Building Big Society giving and doing by making it easier to listen

Update and summary: Lord Nat Wei, one of the authors of the Big Society idea and Network founder, will no longer blog about the vision. He will be working as unpaid advisor to Government. Meanwhile, many people are talking about Big Society, but finding it difficult to get to the core idea and connect with each other. The network could make a virtue of listening, and encouraging many voices.

There’s been lots of discussion around Big Society over the past couple of weeks, as you can see from my bookmarks, the Twitter stream, and this smart way of displaying content generated in many different places.

Using you can agree a hashtag (keyword with # before it) then ask people to post links (URLs) of blog items or other content in a tweet containing the hashtag. Set up to search for the tag, and it displays both the tweets and the original articles – creating your own news page refreshed daily (thanks @evangineer).
Next week the Big Society Network is holding its first open get-together, and that should produce a real storm of converations and ideas to follow up. As part-time social reporter for the Network – as I explained here – I’m wondering how best to handle this, since we don’t yet have a substantial online presence, and funds are very tight. Paul Twivy, Steve Moore and Piotr Brzezinski are concentrating on interim fund-raising while dealing with a host of invites to run meetings, develop ideas and generally explain what Big Society is, and what part the Network will play.
I now understand why people say “I just don’t have time” when encouraged by social media enthusiasts to blog their work in progress … and why we get lots of Twitter instead. It can be done on the phone between, or even at meetings. But this content doesn’t usually get collected, curated, made accessible to the majority of people who don’t follow Twitter avidly.
I could do some video interviews, blog stuff myself, scan the tweets, collect the bookmarks, digest …but it would be a full-time job and soon we would need more help, and just end up with an unsustainable centralised operation.
So how to avoid that on the one hand, and on the other hand help people make more sense of everything that’s bubbling up around Big Society? (Meanwhile Network launch material here; if you need an independent briefing on BS, NEF have a good one. I also like this article by Jonathan Rosenberg in New Start Magazine on collective ownership as the new consensus. Conclusion: “Politicians are offering power: let’s be gracious by seeking to take it.”)
For me, one of the key ideas surfaced in Big Society discussions is not how to do More (public services, social action) with Less (money because of cuts) … but how to do More with More, where the More comes from releasing assets in the social fabric. I heard it from social capital specialist David Halpern at the Radical Efficiency report launch.
I guess we all know of situations where far more could be done if people would climb out of their organisational and professional silos, share knowledge better, collaborate rather than compete, use technology effectively. Big Society Network (BSN) aims to foster those approaches locally through the Your Square Mile programme.
The BSN team want to evolve the programme collaboratively with the many organisations in the field: starting with next week’s get-together. How can we demonstrate collaboration from the start, with so little time to offer?
A coffee with Piotr this morning helped me crystalise an approach that’s partly tech (like the example), and partly in the spirit of collective ownership summarised so well by Jonathan Rosenberg. (The Network is going to be a mutual).
Instead of practising traditional reporting approaches of researching, gathering, sifting, packing, and then publishing on a central strongly-branded site… aim to increase the reporting skills of others and then pull their their work together.
Instead of co-opting people’s stories and projects as examples of Big Society (thereby causing great annoyance), encourage people to tell their stories in their online spaces, and then promote them and increase traffic.
And instead of spending a lot of money building new systems, see if people will lend you some of theirs, or just use free stuff.
My friend Amy Sample Ward explains how you can build a listening dashboard to collect news feeds. People can collaborate in collecting bookmarks (URLs) about Big Society (or any other topic) using delicious; they can tweet using a hashtag as I mentioned. If we all agreed on the additional tags to use to separate out conversation topics (including the groups at the event next week) we could produce aggregated content that’s fairly accessible: I’m sure the Amplified team would give us some tips from their pioneering work.
But what about all the more developed ideas that are coming in to the Network team? How can we store, acknowledge, encourage and build support?  The other day Chris Quigley of Delib showed me their excellent DialogueApp and offered it for use free of charge. You can pitch ideas, comment, rate and so build a community of interest.
If we want to move beyond brainstorm and crowdsourcing to offers of service – whether free or paid for – and create a marketplace, then Dom Campbell and the team at Futuregov will be able to offer Simpl. Richard Wilson and team at Izwe have a tool to “bring people together to discuss the issues that matter, generate ideas and find solutions that will help create change in your community”.
The local government innovation organisation IDeA is developing their knowledge hub, and I have a hunch that the Central Office of Information will become more of a hub of engagement … moving from broadcast and consultation on behalf of government towards the development of civic space for us all.
I’ve written before about the idea of a Big Society or Good Society DIY Store, that could be a place to gather conversations, ideas, howtos, and offers of service at local and national level.
One way to make a start could be to bring together some of the excellent people I’ve mentioned above – and others who might help – to create the Big Society Commons as a knowledge gathering and sharing space.
What’s the benefit for the Network, against more traditional approaches of centralised content, promotion and branding? Why go for more tag than logo?
Firstly, a lot of people will be very greatful if we make it easy for them to see what Big Society is about, and what’s happening … from the Minister, through Civil Servants, to many organisations and activists. They’ll also contribute more readily if we say “just add #bigsociety so we can find it” instead of “post something under our banner”.
Secondly, we’ll be demonstrating that we want to complement rather than duplicate, support rather than co-opt.
Thirdly, we’ll build relationships with smart people who could become partners when there are funds to pay for the development needed to stitch all of this together properly, and develop new products.
And perhaps most importantly, it is a lot easier and a lot more fun.
I haven’t cleared any of the above with the Network team, but I think I know what they’ll say. Get started, and then pitch it as a conversation at next week’s open event, and see who responds.
Will people bother to help? Yes, if they believe that a mix of sharing and selling is the best way to go.
As Karl Wilding reports here, we recently had a very interesting but quite complex presentation of research into how to make people do things, or more gently put, get them involved. Is it better to nudge people or get them to think things through. Karl liked my rather simpler proposition:

