Category Archives: Big Society

Programme promoted by the UK coalition government

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The official and unofficial connectors that may make localism work

Yesterday I was at the launch of a substantial report about “official” work in neighbourhoods, published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, on how councils can take forward government policies to decentralise control, promote active citizenship and maybe help realise big society.

The language was of good partnership working, civic responsibility, maximising the opportunities in devolution, community leadership roles for local councillors … and professionals working on this for years.

However, success also depends upon the less official matter of how far citizens are prepared to do more for their neighbours, and how councils can encourage people to engage more in providing local services formally or informally.

As Liz Richardson of Manchester University, the author of the report says, the key issue is about attitude as much as policy:

The big lesson is about trust and risk – transfering more control means you have to trust people that little bit more to do things by themselves. Sometimes they’ll mess up, sometimes they won’t. There has to to be some way of keeping that accountable, but allowing space for it to happen.

Liz has been working with Mick Charlton and other officers, councillors and residents in Bradford, where the council already had an impressive record of neighbourhood working before the coalition government developed big society policies.

JRF have been working there since 2004, so it is an ideal place to explore the issues in depth. As Mick explained in the interview, there have been two-way benefits of sharing ideas with researchers.

Earlier in the week I spent a day with a team of community builders at Forever Manchester, exploring how social reporting could help their work in local neighbourhoods – as explained here.

The talk there was of getting out and talking to people, making connections, helping people find skills and resources in the community … and aiming to be able to move on from the neighbourhood within a year or so once new networks were developed.

In London Mark Parker is telling the story of his work with a team of community organisers in Southwark. It is mainly on the street, rather than committee rooms, and in Noticing the unusual suspects Mark makes a distinction between those well-versed in the official world, and the unofficial connectors, a term he attributes to Cormac Russell. Mark writes:

Community leadership needs to be both horizontal and vertical. Some people are eager to speak their mind to the powerful and will tackle the problem they encounter head-on. These folk seldom have time for a deepening relationship with their neighbours and can be criticised as speaking for themselves alone. Others are the glue that link together people and places in any community. They are often well-known locally – in the street or on the block – either as that kind old lady (and often they are women) at No 6 or that old busybody! They hold a great wealth in social capital and are seldom seen at community meetings. Yet their role in bringing people together is vital.

So is there a divide between official, top-down, and unofficial bottom-up, as it is often characterised? I don’t think that’s a helpful way of thinking about it (and certainly not one promoted in the JRF report … they just couldn’t cover everything, and the full report has more about the community perspective).

We need both parts of the system, with more side-to-side connections and networks both in agencies and in communities.

Where the JRF research, and the community organising and building experience do join up, is in the focus on the importance of neighbourhood workers, builders, connectors – whatever they may be called.

Local service delivery is complex, and so are communities. We need the joining-up people. If we agree that, what becomes interesting is the philosophy, and style by which they work, which is something I’ll return to later.

Here’s the key points from the JRF report:

  • Neighbourhood workers are key to co-ordinate partners and services, broker agreements and solve problems creatively.
  • Active citizenship could be strengthened by tapping into the pool of ‘willing localists’.
  • Transferring more control to communities requires new mechanisms to share risk and reward between public sector bodies and communities.
  • Councillors can play a community leadership role, and be honest with constituents, tackle difficult issues head-on, and mobilise the wider community.
  • Central government could offer support, guidance and leadership for action at the local level on the shared challenges facing local public sector organisations and local government.


Will Hands Up become Hands On? The Localism reality check

I’m sure we’ll be hearing a lot more from Government in coming months about localism and the expectation that people will do more in their communities – not just as volunteers, but in running services. Big Society may be out of the news as a phrase, but the policies are working their way through to implementation.

Last week a report by Liz Coll for Consumer Focus addressed the key issue of whether people are ready to commit more time and effort: Hands up and hands on – Understanding the new opportunities for localism and community empowerment.

The report was launched at a small seminar run with Involve, and afterwards I asked deputy director Edward Andersson for his summary. He said:

This is one of the few pieces of work that looks at how well does the rhetoric of localism actually marry with reality – we have the community right to bid and community right to build. We have all these new rights for community members to take some quite serious action in their community.

But to what degree are people ready to do that? That’s what this report looks at. It shows that there are some quite profound  challenges.

There are quite a large group of people who want to be involved and influence, but fewer people who are currently ready and willing to actually go in and deliver services themselves.

