Big day for Big Society Network

It’s been an interesting day for Big Society watchers, or more particularly for those interested in the role of the Big Society Network.**  (declaration of interest below).
Third Sector Magazine ran an analysis of the Network by John Plummer, together with the story that the “town hall tour” of a dozen or so meetings around the country had been called off following a “turbulent” first gathering in Stockport.
The Guardian racked it up a bit with ‘Big Society’ meetings cancelled over cuts anger – “Embarrassment for Cameron as meeting series meant to kickstart ‘big society’ abandoned due to public frustration at spending cuts”.
The Guardian piece quotes Nicola Headlam, Stockport resident and researcher at the Centre for Local Economic Strategies in Manchester:

“The mood was quite ugly by the end,” Headlam said. “There was so much anger about what the cuts are going to do to the voluntary sector when, at the same time, the vision of the big society is not being well articulated.”

I wasn’t there, but watched the Twitter stream, and saw the videos shot by John Popham and analysed here. My impression from that, and subsequent conversations with others who were there, was that there was anger at the cuts, but also an eagerness among some people to explore the possible opportunities. Most of all, I suspect, people wanted more clarity about Big Society and role of the Network. It fell to Steve Moore to try and provide explanations on all fronts, and also act as facilitator: an unfortunate conflict of roles.
In retrospect it was perhaps unwise of the Network to take to the road with an open space format – where participants set the agenda – and no mechanism for capturing discussions or ensuring they were reported to … who, Government?  That worked fine at an earlier Open Night in London, with invitations mainly via Twitter, and many people knowing each other from the social media/innovation circuit. There was an expectation of a brainstorming occasion early in the season. By September expectations and questions were much sharper.
There had been an earlier event in Sheffield, in July, for the launch of Big Society in the North – where people were very realistic about tough times ahead, reckoned the north had some experience in these matters, and were looking pragmatically for ways to make the best of it without being co-opted to the Tory Coalition cause. Again, quite a few people knew each other, and there was an atmosphere of trust.
In Stockport the Network ended up with nothing much to offer, and flak catching for Government.
The Network does have a big project, called Your Square Mile, which I have detailed here, but at the time of the Stockport event there wasn’t much to say about its realisation.
That changed today with a brief announcement, also covered by Third Sector, that the ASDA Foundation would act as a partner and funder for the project. Brand Republic has a little more here.
In the light of that, it makes sense for the Network to reschedule its event programme for later in the year with a focus on the Your Square Mile project. Chief Executive Paul Twivy announced this on the BSN blog a few days ago:

Our development focus is currently on Your Square Mile: a citizens’ mutual designed to enable and encourage people to take actions that strengthen their local neighbourhoods. We’ve taken on board input from events over the summer and meetings with 50-60 organisations individual to learn best practice and understand how we might help them. And we’ve met many more in conferences and seminars. Thanks to everyone who has taken the time to help us out – and for your patience.
We’re now revising plans for a tour, putting together workshops and pilots in up to 15 communities around the UK to further develop ideas for Your Square Mile. We’ll post details here as things develop, but the timeframe probably won’t be until late November / December.

The Network also provides a Q and A here about its relationship with government and other issues. It’s easy to say in retrospect, but it would have been better to have that available in time for the Stockport event.
** I worked with the Network for a couple of months, and have great respect for the team – even if we didn’t always agree. Wearing the reporter hat it makes sense to push for openness, transparency, clear offers, wide engagement and so on. On the other hand it’s pretty difficult if you are a chief executive, juggling possible deals with sponsors in a very contested area without much start-up funding … so congratulations to Paul and the team for pulling off a deal.

In future I want to revert to a more independent reporter guise and take a closer look at the detail of Your Square Mile and other aspects of Big Society.

I’m not as cyncial about Big Society as this tweeter


But instead rather agree with this


So much of what may be good or bad about the Big Society idea lies in the local context. Broad brush  declarations one way or the other are ceasing to be much help.

I’m very conscious that this socialreporter blog has been almost entirely devoted to the topic for a few months, and I’m planning to shift some of my writing back to another blog I started in 2003, called Designing for Civil Society. I mentioned that possibility in May, and now feels the right time. It’ll take a few days, and I’ll continue to cross-post on socialreporter.

Earlier BS posts here.)

Update: Very interesting post here from Nick Booth at Conservative Party Conference,  including news of an independent commission.


  • Justin Kirby
    October 6, 2010 - 9:57 am | Permalink

    Not sure that I agree with Sam Younger’s point (nor your agreement with it) about the ‘Big Society being what you make of it and therefore the debate is a diversion’ given you’ve also highlighted that there’s still some confusion about the Big Society and role of the Network.

    I think John Harris nails it by pointing out in his Guardian podcast that the Big Society still appears to be at best an embryonic idea, or at least amongst the Tories despite being presented by them as their ‘Big Idea’ at the last election ( So if the idea is embryonic and/or needs clarification then clearly there needs to be more debate about both the idea itself and the role of the Network.

    I think BigStock also showed that there’s more than just a whiff of cynicism about the Big Society being part of the Governments cuts agenda hence all the outrage expressed there. This is hardly surprising given that those who are most likely to participate in the Big Society are in the sectors (public and voluntary) which are going to be hit hardest by the cuts. As such, I wonder whether the Big Society Network can or will ever be considered neutral of the policy context.

    I can’t help thinking that it might have been more prudent of Steve Moore to have used his network and events to have helped clarify what the Big Society actually is before jumping on a bandwagons that doesn’t seem clearly differentiated from Civil Socity and Social Enterprise. Maybe that’s why you are going to shift some of your writing back to your older Designing for Civil Society blog!

    I look forward to reading it as there’s 3 questions about the Big Society I’d like answered:

    1.) What (or who) is it?
    2.) What does it do?
    3.) Why should anyone care?

