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A little recap on Big Society

I’m really enjoying Paul Twivy’s book Be Your Own Politician, which champions social action and citizen engagement, informed by his insider knowledge of how challenging it is to promote and negotiate support for that within the political establishment and Whitehall.

Paul recounts how he succeeded through work with Comic Relief, Timebanking, Change the World for a Fiver, and the Big Lunch, among much else – but not so much with the Big Society Network and Your Square Mile. His chapter on how this unwound is fascinating, and generally confirms my understanding as an independent observer and also paid-for socialreporter for the Network at one stage. Here’s the Big Society Wikipedia entry.

Paul recounts the point at which the change of leadership of the Network, from his initial role to that of Steve Moore, emerged through Steve promoting the fact in his bio for a TEDx event in Athens in November 2010. I picked up the bio reference – without any briefing from Steve – and blogged a piece “Steve Moore leads new Big Society Innovation Platform“.

I aimed to provide people with an even-handed update on Big Society developments, because they were so difficult to come by,  and declared I’d known Steve for a some years and worked directly for him and then the Network. I explain that Paul had worked hard on developing Your Square Mile, and this was due to launch soon.

Unfortunately Steve had jumped ahead of any official announcement, and Paul recounts in his book the difficulty and embarrassment this caused. (I didn’t appreciate until now that Steve had used Paul’s slides for his talk). May I offer a retrospective apology for my part in the upset? I probably should have checked, since I had worked for the Network, and owed it more than a purely journalistic relationship.

On the other hand, there was considerable public interest in Big Society and the Network, and I think it’s fair to say I was one of very few people trying to get behind the politics and provide a running account. I was frustrated by the lack of briefing – although reading Paul’s account, I can now better understand the reason for that. It wasn’t an open process.

Anyway, you can read that particular blog post here, and judge its tone yourself. The tag cloud on this blog – right sidebar – shows that that over the years I’ve written more about Big Society, Big Society Network, and Your Square Mile than most topics, starting with a report of the launch. That includes a video interview with Paul and Nat Wei, as well as David Cameron’s remarks. I subsequently joined the Your Square Mile mutual, reported the launch, including an interview with Paul.

I’ll leave the retrospection at that for now, although it would be interesting to reflect on what Your Square Mile was trying to achieve, and whether there are lessons for what’s now needed for local social action, blending digital and non-digital methods.  There may be some wider value in the work I’ve been doing with Drew Mackie on Living Well in the Digital Age, and the idea of local Living Labs.  Here’s some thinking on operating systems and social apps, connecting local frameworks with the DCLG Grey Cells model.

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Building the Big Social Apps Store

Yesterday we had the first Open Night for Big Society Network, with more than 150 enthusiasts, sceptics and critical friends working through just what Big Society might mean in practice.
Was it a mask for coalition cuts on public funding, re-invention of the community development wheel, an unrealistic expectation about volunteering? Or could it be, in part, a new sort of Open Source Social Apps Store?
BSN chief executive Paul Twivy was frank in acknowledging the concerns. But he said it could also be a way to develop creative approaches to tackling local problems, mixing the skills and resources of existing networks and groups with social innovation powered by new technology. The BSN model for that is Your Square Mile, about which more later.

After an intro from Paul, and briefing from facilitator Steve Moore, people came to the front of the room at Communities and Local Government, pitched the topic they wanted to discuss, formed groups, and got talking. It was hot, noisy, creative and mostly very positive. You can see the Twitter stream as well as background material on the BSNopen wiki here.
In my role as social reporter I pulled Paul and Steve into the cooler, quieter, foyer for the five minute verson of what was going on then returned to the buzz to capture feedback from the groups. You can see Paul and Steve above, and all videos below.

Once you start to play the first one, the later ones appear at the bottom of the player frame. Or you can find them all here on YouTube.

Paul provided a framework for the discussions by explaining Your Square Mile – above – as a way of bringing together the best advice and services for social action in a locality, enhanced by a range of new products developed by BSN with partners. The Network will be mutually owned by its members … and Paul is talking millions of members. For a few pounds a year subscription they will receive special benefits that might include, for example, low-cost insurance cover. Paul talked about ways to encourage people to invest their saving locally, to think about time as a currency, and to reduce barriers to volunteering and social action.

One of the strengths of the  Big Society idea is that it the reverse of the centrally planned government programmes of the past, where policy-makers developed frameworks, invited people to pitch ideas within those, and attached strong guidelines and targets to any support. It’s to be Your Idea, Your Priority, Your Passion.

The problem is that it is difficult to explain just because it is so diverse. There is no one Big Voice, Big Idea … but potentially many voices, many ideas. Last night was a microcosm of that. So how do you help join up those conversation so people can learn from each other … and so there is a heightened sense of what is possible? How do you create opportunities for people to share and sell, find new partners?

Last night Steve Moore asked me to speak briefly about ideas for a Big Society Commons or Store, which I wrote about here, and here. I said we need space with different levels … information, conversation, exchange, products and services. Maybe it is a mall plus a market, some high tech, some low. It is absolutely not created by government, but by those with something to offer.

