More Big Society Awards: now help the winners tell their stories

Big Society AwardsI don’t know whether my  modest promotion of the Big Society Awards last May made the slightest difference, but the Office for Civil Society were kind enough to write with thanks a few days ago, saying 370 nominations were received, and it is time for another round. Would I spread the word again?

Closing date is next week, October 4 – details and past winners on the No 10 site.

The awards focus on promoting social action, empowering communities, and opening up public services. They are open to individuals, groups and organisations.

Big Society LogoThe request prompted me to reflect on why the Awards continue to be promoted, and seem to go down well with people even though there’s no money – while Big Society itself, as the Government’s call to citizen action, is little heard.

For the Award, you get a plaque, a signed certificate from David Cameron, an invite to No 10, a press release and page on the No 10 website. As awards are announced, one a week, there’s a  flurry of genuine delight and excitement – at least among the winners.

At the same time, Big Society isn’t isn’t even on the Conservative party conference agenda this year. I think I got it right, back in May, suggesting then that the call to action would be dropped, but the policies would be pursued without the BS tag.

Big Society evangelising was of course shouted down by cries of “it’s just a mask for the cuts” … but I think there’s another reason BS didn’t succeed in mobilising enthusiasm on the ground, now highlighted in the excellent Pathways through Participation report about two and a half years research into the reasons why people engage in volunteering and community action. There’s no reference to BS, but the research is revealing.

Simon Burall, director of Involve, one of the research partners, blogged recently:

The report paints a picture that is at odds with the media and thinktank narrative of falling voter engagement, rioting communities and mass civil disengagement. Instead the report points to vibrant involvement in joint community activities and active engagement in the challenges that face us all. The point is that much of this engagement is not of a kind that is valued by policy makers, or at least doesn’t happen in ways that they can see and use.

The report is clear. People engage in community life for a wide variety of motivations and very few are motivated by the interests and concerns of policy makers. Therefore, if we are serious in wanting to boost engagement, we need to start adapting what we do to meet the terms and motivations of citizens, rather than expecting them to adapt to our purposes and objectives. This will be obvious to many working at community level, but is too often forgotten by those working more distantly.

The project recorded hundreds of hours of interviews – and so gained a pretty deep understanding of people’s motivations. One of the researchers told me that not only did people want to follow their own enthusiasms – they were particularly resentful of being told by Government what they should be doing for the common good.

Big Society Awards acknowledge that people been doing good stuff for years, and applaud them for that, whatever name they chose for themselves. Big Society as a call to action generally ignored past activity, and expected people to rebadge their enthusiasm with a Conservative brand.

I wonder in this case whether people appreciate the approval of No 10, and don’t mind too much about the BS label … or whether BS is OK as a sort of rosette.

I think follow-up interviews with the Big Society Award winners might tease out some of these issues, revealing more about people’s motivations, and the ways that Government might best support and encourage local action. I believe many people in the field of community action felt there were good ideas in Big Society … pity about the cuts, the branding, the lack of recognition of past achievements and experience. Maybe my friends at Involve could pitch some suggestions at the Cabinet Office’s Behavioural Insight Team, otherwise known as the nudge unit.

One further thought on where there might be some mutual benefit for groups and No 10: at present the pages on the No 10 site about award winners – like this one on Digi Steps – are rather old-style, formal, press release. Fair enough, but how about encouraging the groups to put up their own announcements as well, maybe as video interviews? Perhaps the Media Trust could help, and then promote through their news hubs programme.

I think that would get more attention, and be a clear demonstration, as the award site says, that: “The Big Society is about moving power away from central government and giving it to local communities and individuals”. So let’s play up our story, as well as yours, No 10.

Lot’s more posts on Big Society in the archive

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