From Big Society to Our Society

Posted on October 18, 2010 by

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Earlier this week I was invited to give a talk on the Big Society at a housing association annual meeting. As I waited to speak, I heard the chief executive run through the achievements of the past year. What struck me was that while they included what you’d expect – numbers of people housed, properties improved and so on – at the heart of it was a concern to improve people’s quality of life: the environment they live in and the social fabric they’re part of.

Making that happen was the job of the housing association’s employees, but was also the job of tenants and residents, of local businesses that serve their communities, of churches and youth groups. It was remarkably similar to much of the government’s thinking about Big Society, but expressed not as a new idea but as a continuation of the necessary and obvious business of building community.

As the evening progressed, the conversation turned from government policies to the very practical questions: how to keep doing this work with reduced resources, how to ensure the association’s ways of doing business supported the local community (for example, by working with local social enterprises and trading with local suppliers) and how to encourage voluntary action.

These aren’t new questions but they are becoming more urgent. I was told of one local authority this week that is cutting support to voluntary sector groups by 60%. In others, entire services are being cut or staff put on notice of redundancy. And as I know from my own experience, the first victims are often the private firms and social enterprises that contract with public services.

In that context it isn’t surprising that when ideas of user-led public services, social action and neighbourhood involvement are articulated by government under the banner of Big Society, they tend to be greeted with scepticism and hostility.

But as I suggested in my recent exchanges with Nat Wei, that anger can become a catalyst for action and new thinking. It’s difficult to see, though, how this can develop in spaces dominated by government or by a party political narrative. We need spaces in the middle where the creativity can be allowed to thrive, where citizens and social activists can work out which bits of the Big Society agenda they want to run with, and where those who are starting on this journey – whether they’re civic leaders, public servants, community organisations or social entrepreneurs – can link with and learn from others without feeling they’re being sold a product or an ideology.

Those of us who set up the Big Society in the North forum wanted to create such a space. The forum has started to do that, but we could go further, and we’ve been discussing how we could achieve that.

My original suggestion was to combine learning from the past, telling stories from the present and mapping opportunities and threats in order to understand the future. I think there’s also a role for brokering, facilitating and linking so that we all benefit from each others’ contacts and learning.

Traditionally this has happened through sectoral networks that compete as often as they collaborate, and through a host of individuals who often struggle to make an impact in an arena where the big, bland consultancies hoover up all the strategic advisory roles, usually at the expense of imagination and innovation.

So while Big Society in the North can keep debating, discussing and developing ideas of Big Society in a neutral space, we need something more: something that connects civic action, creates a mutual learning network, and helps people work out practical ways of addressing the challenges we face.

Let’s call this space and this service Our Society. It’s not Big Society, but it engages with and complements it. It should include a social enterprise, bringing together those who are already thinking differently and helping others to do so. It can create an informed, agile network of energetic people who can develop collaborative solutions to thorny problems. It can combine the advantages of digital technologies and social media with social innovation and local engagement.

Big Society is the government’s story of how to do so; Our Society is ours – a critical friend, a space to explore, and a crucible for practical action. It recognises that social change starts at the margins, not in the mainstream – with people who are prepared to step out and experiment, rather than with those whose job is to implement policies.

What do we need to turn this into reality? First, we need doers and thinkers and innovators who understand the diversity and richness of social action but are prepared to share their learning with each other and with those who are just starting out on this journey.

Second, we need glue-ers as well as doers. What I mean by that is people who can broker, facilitate, network the networks, put people in touch with each other, and appreciate the whole as well as the parts of the jigsaw. We already have some of these within Big Society in the North, but we need more, and it shouldn’t be geographically limited. Part of that glueing needs to be about ensuring this is something for everyone – that Our Society takes into account the forgotten society of the poor, the isolated, the distressed and the marginalised.

Third, we need people who are prepared to invest modest amounts of time and resources. We’re not interested in building empires and organisations, but in freeing up enough time from enough people to feed the energy we know is out there. We want to pull together key lessons learned from the past, tap into the brain power of social innovators and share the stories that will inspire others and give them the confidence to act.

If that sounds like something you’d like to see happen, please get in touch. And if you have ideas that can complement and shape this vision, let us know and help to build Our Society. You can find me on Twitter or leave a comment below and I’ll get in touch.

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