Clearing the ground to claim Big Society for ourselves

It’s been a bad couple of weeks for Big Society if you are sitting in Whitehall … but rather a good time if you believe that there are some useful principles and opportunities in the large bag originally promoted as central to the Conservative manifesto. They are just in the wrong ownership.

We need to unpack the bag, re-assemble the pieces, claim them for ourselves, and stick on some different labels. After all, Big Society is meant to be about shifting power from central to local, and enabling citizens to take control. These days social media means we don’t have to accept brands created in our name, or organising methods from another age.

The bad/good fortnight started with a front-page splash in the Times, prompting “end of the beginning” analysis and ended up with Liverpool council pulling out of the vanguard area programme. In between we had lots of “Big Society in crisis” blogging, including a “you couldn’t make it up” piece from the Wall Street Journal. In Liverpool Phil Redmond said he stuck by the principles, but “the marketing slogan is not the best” … and the BBC’s Nick Robinson said Big Society should be high on the agenda for the PM’s new messenger Craig Oliver.

The comments from Phil and Nick show what’s wrong with Big Society communications … as well, of course, as the problem of people thinking it is all about volunteering (that’s just part of it) and cuts undermining local support systems (they need changing, but not this fast, at this cost).

Big Society isn’t – or shouldn’t be – a promotional, marketing exercise. It should be a something to be co-evolved, co-designed with a wide range of interests … but Government doesn’t know how to do that (even though co-production is much promoted as part of the Big Society agenda). So we’ve had a mix that comes across as part hectoring and part “just make it up for yourself”.

It hasn’t helped that there are quite a few government or close-to-government voices – No 10 with its Big Society awards, Lord Nat Wei, Big Society Network, and various government departments – not always in tune.

At Big Society Network Steve Moore, its new director, is promising a programme to Convene, Curate, Narrate ideas and stories with events and a new web site. I think that’s very promising – and have talked to Steve about helping – but I’m doubtful whether it can be done successfully under the Big Society banner and mainly from London. I’m keen to see what coming.

More promising at the moment – in my view – is Our Society, where I’ve been volunteering some time with Julian Dobson and the group who originally set up Big Society in the North. It is an open forum, that may evolve into a network and enterprise. You can read its aims here. I don’t believe it is helpful to promote Our Society as an alternative Big Society … it comes from a different direction and process that’s bottom up, organic, and sensitive to the needs and passions of those involved. Although, on reflection … isn’t that what Big Society should be?

The need to move on is not entirely lost on those in Government, and the well-connected ResPublica blog offers a very clever spin by suggesting that all is fine and we are just moving towards Big Society 2.0. It’s not a crisis:

In fact what we are seeing over the last two weeks is something far more positive, and necessary, if the Big Society is to succeed: the start of a transfer of responsibility for mobilising and leading the project from central government downward to our neighbourhoods and communities.

Adding, that real potential is about to be released through the Localism Bill, when that is enacted. Communities and neighbourhoods will take advantage of new rights over assets, land, building and services.

Maybe … though it is difficult at present to see how that will work without close collaboration with local government, and strong local support systems: both being severely eroded by the cuts. To his great credit, Phil Redmond made that point very strongly.

It will also be important that local initiatives are able to share their ideas and experiences, and if we stick with “Big Society” as a label that is impossible. It is seen by many of those at grass-roots level as a tainted Tory brand. I happen to believe that Big Society, in the minds of David Cameron, Lord Wei and others in power, is a sincerely-held set of beliefs and commitments that would chime with many on the ground.

But it doesn’t really matter what they say or believe from the top: the meaning of a message lies with the receiver, not the transmitter. And Big Society advocates are mostly in transmit mode. They have failed on the first principle of co-design – offer a trusted space for people of good will to get to know each other, listen, learn and begin to evolve something together.

How might that be done? Well, it’s not for me or anyone else to say. Tough though it may be, we need to co-design the process … not just add 2.0, launch a new web site and run some London events.

It’s pretty difficult to get that sort of process going bottom-up.

Fortunately the tweets from me and others yesterday led to a message from a nation newspaper asking if I would write 600 words on the topic. The old hack in me thought – great, here’s a chance to push some of my ideas. The socialreporter replied, use the opportunity to crowdsource the ideas from others, and see if we can develop something together. Make sense, join up, help to evolve. My  contact readily agreed to use mainstream media leverage to help this bottom-up process.