Then I started to wonder about the role of the skilled, creative, passionate people at the Open Night. Perhaps one analogy for part of the store is an Apps store, where you can download smart ways of doing things to your mobile phone. Some are free, some you pay for. The fee goes to the developer, with a percentage to the store owner.

It works because there is a framework for the way apps are developed – tight in the case of Apple, more flexible in open sources stores.

So perhaps some of the people at the Open Night were potential developers for the Social Apps Store. If the Network can help to create the store, it will provide a much bigger market for those with social action products and services to sell – or offer free.

The Apps Store offers one metaphor to help us think how we bring good stuff together, what’s in it for the different interests involved, what rules and frameworks we need to make sure things work together.

But then, I like tech stuff. What’s your metaphor?

Over the next few days I’ll pull together the blog posts written after last night, and update the wiki. Meanwhile tonight I’m with colleague Drew Mackie, and Niall Smith of IDeA, at Warwick University where over dinner we are running a version of the Social by Social game for people working in tobacco control alliances around the country.

We’ll be looking at how social media and social reporting can engage smokers and help them quit,  and build stronger partnerships among health organisations. Far fetched? Not at all – just look at the work Steve Thompson is doing in Wrekenton, where we ran a version of the game a few months back. We provided the framework – local people filled it out with their knowledge and enthusiasm.

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Government gives details of Big Society programme

The new coalition government today provided details of the Big Society programme – which I’ve written about previously here. It was the the first major policy statement issued jointly by David Cameron and Nick Clegg, following a round table event at 10 Downing Street with civil society activists and leaders. Nat Wei, co-founder of Big Society Network – who I interviewed here – will be made a member of the House of Lords and will work alongside the new Minister for Civil Society, Nick Hurd, to lead on the delivery of the programme.

Redesigning Civil Society, collaboratively

The Guardian’s Societydaily roundup quotes my remark that “It’s obvious we are going to see big cuts in local services whoever is
elected, so we had better get thinking” So here we go.

Patrick Butler writes in the Guardian:

I have some sympathy with the signatories of this letter in “defence of civil society”, from a group of social entrepreneurs who feel that the election knock-about over David Cameron’s ‘big society’ has somewhat obscured, misrepresented or trivialised some of the ideas within it – citizen engagement, community ownership, self-help, public services co-ops and so on.


Media cynicism about big society I expected. But I’ve been struck by how a combination of election fever and tribal loyalty has turned some liberal-minded friends and colleagues who I imagined might be sympathetic to some of the ideas in the concept into unfeasibly staunch defenders of the big state, as if what we had before us was a straightforward choice, one or the other. Friends who have for years bemoaned the decline in voting, the scarcity of cub scout leaders, and other signs of the erosion of social capital bristle at the chutzpah of Cameron for proposing to do something about it.

and concluding:

But if we can’t or won’t accept the need to find new ways of filling the spaces from where the state has seemingly no option but to retreat, the forthcoming cuts to public services are going to be even more painful.

The Guardian piece comes in the wake of a letter from Steven Clift, who has been promoting e-democracy and engagement across world for the past 15 years. He writes to 20 of his contacts:

Hey all, through about five different channels across different countries I’ve picked up on growing interest among community builders (particularly at the neighborhood engagement and local democracy level) in some sort of mix of digital guides and connecting tools that help people share lessons and civic energy across local communities. People want to move from talk to problem-solving and direct citizen engagement.

Some of you are into virtual guidebooks, others into Linkedin-like tools, local e-competitions, unconferences, or digital storytelling. I have my own interest in fostering multi-tech online communities of practice. What seems new to me is the level interest in connecting the active citizens (not just connections via trade groups or global sites like Zunia.org at the professional level) across communities directly via digital means. What is definitely new is all the simultaneous interest in channels that are not all that connected and some cases networks are that are new to me.

This is certainly the sort of thing that the Big Society Network wants to promote, and chimes in the exploration of social technology for local action on this wiki and the SocialbySocial network I’ve been developing with Amy Sample Ward and Andy Gibson, co-authors in the SocialbySocial handbook. It also gives me a nudge to do some joining up with guides I’ve written on participation and partnerships, and dig back into some entries on my old blog Designing for Civil Society.

The difficulty in blending social tech, social enterprise and older (but still very necessary) models of community action is that it is complicated … because local communities are complex. You can provide ideas for small scale actions by individuals and groups, but area-wide action involves building consensus among different interests, agreeing priorities, who does what, and so.

One technique I’ve found works (and of course there are others) are the various workshop games developed over the years with my colleage Drew Mackie, and more recently with Amy and Andy for Social by Social. They help people, working in groups, through the process of thinking about their situation, who they want to involve, and their goals, and then offer ideas for action on cards. There is then a follow-through in which people look at roles and resources, and the story of what may happen.

The most recent game focusses on social media, but Drew and did a Regeneration Game a few years back, for NIACE. It’s not now available from them, but we can easily reconstruct the cards and instructions, with ideas for nontech local action.

