I’ve been struck over the past week or so by how static the debate about the Big Society is. Actually, that isn’t quite right; the debate itself is dynamic enough with impassioned pleas from those for the concept flying past those equally opposed to it. Both sides of course are missing the more nuanced thoughts of those who see value in the idea on their own terms.I sit firmly in the latter camp, of the view that we are social animals and will always experiment with ways to express this part of our nature; the question for government and our sector is how to ensure that a greater proportion of these attempts succeed.
No, it’s not the debate about the Big Society that is static. It is that the framing of the concept is static, particularly by those who see themselves firmly in the ‘for it’ and ‘against it’ camps. This isn’t helped by how intertwined the debate about the Big Society has become with the debate about the cuts.
The debate about the Big Society is in danger of descending into a discussion about the extent to which voluntary citizen action will fill the gap in public services by running schools, health care facilities, and our parks and open spaces. Those on the gung-ho side of the debate come close to suggesting that citizens will indeed take over such services, and run them much better than the government too. Those who see the Big Society as just a cover for the cuts are very clear that the public doesn’t have the time or interest to do so, and in the most deprived of neighbourhoods lack the social and economic capital as well.
The trouble is that both sides can point to examples and statistics that help make their case. Not five minutes’ walk from my house is Baxter’s Field, a wonderful green space open to the whole community. This was bought by residents eight years ago to save the land from developers. It is now managed and maintained by those same residents, thus proving that it is possible for citizens to create resources that really add to the public good. However, overall the research is compelling that despite large proportions of people saying that the public should be more involved, few actually engage themselves.
To my mind, both views are static in the sense that they look at the here and now to make projections about the immediate future ;neither takes a longer view.
The reality is that we are unlikely to see a sudden, immediate explosion of volunteering and citizen engagement in solving shared problems. My colleague Tim Hughes, in a recent blog, points to a different way of thinking. Drawing on our Pathways through Participation project, he highlights some ideas for how citizens can be drawn into micro-volunteering and asks how these might become the start of a journey into increased community participation. We are hoping that our Pathwaysproject might be able to help us to answer questions such as are some kind of engagement activities (say involvement in a sports club) more likely to lead to one type of activity club (youth development), than others (standing for councillor, for example)?
We aren’t going to move overnight from the situation today, where many communities have too few social interactions, to one where social interactions are denser and more citizens are less reliant on the state. A key question for me therefore is how we turn the debate about the Big Society froma static debate focusing mainly on political point scoring, to one which accepts where we are and focuses instead on what the role of government and the voluntary sector is in supporting activities likely to take us towards the vision of richer (in all senses of the word), more resilient communities that all sides of the debate want.
Image by Ko_An