Edward emphasises that there are unlikely to be any short term solutions, because it takes time to build confidence and capability among local groups: a lesson familar to anyone involved in community action. This is not a short term game. It takes time to build confidence and capacity. Nor is “community” synonymous with collaboration: there may be many conflicts of views and priorities in any neighbourhood.

The report starts by giving a clear overview of the different ways in which people participate: by having influence, becoming more actively involved, or actually taking control.  That’s rather on the lines of the ladder of participation model that has served fairly well for some time.

The report goes on to examine how far people will commit at the different levels. Conclusion – not as much as government might hope.

The assumption made during the latest drive towards localism is that that there are significant numbers of people ready and willing to participate in decision making and control of local services. While this may be the case in particular communities, our research has uncovered a more mixed reality on the ground which needs to be acknowledged.

While 82 per cent of those surveyed agree people should have more say, and 69 per cent support the notion that local people should be more actively involved, when it comes to actually doing something personally the figure drops to 28 per cent.

The report says that about a third of people are already involved in various ways – and there is the potential for greater involvement if we have a good understanding of people’s motivations (personal commitment, social connections, current circumstances) and recognise possible barriers.

The barriers include lack of information, lack of time, lack of faith in local authorities, a core group of activists putting people off, and lack of return on investment (why bother).

The recommendations include focussing on the right people – the 28 per cent; being insightful about motivations and barriers; developing opportunities; and being open and realistic.

The report doesn’t break any new ground, but it is admirably concise and provides a sound reality check on what’s possible if we carry on aiming for more engagement in the same old ways, with the same old attitudes from agencies.

It’s too early to judge whether new methods of community organising and community building that I touch on here will make a big difference: but there probably aren’t likely to be any quick gains.

In  a street-level view from Southwark, Mark Parker reports that it is tough on the doorstep, as a group of community organisers reach the mid-point of their training:

The experience on the ground has been hard going. Some of the trainee organisers have said how difficult they have found it to move people from a vague sense of engagement at the door to actually taking action a few days later. I found myself repeatedly listening to residents, having a successful conversation with them leading to a clear commitment to action and then being disappointed when they did not follow through. When I tried to contact them again, they just seemed to go to ground. This experience has been widely shared across the network.

On the other hand, some trainees have been able to persevere and come through to a place where they are joined by volunteers in their listening and find people willing to draw some friends together for a chat about the area. These ‘voluntary community organisers’ in waiting are key people to help make the local network of citizens come to life. The focus has turned – as it has for me in the last few weeks – to helping these individuals to pursue their project idea or to get out listening to friends and family. The time for the foundational listening has been limited by these other demands.

It sounds as if the lesson is similar to that in the Consumer Focus report: look for the willing. The problem is you have to knock on a lot of doors to find them.


Big Society

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? read more »

All posts Big Society socialspaces

Understanding and building Big Society (whatever you call it)

Big Society resurfaced this week with a public administration select committee report saying people don’t understand what is, and there should be a new Minister responsible. Kate Wiggins assesses proposals in Third Sector.

NCVO and TSRC hosted a seminar to provide a critical re-appraisal, that yielded lots of tweets (thanks mainly to @commutiny). Slides and agenda are now here too. Pathik Pathak has blogged that it was illuminating, optimistic but adversarial. Panelist Matthew Taylor found it downbeat and rather grumpy.

The Big Society Network launched a new website, with a one-year-on report from director Steve Moore

A couple of commentators followed through, with Ruth Porter in the Telegraph on Building a Big Society from the bottom up (we need a Smaller State), and Janet Morrison in the Guardian Lose the egos and collaborate (charities must live up to their values). Each interesting, if predictably aimed at respective core audiences.

A few references to academic papers surfaced: Building the Big Society: evidence about civic engagement and community control from June, Empowerment or Abandonment? Prospects for Neighbourhood Revitalization Under the Big Society, lessons from Baltimore and Bristol, this month.

Urban Forum produced one of their concise and readable briefings, this time by Caitlin McMullin on the Localism Act.

This post isn’t an attempt at a comprehensive round-up, and my focus here is less on the substance of the reports and seminar than on the means of communicating the Big Society idea/project/initiative/brand … whatever it is. Previous posts here, including how the public call to action side of it has faded, while policies like Localism and Open Public Services are changing the framework by which government shifts the balance between what they do, and what we are expected to do for ourselves.

What struck me about the re-emerging Big Society debate was how distant it was from the way that people actually talk about their local community, and do things for mutual benefit (unless they are paid community development workers, in which case they naturally pay a lot more attention to diminishing career prospects, and are rightly concerned about policy developments).