As a first step I’m planning to rework the local communities wiki with appropriate versions of the game (s). The different elements of the game (understanding your locality, involving others, choosing project ideas) can be linked to more detailed information, and where possible practical examples of neighbourhood action.

One of the most interesting issues for me, in linking tech-enabled social action with older methods, is how far the world of social media helps promote the principles and values we need for working together.

Amy, Andy and I had a lot of fun putting together a set of propositions for the Social by Social book, which you can see here. And just to show how things join up, I’m just off to a Net Tuesday event organised by Amy where David Turner will facilitate a discussion on the Cluetrain Manifesto which inspired our propositions. It has started me thinking about some proposition for redesigning civil society, big or otherwise. I’ll report back tomorrow. I’m expecting to re-inforce ideas about being open and human, generous … co-designing, learning from others, connecting across boundaries. I do know there will at Net Tuesday be people who think and behave that way … which is ultimate why social tech may help in our civic redesigning. It is people and collaborations that make things work, not tools, however smart.

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Citizens UK stage a pre-election "fourth debate"

I’ve just caught up with the news that Citizens UK will be staging a “fourth debate” next Monday May 3 with David Cameron, Nick Clegg and “a senior Labour representative” addressing their 2500-strong Assembly. This will focus on six issues in a People’s Manifesto. Citizens UK say:

Although they won’t debate with each other on stage, it will be the last time before the polls that all three leaders address the nation from the same stage.

And unlike the prime ministerial televised debates which millions tuned into but which involved almost nobody, at the Citizens UK assembly the candidates will be responding to an agenda which reflects the priorities of ordinary people.

There will be music, powerful testimonies and political negotiation. This is a people’s assembly – of the sort many thought no longer existed.

Three days before the nation goes to the polls, the leaders will be quizzed on their commitments to specific policy pledges – on wages, housing, immigration and the recognition of civil society.

read more »

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Defending civil society against Big Society commentary

Although the Conservative Big Society ideas got some early support from social activists, this was swallowed up in the general political knock-about, and also challenged by those doubting how far people have time and enthusiasm for volunteering and other forms of involvement. This rather muted the appeal of the Big Society Network, who aim to appeal across all interests, whoever is elected. It also made it difficult to have a non-partisan discussion about the benefits of greater citizen involvement. It’s obvious we are going to see big cuts in local services whoever is elected, so we had better get thinking – as I’ve just reported on this event.

The response of Big Society Network co-founder Paul Twivy and others has been to invite social entrepreneurs and other supporters of the  broader ideals for civil society to sign a letter for publication this weekend.  read more »

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Neighbourhood activists prepare for cuts with "pay what you can" event

Good to see people who work in the front line of social action and local renewal gearing up to respond quickly to the changes that will hit work at neighbourhood level, whatever Government we have after May 6.
The National Association for Neighbourhood Management has a spring conference on May 12, and has switched pricing to “Pay what you can afford”, starting at £20. Booking here. read more »

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Is a copyrighted pdf report really a toolkit?

The Young Foundation does brilliant work, and there’s lots to interest in their latest The End of Regeneration? Small Estates toolkit. It’s highly relevant when the Conservatives are promoting their Big Society volunteering and social enterprise approach to tackle some of the issues identified here … so let’s share good ideas and action plans based on in-depth research on three estates. It’s a practical scenario against which to test Tory and other policy proposals, and develop real howtos.
BUT – the “toolkit” is just a downloadable pdf with standard copyright, which means it is difficult to link and quote, and cannot be reworked. Not the most useful tool in the box. Another case of communication policy blocking the application of good work for social innovation. Or have I missed something?

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Big Society Network founders share their passion for social action

The Big Society Network has been quiet since its launch on the same day as the Conservative Big Society plans, which then became the centrepiece of the Tory manifesto. The Network aims to be non-partisan, despite sharing a name, so it must be difficult to figure out how to promote their plans for a 15 million-strong mutual society to support social action wihout getting too caught up in the election fray. (background on the Network here)

The Network founders, Nat Wei and Paul Twivy, have now taken some first steps towards wider engagement with posts on the Network blog about their personal passion for the project.
read more »

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Time for the Big Society Network to start networking

We didn’t hear anything from David Cameron about The Big Society in last night’s TV Leaders’ Debate … which prompted David Barrie to tweet “Has all the #bigsociety stuff been negotiated out?
48hrs ago, it was the new revolution”. Maybe there wasn’t the right question from the studio audience to provide a peg … but things have generally gone quiet since the seminar on March 31, and the centrepiece statements in the Conservative manifesto. There’s been rather more fun from the spoofs. (see also my update below: should the Network stay with the BS brand?)).
After the initial announcements I found people engaged in neighbourhood action and community development rather bemused to find their work so warmly embraced by the Tories. Cautiously welcoming, but pointing out that the real test would be in how far the fully-developed policies take account of the messy realities. You can get so far with Saul Alinsky-style campaigning, and volunteer-led initiatives, but to make long term improvements in services you also need to work with local authorities. We didn’t hear much about that. read more »