  • If you want people to give, ask them
  • If you want people to act, support them
  • If you want people to talk, listen

So if Big Society Network wants to encourage people to do more, give more, then a good place to start is by listening ourselves, and making it easier for people to talk to each other.


  • July 2, 2010 - 1:45 pm | Permalink

    Hey David

    I’ve had a lot of conversations with people in the last week about what ideas of ‘Big Society’ mean to them; but those conversations have generally stayed around the table in the pub – not linking into the online conversation – often because the sorts of self-reporting/self-curating behaviours that we’ve seen can work so well for building conversations are unfamiliar to the others in those conversations…

    Is there value in a light-touch remixing of some guides and resources to create a ‘Ways of joining the conversation’ guide – explaining what sorts of things you can do with just a few minutes to become part of conversations around Big Society and local community…

  • July 2, 2010 - 2:02 pm | Permalink

    Tim – great idea, particularly since i know how good you are at guides:-). At present there isn’t any one place to join the conversations, because they are on different platforms, places, topics. As I wrote above, I’m looking at how to aggregate. Then maybe we could do some guides on where/how to find, and then how to use/contribute. I would love to work on this with you and anyone else interested, with the proviso that the network doesn’t have any funds.
    I’ll probably do this on a designingforcivilsociety site, as a neutral space.

  • July 2, 2010 - 11:14 pm | Permalink

    Good points as always, David.

    I think one of the ways of exposing the debates to a wider audience is live video streaming. I am always amazed that so few people realise how easy this is to do. Most smart phones with wifi capability can live stream video using applications such as Qik, Bambuser and Ustream. We need more people to be doing this from events.

  • July 3, 2010 - 11:00 am | Permalink

    Thanks John – I agree about the ease of streaming, and we’ll have wifi on Tuesday – although bandwidth may be limited. The event will be mainly small group discussion, though with feedback. I’m hoping social reporters will be creative!
    What’s your favourite for pulling together streams from a number of phones to an event page?

  • July 5, 2010 - 10:20 am | Permalink

    Tim pointed out an important challenge. There are the local face-to-face type discussions at the pub or where-ever, and there are online discussions. Better use of social media is only part of the answer to how The Big Society discussion gets out “to the people”. We need to address how the online discussion can connect to those discussions at the local pubs, faith groups, Parent Teachers Associations, Women’s Institutes, Chambers of Commerce, Rotary groups, parish councils, post-office queues, and over the coffee cups. We have to make it easy to link with what people are saying “beyond the boundaries of social media”. We need “ambassadors”.

    This is an issue that comes up repeatedly in all kinds of “digital divide” initiatives, formal and informal. We can learn from experiences elsewhere. Close to home we know that many families benefit from a child or grandchild who acts as a human interface filling the gap between the skill-level of older people in the household and the digital technology they need to use in their homes (phones, TVs – even central heating systems and over-complicated kitchen equipment). Without a human interface you would have to wait until the systems got easier and/or the older “digitally-challenged” population died out.

    There are other examples. I think of the work of Stephen Musgrave and the need for areas of confluence – spaces where people from both sides are equally comfortable to meet (he was looking at use of technology and connecting top-down government initiatives with and bottom-up community initiatives). At a more distant extreme, in the work I do with John Dada (in rural Nigeria), we are continually looking at issues of digital inclusion where we need to cross extreme barriers caused by culture, cost, age, gender, distance, skills, literacy, language, etc. Other people will have examples from their own experiences.

    Online discussions run the risk of being as exclusive as previous top-down systems – but with the power shifting towards a different elite. It is great that social media is extending the reach of two-way discussion but we also need to take creative steps to ensure that the discussion reaches beyond the in-crowd of early adopters and digital natives.

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