I caught a terrific dose of community optimism last Saturday, when I went to an event in south London, celebrating the I Love Thornton Heath project. I’ve blogged about it here, as part of the work I’m doing with John Popham and Drew Mackie for the Big Lottery Fund’s People Powered Change.


As you’ll see from the post and videos it was all about the stories people want to tell each other about their neighbourhoods, and the scope for helping each other that comes from that. I’m sure it would have gladdened David Cameron’s heart, and that of Ministers like Francis Maude and Nick Hurd, responsible for Big Society … but I don’t think I heard the words once. (Nor did we hear much about the riots, which happened up the road: the starting point was strengths, rather than problems, although these were acknowledged).

The response from Cabinet Office, quoted by the Guardian, to the select committee report which claimed people didn’t understand Big Society, and that concerted action was needed, was:

Programmes such as Community Organisers, Community First and National Citizen Service will help stimulate more social action by bringing people together in the communities they live in to solve problems and make the most of opportunities and assets. And there is a clear plan of how government will support this. The Localism Bill give power back to local communities, while the Open Public Services White Paper will empower individuals by giving them choice over services and empower neighbourhoods to take greater control over local services. In addition the Cabinet Office business plan sets out a clear set of objectives for the Office for Civil Society.

I suspect that the response from people like those that I met in Thornton Heath might be something to the effect that we’ve being doing what you call Big Society for years, but we can’t quite see how the policies and programmes that you are talking about will make a difference. Not that they won’t – but it isn’t clear. We just don’t understand.

I hope I’m not putting hypothetic words into people’s mouths: I’m just connecting the conversations I had last Saturday with one I had with Eileen Conn at the recent People Powered Change workshop.

Eileen suggests that the way that informal community groups operate, with no paid staff, is fundamentally different from the more conventionally managed operations of funded voluntary organisations (and public services, of course). The groups work through horizontal person-to-person networks, while organisations operate vertically and hierarchically. Taking an analogy from physics, one is matter, one is more like energy waves. Thinking about joining bottom-up and top-down misses the complexity of the social ecosystem.

If you accept Eileen’s analysis, it goes a long way towards explaining why Big Society – as expressed by Cabinet Office – doesn’t play out on the ground. It’s not just a matter of “something invented by the Tories” or too tied up with the cuts: it is just from another planet.

So how can we develop some common understanding, between Government, central and local, other public services, voluntary bodies and community groups? I think there’s broad agreement – certainly evident at the seminar – that we need a mix of all of these.

Tessy Britton’s Social Spaces project has a game that provides a way of playing the issues through – and like Tessy and her collaborators I find that games are a great way to create spaces within which people from different backgrounds can have useful conversations (here’s one Drew Mackie and I ran about community spaces).

In Tessy’s game – described here – people sort through a collection of 100 skills that are printed on cards, and consider:

  • skills that the group can do
  • skills that their friends can do
  • skills that to their knowledge neither they nor their friends can do

My experience of the game is that people find that there are a lot more cards in the first set than they might expect. Tessy reports:

“Through workshopping with over 1800 people in the last 14 months we have discovered that this activity, but some miracle, did exactly what we hoped it would.

  • Without exception everyone enjoys this game – people always laugh and joke their way through the game which takes about 10-15 minutes – we have even had frequent demonstrations of ‘sitting in the lotus’ position.
  • It is informal and people interact in light ways that help them get to know one another better.
  • Of the 100 activities a group of 4 or more will be able to do, or have a friend do, over 90% of the skills. The percentage between how much an individual group can do themselves varies on size of group, but generally speaking most skills can be done in the community.
  • It does make people feel capable – we have frequently had groups spontaneously applaud themselves at their collective cleverness.
  • It genuinely surprises them how much can be done around the table – and through this are also blown away considering how much skill is lying dormant in the community.”

Tessy adds  you can buy a set of cards on the Social Spaces Shop – “BUT before you do, please be aware that you will be able to request a free PDF of the Social Spaces Skills Game in the new year, which we are making available free for community’s use via a Creative Commons [Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs] licence”.

I think that this gives us one clue to the challenge of how to help people understand and build Big Society (or whatever you choose to call the good stuff people do in their community). Create an open sourced store of games and other methods. I’ve previously called that a social app store.

Another very promising approach is emerging over on the Our Society site, where Lorna Prescott is inviting people to join development of a guide to Our Society. Lorna has picked up on a rather theoretical framework I developed back in January, and wants to assemble practical ideas and test them through the reality of life in Dudley. If people in other communities join in, the guide/store could evolve quite fast. I’m sure if we applied Tessy’s game strategically, we would find that we have all of the ingredients (to shift the metaphor to that used in the Transition Network Companion).

