There is no Big Society Big Plan – and that's no bad thing

All reporting – even the making-sense, joining-up, helping-out social reporting type – should have some element of disclosure to keep it interesting. So here’s a secret about Big Society, on which I have written a lot recently. Remember, it was the cornerstone of the Conservative election manifesto, has been re-launched several times by David Cameron, and figures in the programmes of government departments. But …
There is no Big Society Big Plan, and no-one is in charge.
Unfortunately, in the journalistic sense, it’s not much of story. For that you need a “how shocking” quote in the second paragraph, and someone to blame in the third.
The fact that Big Society is somewhat under-organised may be surprising to those experienced in the ways of the previous administration, where programmes were driven, targetted, promoted, logo-ed and of course funded. But in current circumstances having a nonorg nonprogramme is no bad thing. I’ll quote you a RSA pamphlet later to prove it.
(At this point I’ll remind you that I’ve been working as social reporter for the Big Society Network (BSN) for a few months, and will shortly explain why it is possible to let out today’s little secret with no sense of disloyality.)
The Big Society is about a Smaller State, with more action by citizens, social enterprises, and charities to provide mutual support and services. It comes at a time of big spending cuts, justified by the Coalition govenment as necessary in order to reduce the budget deficit. Even-handed briefing here from Urban Forum.
So it is no surprise that Big Society is widely derided as a smoke-screen for the cuts, and it may be rather convenient in a shallow sense that no-one is in charge, and there isn’t a lot of money behind it. It’s going to be a difficult-to-hit target for the Labour opposition when they emerge from the leadership elections, and Labour is advised to take it seriously.
Before going on, I should say that different aspects of Big Society certainly do have plans. At the political level you can read the manifesto commitments. At the next level of policy there a number of significant commitments – like the Big Society Bank, and national citizen service. Training for 5000 new community organisers has been promised. Four vanguard areas have been identified for trialing projects. Just do a search on the Cabinet Office site. The Minister for Civil Society Nick Hurd is much involved, and tweets about his Big Society work. Nat Wei, now Baron Wei, was one of the architects of the Big Society idea, and is an unpaid government adviser working behind the scene on various projects.
BSN are developing a project called Your Square Mile (info here and video of Paul Twivy explaining), while also helping promote other ideas like the Social App Store.
On the self-organising front, Julian Dobson and others developing Big Society in the North have decided that BS is coming – like it or not – so let’s make the best of it, and use the really positive promotion by Government of local social action to free up some fresh thinking, identify some new ideas, and pitch for what funding there is. If you want to approach Big Society Bank when it launches next year, I would suggest a similar approach … though I think it makes sense anyway, which is why I’m working with BSN.
So – there is quite a lot going on. But my time reporting on Big Society has convinced me that there is no Big Plan. This can be confusing for civil servants who naturally enough like order, and journalists, and people trying to find some one place in which to talk online about Big Society. However, it is in line with the notion that Big Society is an approach, rather than a policy programme.
That’s all very well, you might say, but will it work? Fortunately the RSA has just published a pamphlet by noted economist Paul Ormerod: N squared – Public policy and the power of networks – which explains why top-down heavily-programmed decision making is often not the answer. The pamphlet quotes David Cameron:

For years, there was the basic assumption at the heart of government that the way to improve things in society was to micromanage from the centre, from Westminster. But this just doesn’t work. . . .The success of the Big Society will depend on the daily decisions of millions of people: on them giving their time, effort, even money, to causes around them.

The RSA summarises Paul Ormerod’s argument:

This essay argues that to be effective, the policy framework for the 21st century must not only draw on the new insights that behavioural economics gives us, but also needs to be underpinned by an understanding between this and how networks influence our choices and how these change over time. Indeed, the impact of networks is potentially considerably greater than that of ‘nudge’. This makes creating good policy harder while offering huge potential for change.

Rose Beynon follows this up with an excellent post on Nudge versus the Network:

N Squared discusses the recent love affair with ‘Nudge’ – the popular face of behavioural economics that has influenced the Tories’ approach to the Big Society thus far – and commends the concept to a certain extent.  It has helped people to finally bin the idea seated in traditional economics that there is a universal mode for behaviour – it allows for uncertainty in human decision making.
Ormerod goes one step further – he thinks we should allow for more uncertainty.  Nudge is an insight into how you can start to steer a network of people towards a different pattern of behaviour, but ultimately the network will take the reins and choose whether they follow that course or not.
It is this recognition of the influence of social networks which Ormerod argues must become key if we are to engage with individuals and have a hand in the choices they make.  This understanding accepts the truly dialogical nature of an individual or citizen, an idea that philosophers like Charles Taylor have been banging on about for the last decade.  Humans reason and make decisions through exposure to and interaction with those networks or frameworks that surround them, whether that’s a Facebook group or a queue in the Post Office.
The truth is that policy based on a little bit of nudging and a greater understanding of networks is a rather daunting thought for a policy maker.  It presents a world which is disorderly and uncontrollable, where initiatives may fail and the network may influence unpredictable decisions.  But there is also an opportunity for huge pay offs.  A small intervention based on a keen understanding of the networks influencing individuals could make a real and tangible impact.
Acceptance of this irrational world would be scary for policymakers and those of us working in communications, if it wasn’t so exciting.  Here is the opportunity to get a greater understanding of what and who influences citizens, enabling them to make choices that benefit themselves and those around them.

So that’s why I feel OK breaking the non-story that there is no Big Society Big Plan. However, I do believe we need more than is being attempted at present. As a reporter I feel a duty to help people make sense of what is going on – and I’m sure others do too. We have lots of tweeting and blogging, but that is not aggregated or curated anywhere effectively. I made a start with a wiki around the BSN Open Night, but it needs expansion and updating.
If we want to amplify the positive potential of Big Society then we need more networking. This is the vision behind the BSN plans for Your Square Mile, but I also think we could do more by helping join up existing networks in the field.
In addition, the Big Society vision is attracting attention from sponsors who want to support projects. We need a way to join up project proposals with funding resources.
But who is the “we” in the ideas I’ve listed above? Partly Big Society Network, but also anyone else who wants to have a go. There is no plan. No one is in charge. You don’t have to ask permission. If you can, just do it.

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