Where do we gather on Big Society – besides London and Twitter?

Yesterday morning NESTA launched the Neighbourhood Challenge, promising the first new Big Society money for local communities. In the evening RSA hosted an excellent event with NCVO on voluntary organisations in BS. In between I had a couple of productive BS-related meetings … all in London, of course, where the public events were as useful for informal networking as the main content – good though that was.
There was lively commentary on Twitter, and some blogging – including a thoughtful piece quoted below by my friend Kevin Harris, long-time specialist in community development and neighbourhoods.
The online content will be dispersed in the cloud of continuing chatter, and those interested in Big Society as friends, critics, or critical friends will go their various ways until the next meeting. In London.
At the end of the day I met up with another old friend who is keenly interested in Big Society, not least as a specialist in whole-system change within organisations and communities, but who is not part of the London crowd.
There’s currently no bigger system-changing policy in the UK than Big Society … and I would love to give you a neat online link to summarise that. But there is no one place to go to, and nowhere online to gather apart from Big Society in the North, which is limited by the amount of effort volunteers can put into such a big topic.
In the evening I gave my out-of-town friend a run down on the BS landscape … which I am tempted to replay here, but that would be to break some (gained in London) confidences. I’m trying to be a helpful, positive, joining up sort of social reporter. It can be frustrating.
Enough to say, for now, that Big Society Network is rethinking its role, and most people in the community and voluntary sectors are being cautious about what they say in public for fear of losing any further BS money that may emerge from Whitehall. Government departments don’t have their former communication budgets, and their Ministers may not be as enthusiastic as PM David Cameron about BS.
In any case, the more Government promotes Big Society as a brand from on-high, with no opportunity for dissent, the more difficult it is for people with a wide range of opinions to engage constructively. Guarded comments from big names on the panel at the RSA event summed it up: we support many of the ideas – but we resent being told by Government what we should be doing as voluntary bodies.
Lord (Nat) Wei is doing his best as an unpaid special adviser on BS, through blogging and tweeting, and I think deserves credit as the only person in Government trying to engage in this way. Or have I missed something?
My friend was aghast at my review of the landscape. What can we do? There’s a real danger that we will lose an opportunity to get the best out of Big Society because institutions are stuck in their silos with old ways of running “their” events, posting content on “their” web sites, and generally declining to engage online in other people’s spaces.
There are decades of experience from around the world in bringing together different interests, online and off, to find common ground in situations of conflict and contention far more troublesome than Big Society.
There are thousands of people like me, my friend and others I know who would help – although not as volunteers in the long-term, because we have to put bread on the table and, if out of London, pay fares and accommodation to attend breakfast meetings. And why should we volunteer for David Cameron if we aren’t Conservatives? Big Society is ideological. We may have to live with that, but not support it for free.
However, we do need someone to help convene, and to champion a process to develop a trusted neutral space to critique and advance the best of Big/Good/Our Society.
Something better than the Big Society wikipedia entry would be good for reference – but that’s not enough. We need conversation space.
There are plenty of Big Society events, which you can find on a calendar compiled by Paul Webster … but no pulling together of discussions.
Is anyone up for a meeting on these issues? And where should it be? Who will lead?
In the meantime, you can follow #bigsociety on Twitter.

Update: on reflection, and gently nudged by Karl in a comment, I really should have given more credit to NCVO and RSA as two organisations who are engaged. Then there’s Urban Forum and Economics Foundation and NAVCA … sorry folks. But it is very dispersed and difficult for those for whom this isn’t their day job. And Big Society needs effort outside the day job.

Below is an extract from a blog post by Kevin Harris on the Neighbourhood Challenge  – I would encourage you to read the whole post.

Sport for the Haves

Today Nesta launched the Neighbourhood Challenge to try to highlight ways of stimulating local social action.

“Community organisations across England are invited to apply to the 18-month programme. NESTA will select ten organisations and provide them with funding to trial an approach to community organising that reflects their own vision for what will work best in their area.

We will provide the practical tools and high-quality training needed for participating organisations to help people in their communities create local campaigns, innovative community projects and new social enterprises that address their passions and priorities. We will also provide micro-finance to support the development of local projects and establish local challenge prizes to incentivise community-led innovation.”

Deadline for expressions of interest is 22 November.

