Published on July 15, 2010

Understanding the Big Society Better

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.

I’m in danger of becoming a bit of a Paul Twivey groupie. I’ve watched him speak twice in as many weeks now. Paul is the CEO of the Big Society Network (BSN) and about as close to the public face of the Big Society as you could get. Or not, because I began to understand better yesterday the distinction between the Big Society and the Big Society Network.

The event was a roundtable put on by the Consultation Institute for people primarily from local government. Speaking were Paul, Richard Wilson of Izwe and Nick Beddows of Community Development Exchange. I’ve already blogged this week about how my thoughts have been liberated by the Big Society, and again my mind was firing energy and questions.

Paul gave a variation of the talk he’s been giving for a couple of weeks now. He apologised to me afterwards that I’d heard it already; unnecessarily I thought because there was enough new and I need the repletion to get my head round the ideas. Moving into groupie mode, he’s also an engaging speaker. You can watch Paul go over these basics. Exposing myself somewhat as I might be very slow on the uptake, I want to highlight two insights.

The first is that Paul, and the others working with him, see the Big Society Network as very distinct from the Big Society concept being pushed by the government. I hadn’t really grasped that until yesterday. The latter has an ideology and a set of policies attached to it. These are primarily about getting government out of the way, although there are some interesting elements that relate to building the capacity of civic society. He implied that some of the policies are welcome while others raise questions which require serious answers. I will be getting to some of these in later blogs.

The Big Society Network, by contrast, is apart from government. Paul talked a little about funding and it appears they expect none from government. In addition, it reserves the right to challenge government. It will be established as a mutual to which anyone can join for a small fee and it will, using its power as a (what it hopes will be large) membership organisation, help to make it easier for people to get involved. It will do this through removing barriers, by for example providing the public liability insurance which people need to engage, and also by providing resources to support people. Overall I think this approach is addressing a real problem in an innovative way.

Above all I realised that the Big Society Network is about engaging people by promoting fun. I think this is my more fundamental insight and it requires me to think in a very different way. Most professionals that move in my world start either from what government wants and how it might engage the public in its programme. Or, us professionals try to put ourselves in the publics’ shoes and ask what their most pressing problems are. We then try to engage and empower them to provide solutions.

The Big Society Network takes a very different starting point. The Big Lunch is the proto-Big Society Network activity. It isn’t about the potholes, the doctor’s open hours or the antisocial neighbours. It is about a communal activity that allows people to make new social connections. It doesn’t have to be lunch, it could be the local knitting circle, or starting a new music club or some other social activity. The Big Society Network proposition is that once these connections are made people will begin to identify issues at a wider community level and to organise to solve them, or to push government to solve them; the type of engagement the government wants from the Big Society. I think there is merit in this as long as it happens alongside deeper community involvement particularly in deprived areas, something Nick touched on in his talk later.

Both Richard and Nick spoke well as they wrestled with the concept; Nick’s representation of the Big Society as a Noggin the Nog saga was particularly masterful. It’s fair to say that there was a level of cynicism in the room, expressed publicly or not. This, I think, is the Big Society Network’s main challenge. In most people’s minds it is inextricably linked to the government and from there to the cuts. Rising above that cynicism and finding a way to maintain the sense of fun that lies behind the Network will be critical to its success. And heaven knows, we’re going to need some fun in the next couple of years.

2 Responses to “Understanding the Big Society Better”

  1. July 18, 2010 at 9:33 am

    Good insight, Simon. Those of us who were at Thursday’s Roundtable can now see where the Network will clearly make common cause with Government – but also possibly where there may be a disconnect. I think Councils are scared that they will be exhorted to build third sector capacity without the financial scope to do so. Hence the NCVO warning about charities lossing funding (BBC carried a Croydon illustration) and the growing need for DCLG to signpost a way forward.

    • July 27, 2010 at 9:58 am

      Rhion, thanks for the comment – and for organising the Roundtable. You highlight a key disconnect. The Big Society Network is developing activity that should not require significant central funding, beyond start-up. However, what the government wants is of a different order. With the Big Society Bank and other funding streams they are clearly alive to the need to build capacity, particularly in the most deprived areas. However, it isn’t yet clear, to me at least, how they are going to prioritise the targetting of this funding. In the meantime there is a real risk that a critical infrastructure will disappear.

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