,000 square miles in the UK. Most of the 62 million UK citizens live in 7,500 to 8,000 of those square miles. These square miles contain identifiable communities – villages or small urban areas – comprising several thousand people each. “Your Square Mile” is about encouraging citizens to identify, claim and then lead change in those neighbourhoods. This is currently being piloted in 16 diverse, challenged communities in the UK.

“The Big Lottery Fund is enabling Your Square Mile to build a digital platform – on PC’s, mobiles and public access screens – that will enable the interchange of ideas, advice, support and benefits to citizens throughout the UK”. read more »

Clearing the ground to claim Big Society for ourselves

It’s been a bad couple of weeks for Big Society if you are sitting in Whitehall … but rather a good time if you believe that there are some useful principles and opportunities in the large bag originally promoted as central to the Conservative manifesto. They are just in the wrong ownership.

We need to unpack the bag, re-assemble the pieces, claim them for ourselves, and stick on some different labels. After all, Big Society is meant to be about shifting power from central to local, and enabling citizens to take control. These days social media means we don’t have to accept brands created in our name, or organising methods from another age.

The bad/good fortnight started with a front-page splash in the Times, prompting “end of the beginning” analysis and ended up with Liverpool council pulling out of the vanguard area programme. In between we had lots of “Big Society in crisis” blogging, including a “you couldn’t make it up” piece from the Wall Street Journal. In Liverpool Phil Redmond said he stuck by the principles, but “the marketing slogan is not the best” … and the BBC’s Nick Robinson said Big Society should be high on the agenda for the PM’s new messenger Craig Oliver.

The comments from Phil and Nick show what’s wrong with Big Society communications … as well, of course, as the problem of people thinking it is all about volunteering (that’s just part of it) and cuts undermining local support systems (they need changing, but not this fast, at this cost). read more »