Since there's no Big Society Big Plan, can we expect Big Process? Probably not.

My last post There is no Big Society Big Plan – and that’s no bad thing attracted some comments and even more tweets – thanks everyone. However it did leave things up in the air, with some people saying let’s keep things unorganised, and others suggesting that’s how the less-influential lose out.
I had some ideas which I didn’t put into the post: it was long enough already, and I wasn’t quite sure which way to go.
Fortunately I then picked up on this excellently- argued post via @HelenLindop on Twitter from Louie Gardiner: Big Society – People Power.
Louie points out that we have heard often from previous admininistrations about community leaderships and transforming society:

Notions of delegation and devolution have been around for many years but hardly ever does the rhetoric and good intention actually translate into transformed realities – not because there isn’t some desire to do it but because when people use the words delegate, devolve, engage they do not actually appear to understand what that means – what it means in practice and what it means in terms of who has what power; who is willing to ‘let go’ of some and who has power that they are currently not recognizing, not using or indeed may be abusing.

One problem is that transformation takes a clear purpose, held strongly over time – and that is difficult within relatively short electoral cycles. When offers are made, they are on the terms of the power-holder with re-election in mind. They wrongly believe they can “give” power … when empowerment depends also on people’s willingness to exercise the choices they have, even if limited.

So when David Cameron talks about ‘People Power – activism, volunteering and philanthropy‘, I find myself wondering what he understands about how to create the kind of cultural shift that would be required for the UK to become a Big Society. For those of us who have experienced working in and with communities; and in and with teams in organisations, we know that the journey from dependence to interdependence can take years of personal and professional development facilitated and enabled by passionate, committed, compassionate, purposeful individuals. There simply is no quick-fix.

Louie argues that there are some fundamental paradoxes we must face if Big Society is to come alive: it will take longer than an electoral cycle; there is no simple solution in handing over power; we need to work with complexity and a whole system approach; we need a process to evolve a shared vision, through a dialogue and partnership building.

So, if David Cameron really wants to make a difference, I suggest he would need to be coming at this in a completely different way. He would need to start by getting together key stakeholders and to begin the exploration from a non-party political platform. We would all need to enter into a process of co-creation where a shared Vision could be created and where we could explore to what extent we could align to a common purpose. If there is no identifiable ‘common purpose’ amongst the myriad of purposes that will inevitably be at play amongst each player/ stakeholder/ participant, then the initiative will simply fail.

Concluding …

And with a Purpose as big as David Cameron’s, it has to be co-created – people have to come to it, together. What he wants for his nation is irrelevant and unachievable. It is when we are unified about what we want that the energy for transformation becomes truly potent.

I’m something of a process person myself, so the facilitator in me said YES to Louie’s analysis and proposal. If we don’t have a Big Plan could we have a Big Process?

But then, what would it take to mount this sort of process? Is it realistic when there is so much suspicion and mistrust about Big Society, as a mask for cuts? What happened to that Big Conversation launched by Tony Blair in 2003? This isn’t just an issue for David Cameron and Big Society, but any politician trying to shift from current ways of doing things, where we manage to hold in our minds the paradox Louie highlights: “they” should fix the big problems (but we don’t trust them to do it) – we are all in this together (but we can’t work out how to do anything together).

Apart from the problems of mounting a Big Process for Big Society (or Good Society or whatever), I’m pretty sure it is not the sort of thing that the architects of Big Society among Mr Cameron’s advisers would consider. Someone close to the action told me: “this is the first set of politicians I’ve met who actually want to give away power”. I’m not sure I entirely believe that – and as Louie points out, you can’t just give power away. But certainly a Big Process would seem against the grain of current policy.

If you are among those who take the view that there is a useful opportunity in the Big Society idea, what’s to be done? Hoping to grow Big Society organically is all very well, but there’s probably only a few months before a new Labour leader pulls us back from coalition honeymoon to politics as usual, and the full bite of cuts makes Big Society a term you would only use in applications to the Big Society Bank. What’s going to be the point of using the brand if there’s no sense of shared brand values from strong leadership or dialogue?
In this situation I suggest we take inspiration from the Big Society in the North initiative started only a couple of months ago through a blog post by Julian Dobson. There Julian wrote:

My own concern, which I’ve set out in earlier posts, is that we connect with and learn from the past; and that we use the Big Society as a means of including the most excluded (because if we don’t, then however big it is, it will be small-minded). I’ve also set out some thoughts from a regeneration perspective for New Start magazine, out next week.
I think an important step in turning the Big Society into something meaningful will be to move the discussions out of London and into the north of England, which is likely to be hardest hit by public spending cuts. I’d also like to get some creative idea-generation going, because it’s easy to get bogged down in legitimate complaints or philosophical debate.

Julian provided an update a couple of weeks back, since when membership of the online forum has passed the 180 mark. I’m picking up news around the country that groups are planning events to talk about Big Society, and Big Society Network is planning its own tour: more about that later. I hear that Lord Nat Wei has asked some nonprofit organisations to act as Big Society ambassadors, and the Development Trust Association and Keystone Development Trust have launched a Big Society Challenge, leading to a book due out later this year.

There is lots of Big Society planning going on in different places – as I highlighted in the last post – and hopefully we’ll see more initiatives like Big Society in the North. Big Society Network will shortly start a series of events around the country, that should spark more interest.

But there is no narrative: the idea of Big Society is still dominated by the notion of volunteers taking over public services. Do It Yourself is fine – but very limited if everyone has to learn afresh.

One idea to emerge is that of the DIY store – a Social App Store – which is being discussed over here. Some good ideas are developing, but to make it work we would need a lot of contributions from different sources, and a market among those trying to develop local social action (whether under a Big Society label or not).

So we have a situation where some people see the opportunities in Big Society … or perhaps how to turn the idea to advantage; lots of unconnected initiatives; no organised way of learning from each other; and little chance of any orchestrated process to build a shared vision.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m spending a couple of days a week working with Big Society Network, so I have a vested interest in seeing some positive outcomes … and these are issues that are, of course, discussed by the team. What might we do … or encourage others to do? That’s for the next post. Meanwhile, I’ll be scanning Twitter and other blog posts for further inspiration to add to my developing thoughts about Networking Big Society.


  • August 30, 2010 - 2:36 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the mention! It’s refreshing to hear both you and Louie Gardiner talk about the complexity involved in such a big change in society.

  • August 30, 2010 - 3:31 pm | Permalink

    #BigSocNet Idea :- Learning from Pepsi . – unpack the ad/marketing – change some words, “BigSoc giving away millions ..” – unpack concept – ‘every BigSocShop remakes your community’

    This #BigSocShop / #BigSocNet relates to thinking around #emptyshops and #learningcafes.

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