The new government eulogises about community-building and it appears to make sense, but where’s it really heading?
The Big Society – power to the people or powder-puff?
Guest post by Oli Barrett: the ‘most connected man in Britain’, of www.OliBarrett.com
Here in the UK, there is much talk, led by our new Prime Minister David Cameron, about what he calls the “Big Society”. In his words:
It’s time for something different, something bold – something that doesn’t just pour money down the throat of wasteful, top-down government schemes.
The Big Society is that something different and bold.
It’s about saying if we want real change for the long-term, we need people to come together and work together – because we’re all in this together.
BBC Radio 4′s chief political correspondent, Norman Smith, explains:
The ‘Big Society’ is David Cameron’s ‘Big Idea’. His aides say it is about empowering communities, redistributing power and fostering a culture of volunteerism.
Returning to the PM’s words:
The Big Society is about a huge culture change, where people, in their everyday lives, in their homes, in their neighbourhoods, in their workplace, don’t always turn to officials, local authorities or central government for answers to the problems they face but instead feel both free and powerful enough to help themselves and their own communities.
We need to create communities with oomph – neighbourhoods who are in charge of their own destiny, who feel if they club together and get involved they can shape the world around them.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve spotted several people (many with considerable oomph of their own) writing thoughtfully about the Big Society. This post is simply my way of sharing their thoughts:
As soon as I read this post by Adil Abrar (founder of Sidekick Studios), I wanted to meet him. He writes:
Is the Big Society fully-formed? No, but nor should we expect it to be. It’s early days, it seems interesting enough, and the fact that it isn’t defined and there is still space to create it, actually makes it more interesting. And that’s the ultimate point.
It’s up to us – social entrepreneurs, communities, technologists, public servants, business – to make it mean something. As far as I’m concerned, politicians should just set the direction, do the big speeches, and then get out of the way as quickly as they can. I’m not looking for solutions from them. We tried that. It was a bit rubbish.
Big Society isn’t about politicians. It’s about us. And the sooner we get on with it, the sooner we can start making it good.
For many people, the quickest way to ‘get’ the big society is to see examples of it in action. This excellent post by David Barrie has ten projects to be looking at. He concludes:
What’s exciting about almost all of these enterprises is that they tend to merge the profit motive with a moral imperative – and many directly confront social need through the businesses themselves.
Almost all of these ventures – in a politically non-partisan way – trigger volunteering and social action and act as touch-point for providing a public service, be it care for seniors, healthy living, food security, literacy or managing waste in the built environment.
Most are trading systems. Almost all elicit support by association. All are optimistic.
Arguably the most diligent chronicler of conversations about all things big society is David Wilcox. He is an extremely thoughtful guy who gives generously of his time reporting numerous events. If you don’t have time to read some of his posts, then at least follow his updates on Twitter.
A note of caution is sounded by David Robinson, someone I got to know during my two years as a member of theCouncil on Social Action. You would have to speak to practically everyone in Britain before you found someone with a bad word to say about David, and this, combined with his expertise around social action makes his reflections here all the more compelling;
Arriving for work at Community Links in Canning Town this morning I passed a long queue of people waiting for advice or practical support in this, one of the UKs most disadvantaged communities. The questions I ask of every government programme are the same today as everyday. “How does it meet their needs? How does it tackle poverty, not just money but poverty of opportunity, and what more could be done?” I’m not sure that what I know about the Big Society, or what its leading minister, Francis Maude, had to say about it last week, helps me with the answers.
Criticism at this stage is of course just as empty as wide eyed enthusiasm. It simply isn’t yet time for the jury to return. We could however be thinking more about the criteria for judgement, the basis on which we might appraise the Big Society , challenge it, build it. Our Chain Reaction network has begun this work with astatement of principles sketching our vision of the good society, outlining the principles that might underpin that vision and suggesting the expectations, for ourselves and for government that might flow from this analysis.
David mentions Matthew Taylor’s work, leading the RSA. This post in particular is worth highlighting, in which Matthew says:
As an overall scorecard I would give BS ‘fair to good’ as a big idea. As a set of policy proposals – such as the Big Society Bank, national citizens service, your square mile – I would say ‘has promise but must show delivery’. But it is as a way of judging or shaping mainstream policies across Government where I think lies the greatest potential and also the greatest current weaknesses and dangers of the Big Society.
Finally, in this comprehensive post, Lee Bryant from Headshift explains why he is drawn to the role that social networks can play in the Big Society:
Instead of formulating policy, and then seeking to leverage social networks as a tool or a vehicle for policy, we should instead start at the other end of the chain and try to better understand the world, and the existing social networks, in which public services seek to intervene.
Healthy social networks are in many ways the connective tissue of a Big Society, and encouraging their development around issues of civic importance are a key part of the process of weaning people off a dependent relationship on the state and enabling them to help each other.
It will be interesting to see how this Wikipedia page about the Big Society evolves over time. Likewise, there are some interesting thoughts emerging through the Big Society Network, led by Paul Twivy, who I am a big fan of, and have enjoyed exchanging ideas with over the past few months.
The final word then, to the Times, which has described the Big Society as:
An impressive attempt to reframe the role of government and unleash entrepreneurial spirit.
Put like that, it sounds like my kind of idea. You can count me in!
What are your thoughts on the Big Society and community-building in general? Has the PM got it right or is it way off track? Would be great to learn your thoughts.
About Oli Barrett
Oli Barrett has been described by Wired Magazine as ‘the most connected man in Britain’. He brought the concept of speed networking to the UK and has hosted hundreds of events in 12 countries. He is the founder of Make Your Mark with a Tenner, the national scheme which has handed over 50,000 school pupils £10, challenging them to see what they can achieve in one month. His passion is matching brands with social causes to make things happen and he spent two years on the Prime Minister’s Council on Social Action. His personal site is at www.OliBarrett.com