    Hopefully, the answers will explain the similarities and differences between it and Civil Society/Social Enterprise.

    It would also be interesting for Steve to answer the questions above about the Big Society Network, particularly if he and it are ever going to be considered neutral.

    Lastly, who are the people/organisations/initiatives/etc considered to doing ‘good stuff’ in this space and why. More importantly are they being listened to … and if not why not?

  • October 6, 2010 - 12:46 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Justin – fair points on engagement for BSN to consider, and questions for them and the government to answer. Personally I think Big Society is a set of ideas from Nat Wei and others, some specific programmes, and a context created by the smaller state policies overlaid by cuts. Many of the ideas resonate with people in civil society organisations, although they are not yet articulated in ways that are accessible to wider publics. That’s not my job, although I’ll continue to make some observations.
    On who is doing good stuff … thousands in chariyties, social enterprises, community groups etc … both paid and unpaid. This Young Foundation report puts some of this into a Big Society context.
    I’m moving some content to Designing for Civil Society because I think that’s what we have to do … Big Society just highlights the task. I’ll also be blogging here about social reporting and other stuff.
    I really appreciate your engagement 🙂

  • Justin Kirby
    October 6, 2010 - 1:00 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the Young Foundation Report link, which I’ll take a look at … although I have to say that I’m not surprised that the Big Society narrative is confusing if even someone reporting on it can only describe as a “a set of ideas from Nat Wei and others, some specific programmes, and a context created by the smaller state policies overlaid by cuts”.

    Obviously, it’s fair enough that you might not want to do the Government’s clarification job for them, but you would have thought that their ‘Big Idea’ was better formulated than your description above. You’d have also thought that the Big Society Network would have demanded more clarification before jumping on the bandwagon!

  • October 6, 2010 - 1:06 pm | Permalink

    I see my role as socialreporter in part as helping people create their own narratives within a context like Big Society. If the action is to be bottom up, so too should the stories be. Having said that, you also need a clear framework and invitation from the top. That’s been missing. Time to create our own.

  • October 6, 2010 - 1:20 pm | Permalink

    Justin – you see what Lord Wei (Big Society special adviser, unpaid) admires in his locality here

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  • James
    October 6, 2010 - 2:01 pm | Permalink

    As far as I can tell, the Big Society is the voluntary and community sector growing bigger and more important, but with less money. It does not seem to be a new idea at all and it is a sad passing of the buck for politicians to say it’s all about the Big Society and then say but what that is, is up to you, the people.

    Thanks, Lord Wei, DC and co, very helpful!

    So, it may not be a cover for cuts, its a very explicit replacement for them – its simply the powers that be saying, we want to cut the size of the state, over to you, folks!

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  • October 6, 2010 - 2:32 pm | Permalink

    James – I think the cuts are an overlay on the pre-cuts Smaller State + Bigger Society agenda, making it tougher. Would smaller State + more cuts alone be better or worse? I agree that if Big Society is to mean anything there must be a much clearer explanation and framework – however light.
    I think we may now get more useful insights if we play through the realities of what is possible, or not, in different localities, and (help people) tell those stories rather than just relying on the community commentariat, much as we love it:-)

  • October 6, 2010 - 5:08 pm | Permalink

    Unfortunately the Big Society Network have lacked any transparency – I have written twice with no response or acknowledgement – and the naivety is breathtaking: what did they expect in Stockport? Why did they hold it on Eid and Rosh Hashannah? Also I am afraid the ‘Your Square Mile’ concept is classically urban in concept – I was speaking at an event in Lancashire today about these things and rural communities have many square miles, often with no-one in them!

  • October 6, 2010 - 6:34 pm | Permalink

    I actually attended this event, and agree wit you that the Twitter stream was a fair representation of what was going on at the event.

    In my opinion, where it fell down was towards the end of the evening, after people had been talking and listening for four hours and had started to get restless.

    There were legitimate quesions, mainly seeking clarity about what Big Society actually was, how it differed from what the third sector had already been doing for years, and the exact nature of The Big Society Network’s involvement and their links to the government.

    The representatives from the Big Society Network became surprisingly defensive at this line of questioning, which, given the Coalition government’s expectation of transparency & accountability from local authorities, seems fair enough.

    Another question that wasn’t answered with enough clarity for attendees concerned what would happen after the event and how its outcomes would be communicated.

    When there’s so little clarity about what Big Society actually is, it’s understandable that people committed enough to attend straight after work (or in the middle of a religious holiday if you were Jewish or Muslim) would seek clarification from an organisation calling itself “The Big Society Network.”

    There could be many reasons for cancelling the rest of these planned events, but blaming it on an angry mob is a weak excuse. If a professional conference organiser can’t make these events work, perhaps we should question why they were ever happening at all, particularly if the organisers didn’t want to hear some of what was being said.

    The lack of real listening in retrospect has echoes of Labour’s Big Conversation initiative, which also had more to do with being told things than it was about asking our opinions.

    I had high hopes from this event and was heartened to see such enthusiasm from local auhority representatives genuinely looking to make changes and to be responsible, active participants in Big Society.

    Unfortunately, all it amounts to now is a sulky press release and it’s made me a bit more cynical and apprehensive about embracing government initiatives so readily in the future.

  • October 6, 2010 - 6:46 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Ed for helping explain the dynamics of the event. Is anyone else who was here able to confirm?

  • Justin Kirby
    October 6, 2010 - 11:13 pm | Permalink

    Just saw Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt on Newsnight fail to summarise what the Big Society is all about, which led Paxman to say that it’s a term that’s easy to bandy about but as difficult to explain as the doctrine of substantiation and Heisenberg uncertainty principle 😉

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