Some good will come of this. But the first thing that struck me at the launch is how desperately tasteless it was to be in a plush central London location with a free breakfast among a large number of affluent be-suited people talking in very general ways about ‘communities’ that are characterised by high levels of apathy and low aspirations; and offering residents of those distant neighbourhoods a chance, by competition, to improve their lot.

Statistically their chances of winning through in that competition are likely to be very small. They are expected to put in a bit of effort, symbolically making pleas to the powers that be, and then in all probability just knuckle down to things as they were before; or get picked off by the developers. What sport this must seem to the Haves – get the peasants to do a wee dance in their quaint custom, then show a little favouritism to a handful.

Perhaps I’m being slightly unfair, but it was all so reminiscent of the ghastly mistakes the Labour administration made in its early years with challenges and competitions – dressing the excluded in costumes and getting them to jump through hoops. As if a process of lottery is a legitimate way of reducing deadly disparities in the quality of life.

I hope the Neighbourhood Challenge will result in at least ten decent projects and lots of shared learning: I don’t see why it shouldn’t. While that’s going on I just want to offer a few thoughts here about some of the assumptions that underpinned the speeches I heard this morning.


  • October 27, 2010 - 12:35 pm | Permalink

    Good points I am very mindful of. I missed yesterday evening’s event because despite allowing 5hrs for a (mostly via car) journey from Burnley to London I didn’t make it.

    In response to your argument that we are receding into silos – posting onto our own pages, running our own events – I’d be more optimistic. We learned from past mistakes and we are trying to be both open in our design and collaborative in our action. We are also trying to join in the conversations where they are taking place. Not always easy at the moment given other pressures, but my point is that I think there is hope.

    Nevertheless, these are valid points about pulling together (curating?) the great ferment of ideas, never mind sifting, sorting and tagging. Not technically difficult I assume, but it needs someone with cred (like you) to advise on the standards and tools for doing this – eg you’ll remember we tried to pull BS blogs together in google docs, but this had ltd success.

    I’d like to think that those with resouces/influence who are thinking about the BS would recognise the importance of curation here. I dont think we need another innovation exchange, more a person’s time to act in this role. I can think of any number of people/organisations that could do this for not much more than the cost of the person’s time.

  • October 27, 2010 - 12:58 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Karl, and I really should have paid tribute to the work that you and the team are doing at NVCO in developing a resource, running an excellent seminar, joining with others.
    As you say, a lot of this is about curating … but there is another layer of sense making online and off.
    At the moment a lot of the content is about and for people in the know, often in London, and couched in policy terms.
    I think we need more accessible conversations spaces, and stories about what’s happening on the ground. One idea here on that

  • October 27, 2010 - 1:01 pm | Permalink


    Well yes, we don’t communicate in the UK and that has been very evident within the third sector. It took the SEC years to open an online forum and during my brief membership I found myself there alone.

    I opened several groups on the like of Linkedin and Facebook with the aim of making them inclusive and non-proprietary. Only 300 people in the world on Facebook are interested in Social Enterprise I discovered. That is SE without a label. Paula from the SEA in the US joins me as co-admin. No Brits are interested.

    I’ve introduced what I’ve been doing on BS North, and why I’m not calling it Big Society anything, yet even there, no response.

  • October 27, 2010 - 6:10 pm | Permalink

    Thanks David,

    I think we have to accept that London is where people are – but not necessarily where the power lies!

    Over the last 5 years i’ve travelled every month or so to London for team meetings as that is cheaper for the project than for 7 or 8 people to travel up to Sheffield. Its just a fact and I just get on with it.

    However, away from the project meetings, or the launches etc. in my project, as in any other work things are happening all over the country.

    It probably does just need that one person, well known and connected (physically and through the interwebs) to curate content, research through networks, ask questions, visit grassroots groups and to publish this information about good works in Our Society.

    This person doesn’t have to be based in London, they could be in Penrith, Exeter or even Sheffield – they just need resourcing and supporting to get on with it.

    (Oh BTW – the calendar is here – http://grou.ps/bigsocietynorth/351406)

  • October 27, 2010 - 7:14 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Paul – maybe it is job share … networking in London, curating in Sheffield, then vice-versa 🙂
    Incidently Big Society special adviser, Nat Wei, commenting on his blog about gathering (among much else) says “of course there is a need to gather but I would just be careful to bear in mind that reformers care about causes often (whether local or thematic) and so there is unlikely to be one place (online or offline) where everyone will meet thought many places should be encouraged”
    On reflection I should have put more emphasis on network weaving.

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