Evolving Big Society – summary and next ideas

Here’s a catch-up on the posts I’ve written over the past few days about Big Society, with a few more thoughts on networking and knowledge ecologies. All posts on the topic are here.
As a reminder, the Big Society idea, launched pre-election by the Conservatives and now a centrepiece of coalition Government policy, is about a smaller state matched by more powers for local communities and encouragement for volunteering, social action, social enterprise and other forms of nonprofits.

The post There is no Big Society Big Plan – but that’s no bad thing said there’s a lot starting to happen under the Big Society banner, but it is a mistake to see it as an old-style government programme. The idea is that things emerge more organically, without any one Minister – or anyone else – being in charge. Fair enough for something aiming for wide-spread action by many interests, but the problem is that no-one really understands what Big Society stands for, or how to join in. There’s no voice, no story, and consequently a lot of rubbishing.
In Since there’s no Big Society Big Plan, can we expect Big Process? Probably not I examined the idea of a Big Process to develop some clear purpose and shared vision, led by Prime Minister David Cameron, but concluded that was unlikely to happen. It’s not really feasible in the current political climate, and probably not the sort of thing Downing Street would want to orchestrate anyway.
Networking Big Society – or maybe some knowledge gardening suggested another approach to get the best out of Big Society: build on the wealth of activity already supported by many community and voluntary sector networks, while also adding innovative methods for mass engagement. Help community organisers and anyone engaged in social action make good use of the social technologies now widely available, but under-used by traditional activists.
(I should declare some self-interest here. I’m working part-time with the Big Society Network, and this is the sort of programme of network-weaving I would like to work on …  joining up conversations, helping people make sense of what’s going on, brokering new opportunities. While it would be possible simply to write lots about the great projects already underway, it would be counter-productive to try and pull these under a Big Society banner without asking. If people want to add the term Big Society to their project stories, that’s up to them – anything else is co-option. Certainly not empowerment).
As I mentioned in the last post, we have a forum to explore social tech and networking here on Social by Social, and that’s probably the best place for detail.
So, in summary, what I think that what we should try (and I’ll come back to the we) is development of a rich mix of online and offline conversations, stories, wants, offers and inspirations created by those who have been in this field for years, and some fresh voices too.
I don’t think it is good enough just to leave it to the existing big networks and organisations, although they have a huge part to play. They will naturally enough look to safeguard their own jobs first, and serve their existing members, particularly as their funding is being cut. The community, voluntary and social enterprise worlds are jungles, and it can be very risky to move from your niche and try and innovate too fast. Some will – bnut I guess most won’t.
Nor can Big Society Network achieve the change solely through programmes like Your Square Mile, detailed here, however ambitious. Support will be needed from existing organisations and networks.
How might we proceed? That’s for discussion on the forum I that mentioned, but here’s some starter ideas.
Develop a core group of people interested in evolving a Big Society ecology – something more like the mesh in this diagram that a top-down network that’s really just a mailing list, or a simple joining up what’s there already .


Agree some values to underpin activities. I’ll promote open, transparent, participatory; standing on the side of newcomers, not just existing friends and members; blending online and offline; where possible co-designing new projects.

Start some collaborative projects: we already have ideas for a Social App Store,  and a group developing around the excellent, independent, Big Society in the North are thinking about what it takes to be a 21st century community organiser.

In addition, there’s a great opportunity for the Big Society Network, which is currently rethinking its web site, to develop something that would assist in the the joining up, and also showcasing great projects and ideas, where people agree. I’ll be talking with others in the team, and report back.

Meanwhile, what’s you ideas for joining up, making sense, help people do good stuff?

Update: Toby Blume, on Twitter, suggests adding equality and fairness as Big Society values, which prompted a link to work on Strong Communities, Bigger Society that Community Links did with the Chain Reaction Network.


  • September 1, 2010 - 9:52 pm | Permalink

    An interesting (and important) read in this area is NSquared, an essay written by Paul Ormerod for the RSA http://www.thersa.org/about-us/rsa-pamphlets
    which brings network theory and behavioural economics together to consider the role of networks in delivering the #BigSociety agenda.

    You may also be interested in a project I have worked on for Manchester:Knowledge Capital called ‘Innovation Manchester’. For the past 2 years we have connected individuals and businesses in Greater Manchester, and stimulated innovation through the power of networks (online & offline).

    Readers living or working in Greater Manchester may be interested in checking out our vibrant group on Linkedin which promotes discussion and debate on the future economy and society (rather than self promotion and sales pitches)


    I will follow your posts and discussions here with interest!!
    All the best,

  • October 27, 2010 - 3:45 pm | Permalink

    Before finding Toby’s comment at the bottom, I would have suggested ‘equality’ – not just as a term, but an underpinning principle.

    Which raises issues about the theory/practice divide of the Big Society. Most notably, the open BSN town hall meetings being cancelled due to criticism at the 1st event, sends a very top-down, controlling message, that ‘we are still doing this on our terms and if you don’t like it, we won’t invite you back for the next thing’…

    Principles are a critical starting point, but actually letting go of control is something we have yet to see either government or the Big Society Network actively embrace…

    The Big Society, by its very nature, must be messy and critical (both of itself and of government); if it is neither of these things, I have trouble seeing how it is more than an ‘old style government programme’…

    Cynicism aside for a minute, I really like your ‘Join us, Join in, Join up’ model… the challenge will be in how the traditionally ‘join us’ model of government, will be able to engage with the latter 2 approaches…

  • October 27, 2010 - 3:52 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Liam. You may also be interested in more Big Society posts over here http://bigsociety.amplify.com/ including quite a bit on leadership and convening spaces.

  • Comments are closed.