Published on July 14, 2010

Liberated by the Big Society

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.

With the Big Society Network loosely at its centre, the shape of David Cameron’s Big Society is slowly emerging.

I got my first toehold of understanding what the Big Society is with the publication of the Cabinet Office’s Civic Society Office Structural Reform Plan. This summary is slightly easier to read, but gives less of an idea about over all priorities. The plan identifies six actions for government in relation to the Big Society including reducing regulation, releasing money to fund the Big Society from dormant bank accounts, training a new generation of community organisers and encouraging volunteers.

But this isn’t very ‘Big Society’ because it is all about what government is going to do, and not what citizens want. The first Big Society Network Open Night for civil society last week was therefore a good way to meet many more diverse voices worrying away at trying to understand what it’s all about. More of these are planned, and Big Society North has sprung up. A number of blogs from the London event are helpful in developing a better understanding of the concept including these from: Social Reporter, and i-Volunteer (for an overall sense of the night)and; the Democratic Society, Third Sector Foresight, Podnosh and many more (reflecting on the concept).

Finally, despite the scorn that many pour on the medium, I have found following Twitter, specifically the #bigsociety and #bsnopen tags, particularly helpful in aggregating the discussion, pointing me to the hundreds of links to people’s thoughts, and just chatting about what it means. David Wilcox, part-time social report for the Big Society Network, has set-up a fantastically useful site to aggregate Twitter streams, blogs and other postings as a sort of Big Society newspaper.

I’m going to continue blog over the next couple of weeks about my thoughts on various aspects of the Big Society, including thinking through what the Big Society means for the relationship between citizens and government, what it might mean for the Department for International Development and how it relates to the Open Data revolution. For now though I want to take a step back and reflect on the overall shape of the Big Society rather than exploring detail.

At the heart of the Big Society is the very simple idea that if government gets out of the way it will unleash the energy of citizens to identify and solve their own problems. They will start to strengthen their own communities.

The critics of the Big Society are numerous and their critiques range widely, but nef has provided a good summary. They include the following. It’s just an excuse for imposing cuts, for getting citizens to do what government should do. Citizens are too time poor to get involved in running the local school/ park/ rubbish collection service. The poorest communities, which need the Big Society the most, are the worst placed to benefit from it. Involve’s Pathways through Participation project is already helping us to understand the extent to which these last two criticisms are valid or not, and what might need to be done to ensure that all communities can contribute to, and benefit from, the Big Society.

I find some of these critiques more convincing than others, but what is certainly true is that I have found the process of trying to understand the Big Society a liberating one. Trying to understand the Big Society has helped me to re-evaluate the balance between citizen and state, to understand better what citizen led accountability might look like and to think through more deeply what roles citizens can, and might want to, play in solving their own problems.

Overall, I have moved from being sceptical about the concept before the election – when the Big Society inevitably had little shape or form – to being cautiously enthusiastic about its potential to give citizens real control over their own lives.

In many ways the slow emergence of the Big Society’s shape, form and substance is as it should be. If it is to be successful it will need to be driven by the concerns of citizens and civil society, not moulded from the centre. This will inevitably take time.

The danger is that, as money and government budgets get attached to specific ideas and initiatives, the centre will start to impose a shape itself, rushing ahead of citizens and civil society. One challenge for the government is therefore how it can provide the funds that poorer communities in particular need to build capacities and confidence in a ‘Big Society’ way. Getting this right will allow citizens the chance to work out for themselves how best their energies should be used to make their communities better places. Getting it wrong will mean the Big Society turns into more Big Government.

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