Beyond Big Society towards Big Competent Citizens

I’ve been reading the latest RSA contribution to the contentious Big Society discussion  … or what used to be a lively discussion since it has rather died down in the past few months (earlier posts here).

Government has carried on with BS policies like localism, but toned down calls for citizens to do more for each other. That’s because promotion of BS as a brand was drowned out by shouts of “its all a mask for the cuts” together with “we’ve been doing this for years” and “no-one is going to volunteer for a party political idea”.

At the same time there’s been continuing muttering from a wide range of people that there are good ideas in there if we could change the name, recognise the many past and current traditions of community action, and de-politicise the whole thing. We need to move on – but how?

The RSA report  Beyond the Big Society: Psychological Foundations of Active Citizenship suggests that we have to take two jumps ahead to do that.

The first is to move beyond the political arguments that are framed as how much the state should do, and the scale of public services. That’s the Big Society-Smaller State arguement.

The second jump is to go beyond calls for more volunteering and charitable giving that might substitute for state-run public services.

We should move into an area where there may be more consensus: the value of extending our caring human relationships beyond friends and family to others in our community. We should engage more, and do more for each other. That’s the hidden wealth we should build on. The report blurb says:

We introduce a perspective on public participation that is rarely considered by policymakers, namely mental complexity in the adult population – our varied capacity to understand competing motivations and values in ourselves and others, to ‘get things in perspective’, and to act appropriately in uncertain or ambiguous situations. Rather than theories of ‘personality’ and ‘interpersonal skills’ that only pay lip service to the complexity of human capital, we believe this perspective helps us to deepen the discussion on public participation, with greater explanatory power and clearer practical implications.

However, participation and collaborative action involves a complex set of skills and attitudes, which the report summarises as

  1. Autonomy – the capacity to be self-directed, and act through intrinsic motivation.
  2. Responsibility – literally to be able to respond, to take ownership of ‘bigger-than self’ problems.
  3. Solidarity – the ability to interact in socially heterogeneous groups with a sense of mutual commitment.

Not everyone is up to it, so the report argues that we need more formal and informal adult education and policies to effect a cultural change in society. We need a Curriculum for Big Citizens that will help people develop not just skills, but competences in doing good stuff with other people. The report makes this distinction:

Skills: often basic, generally automatic or grounded in rules or algorithms, teachable in principle, rarely transferable to other contexts.

Competencies: grounded in values, attitudes and dispositions, and responsive to complex and often unfamiliar demands in context. Irreducible to component parts.

The report says that this involves a degree of mental complexity, and quotes a psychometric definition of this as: “a broad range of communication skills and related abilities … (which) indexes the degree of differentiation, articulation, and integration within a cognitive system”.

I have to confess that at this stage I rather ran out of steam in reading the report. There’s some really deep analysis drawing on the work of Robert Kegan, who is quoted as saying “There is an unrecognised cultural demand upon the minds of contemporary adults for a common order of mental complexity.”

I’m afraid my mind just wasn’t up to it.

However I do like the idea of “Beyond Big Society”, because it could create a middle ground in which friendly critics can say let’s get beyond the politics, while also providing a way to stay in touch with evolving government policies.

I like the emphasis on personal capacity to engage and take action, rather than masking the complexity in talking simply about ways to support groups and benefit “community”. It’s one thing to turn up as a volunteer and offer your skills and enthusiasm in a well-managed programme run by a charity. It’s very different to try and organise a group to develop a new project … or to find ways in which your community centre can survive now its grant has been cut. Definitely complex, and just because committee members may  have business skills it doesn’t mean they can easily transfer those to a different setting.

The challenge for RSA, I suggest, is how to make what’s a very clever piece of work more widely accessible to citizens, whether big or small, and build on that. Beyond Big Society will fail if it is beyond the understanding of citizens, whether big or small.

One route might be to make the report the first stage in a wider Beyond Big Society programme that helps evolve a middle ground to explore the issues and practical implications in ways that enable any interested citizens to participate. Just as citizens need to develop competences to participate, think tanks need competences to engage.

I was an RSA Fellow until 18 months ago, when I left because of some frustrations. From various conversations I hear that things have now moved on a lot, and there’s a plenty of encouragement for Fellows (which is mainly a grand name for members) to lead on projects. I’m rejoining.

Working with staff on Beyond Big Society could be rewarding, if the door is open. Don’t just criticise (which I used to do rather a lot) – contribute. Maybe that’s what makes members into Fellows.


  • matthew taylor
    January 20, 2012 - 11:33 am | Permalink

    Hi David. It’s great to have you back. We donlt do fatted calves in the Gerrard Bar but I’ll certainly stand you a coffee !

  • david wilcox
    January 20, 2012 - 12:21 pm | Permalink

    Hi Matthew and thanks so much for the welcome. I would love to have a chat about how social reporting might help amplify the many creative developments under way in RSA including Beyond Big Society. Afraid you may no longer be able to say “here comes the troublemaker …” For a bit anyway 🙂

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