Published on May 19, 2010

The Bigger the Better? – How to make the Big Society work

By Simon Burall

Simon Burall is the Director of Involve. He has extensive experience in the fields of democratic reform, governance, public participation, stakeholder engagement, and accountability and transparency.

The Big Society seemed to have disappeared during the leadership debates. However, following hard on the heels of a few high profile policy announcements such as fixed term parliaments and the creation of the Office for Budget Responsibility, the Big Society re-emerged with a vengeance on Tuesday.The announcement, in the first week since taking office, and its prominence on the home pages of Number 10, Cabinet Office, and Communities and Local Government, demonstrates the importance that the government places on the concept (as of 19th May anyway).

Like the Obama administrations early announcement of the Open Government Initiative the Government appears to be placing reform of the way government does business right at the heart of its agenda.

The announcement highlights fourteen big policy areas which the Government expects to ‘create a climate that empowers local people and communities’ in order to ‘roll back big government, bureaucracy and Whitehall power.’ The Big Society has come under significant and sustained criticism from both the left and right. Its advocates within government probably take this as a sign that they are getting something right. However, it is undeniably true that until very recently the big idea has appeared light in content. However, the new Big Society advisor to the Government, Nat Wei, appeared on the Today Programme this morning and began adding flesh to the bones.

At the heart of the Big Society is the idea that there exists in communities around the UK a latent energy and social capital that will, if released help to deliver real benefits for citizens. The phenomenal success of organisations such as Citizens UK indicates that there is significantly more than just fancy rhetoric to the concept. The questions begged by the political capital that the Government is throwing behind the Big Society are ones which we started to answer well over a year ago with our Pathways through Participation project (in partnership with NCVO and IVR). Why do people get involved in their community’s problems? What stops them getting involved in building a better Britain? How exactly does government step aside to ease the release of community energy? What support does civil society need to develop and channel this energy productively?

A year into the project and we have a much better idea of what it is that is preventing individuals and community groups from getting stuck into the issues that matter most to them. We also have a good idea of what it is that can spark interest and enthusiasm in finding like-minded people to help solve common problems. It is the understandings developed in projects such as these, combined with the experiences of individuals and communities across the UK that will determine whether or not the energy the Government is devoting to the Big Society releases additional energy or not.

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