This piece is by way of ground clearing, and I’ll follow up with more about the process linked to the article  … which hopefully will help lead towards new substance for whatever-we-might-call Big Society from now on.

Meanwhile, feel free to leave a comment here, tweet something with a tag (I’m suggesting #claimBS thanks to a helpful suggestion), find me on twitter @davidwilcox, email me … or even better come over to this same post on Our Society and join the discussion there. You have to register, but it is simple, and worth the effort. Big Society is the government’s story, Our Society is our story … or choose your own label, and share it.


  • February 4, 2011 - 12:45 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for such a thoughtful and open invitation David.

    I can’t answer too many of your questions but wanted to say how much I support a lot of your thinking around co-designing etc.

    My further point is really some observations on what is happening. Dan Thompson and I exchanged tweets yesterday – making some observations that there is a lot happening right now… and for whatever reason Big Society is accelerating the number and speed of activity that we are already working in. It is possibly the concept, the level of discussion, degree of creativity being generated by scarcity – but it is giving a lot of things the we are working on a real boost. The politics around BS seem irrelevant in this regard.

    The ‘taking on a life of its own’ spin from ResPublica in its own way continues (falsely in my opinion) to claim some ownership over our activity activity… but I could easily be persuaded that Big Society is boosting our existing efforts and opening doors to conversations that social innovators and people in communities have been trying to have for quite some time.

  • david wilcox
    February 4, 2011 - 2:40 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Tessy for such a characteristically positive and encouraging response. Is a tester for the process in your final point … what will boost our existing efforts and open doors to conversations that social innovators and people in communities have been trying to have for quite some time.
    Perhaps at community level it is evolving, sharing and supporting the sort of approaches that you and other innovators are developing. As a frame and support for that, maybe some better national collaborations.
    From your travels, what would help?

  • February 4, 2011 - 4:23 pm | Permalink

    I have been working with (on purpose) self-selecting groups of people. People want to come to the workshops and want to be involved. The stronger sense I leave with is frustration at finding so many roads blocked. We need responsive councils – ones where they have individual people who are prepared to respond to ideas and initiatives and use their knowledge of all the systems to help people do the things they are enthusiastic about.

    In the workshop yesterday, with 8 or so young mums, one person turned to the group and said something like ‘just with us here, with all the ideas we have been discussing, we could transform this community’. But in their instance in particular, and it often is, its having really common spaces that they can use for these activities they want to be able to develop. Either communities don’t have spaces, or the community spaces, particularly the ones in the ‘community’s control’ don’t seem to be accessible to ordinary residents. It’s a massive block.

    The problem is that people don’t keep coming back – once their ideas are ignored once or twice they often think there isn’t any point – especially if they are volunteering their time and effort. We have similar experiences with schools and other organisations…

  • david wilcox
    February 4, 2011 - 4:39 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Tessy … that mirrors my experience when I was a consultant doing “community engagement”. The council (often as client) would say people were apathetic … but we would find them far from that if we followed their concerns and enthusiasms. The problem lay in taking ideas back to the official bodies, who would then find they didn’t fit the agenda. In addition, community and voluntary organisations would act as gatekeepers.
    All that suggests to me that ideally one has to work with the whole system, not just the residents. In doing consultancy work, we would run workshops with the officials (and I’m sure you have experience there too), and others interests in parallel, and then bring everyone together. Or run events like the recent Chain Reaction.
    But as you will well know, this is time consuming a requires some skill and determination.

  • February 5, 2011 - 11:39 am | Permalink

    I would agree with Tessy that the Big Society has opened doors to conversations that social innovators and people in communities have been having for some time. And if it peoples people discover new ways of helping each other and connecting up networks, then that is important.

    As the economic assets that are part of the Big Society are being thinned out, its going to become difficult for councils, social enterprises (and to an extent small localised businesses) and community groups to divide up and share a cake that’s getting smaller and smaller. You only have to look at our high streets to witness this. We do need to work with the whole system. If the Government can help, it’s by putting Big Society at the heart of its economic policies – a social growth strategy.

    But what we can do at the micro-economic level, its perhaps looking at how we can use the relationships we have and the techniques we use to help rebuild our neighbourhood economies. Localising the economy is a way of building sustainable social networks where people’s individual economic actions become social actions and vice versa. If you have strong connections, you may know someone who knows how to fix your village hall roof and if they’ve done a good job, then its likely the people using the village hall will employ them to do their decorations for their own houses, etc. Maybe not the best analogy but is Saturday morning 😉

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