I’m planning to shift more of my blogging towards understanding what local people and groups need to develop our/big/good society. Bottom up? Grassroots? Energy-led? People-powered? Oh  dear, I can see language is going to be a problem. What would you say?


All posts Big Society

No 10 talk turns from Big Society to small is beautiful, says The Times

A link in the always-informative Conservative Home newsletter prompted me to spend £1 subscribing to The Times online. The link teaser was: “Increasingly, Mr Cameron’s advisers have started to argue that “small is beautiful” rather than talking about the Big Society.”

The argument in the article by Rachel Sylvester – behind the paywall – is that No 10 is increasingly concerned that “too big to fail” won’t work as a strategy – whether that’s banks, the EU, or indeed the Church of England in the face of a tented village. Apparently they are listening to Nassim Nicholas Taleb, whose 2007 book The Black Swan argued that history is made by random high-impact events rather than day-to-day routines. A black swan is an event, positive or negative, that is deemed improbable yet causes massive consequences.

Stuff happens, you can’t see it coming, so it may be better to have more small projects, systems, organisations. The second edition of The Black Swan has ten principles for a robust society – of which “what is fragile should break early, while it’s still small” is top of the list, says Rachel. read more »

All posts Big Society

The return of Big Society debate via its critics, friendly or otherwise

Just when we thought Big Society as call-to-action had faded into big society as policy framework – as reported recently by Third Sector, and earlier here – the Office for Civil Society has followed up on the open letter from Minister Nick Hurd, affirming BS, with a rather smart move.

OCS have commissioned four community and and voluntary sector organisations to report on what Big Society means for the groups they represent. In part this might be seen as consolation for the organisations having lost some core funding when they were dropped as OCS strategic partners.

More interestingly for the rest of us it will ensuring the the Big Society agenda is discussed within the sector in a deeper and perhaps more constructive manner than previously, when those voicing possible benefits were rather drowned out by those saying it’s all a cover for the cuts and/or there’s nothing new, we’ve been doing it for years.

This time discussion will be hosted openly by those who have, in the past, had to balance representing the critical calls from their members with the need to stay on speaking terms with Government. read more »

All posts Big Society events

Your Square Mile launches new site and mutual for local action

ypursquaremile site

It looks as if the Your Square Mile initiative, headed by Paul Twivy and supported by the Big Lottery Fund, has found some middle ground between the Tory Big Society and Labour’s Good Society.

Tomorrow YSM will be holding a press event to launch it’s new web site now online; show a documentary about the pilot projects they have been working with around the country, and explain more about plans to make YSM a mutual owned by millions of citizens.

Unusually they are expecting both Nick Hurd, Minister for Civil Society, and Tessa Jowell, Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office, to wish them well at the event. read more »

All posts Big Society

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. read more »

All posts Big Society Our Society

Community activist hub: right problem, wrong solution

I’m puzzled by the recommendation for a “central information hub for community activists” from the Government’s Champion for Active Safer Communities, Baroness Newlove. Her report on Our vision for safe and active communities: Government Progress Update, has an introduction from David Cameron, and this as its first priority:

Creating an online ‘home’ for community activism. Building on existing online services, these easy to find and simple to use ‘hubs’ will provide community activist ‘starter kits’, together with useful links, contact details, up-to-date funding information and the ability to recruit potential volunteers online.

I’m sure that Baroness Newlove has good evidence of a demand for information from her work in local communities in recent months – so, right problem. What’s puzzling in a Government announcement is that it was only last year that Mr Cameron launched Big Society Network and Your Square Mile as a solution. You can see the video here. read more »

Open innovation reporters and a Social App store are needed to complement local news hubs

In my last post, on Big Lottery’s investment of some £10 million in five projects to support the People Powered Change programme, I said I would come up with ideas on how to fill what seems to me to be some of the gaps around helping community groups and citizens share experience and get the know-how they need.

On reflection that’s rather presumptuous – so my best idea is a pretty obvious one … look at the assets and skills we have already,  and open the process up to those are already bubbling with suggestions, and create some innovative solutions from there. We might build a Social App Store.

Here’s the backstory: Big Lottery have made grants to the Young Foundation, Unltd’s Big Venture Challenge, NESTA’s Neighbourhood Challenge, and Your Square Mile, announced in March. None of these was competitive. Then last week BIG announced a further non competitive grant, this time to the Media Trust for a network of local community news hubs. read more »