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Published on February 11, 2011

Developing a Dynamic View of the Big Society

By Simon Burall

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

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

3 Responses to “Developing a Dynamic View of the Big Society”

  1. Jeff Mowatt
    February 11, 2011 at 10:35 am

    I’m involved Simon in the context of social enterprise. One which operates overseas to leverage bottom up economic development by making the social economic and environmental case in our advocacy for Eastern Europe.

    That was the subject of a meeting yesterday in Bristol, fairly close to where I live but I didn’t know about it and just as importantly they don’t know about me.

    The same could be said of government in being unaware of the actors, the self supporting social businesses who might be best suited to fit the Big Society vision.

    Government in general works against business like ours. As their suppliers we are obliged to suffer late or non payment, the projects we invest our time in hijacked and we are supposed to survive.

    It was us for example where ‘capitalism weith a conscience’ originated and our original strategy paper that first described an investment funding mechanism for social enterprise.

    For these reasons I see dishonesty in Big Society and idea which might have legs if offered by those with integrity.

  2. Andrew Climo
    February 11, 2011 at 10:37 am

    I’m not sure this analysis is quite right. Big Society does not exist in a vacuum.

    What is now driving the voluntary and community sector to react is the rate of damage to services and communities.

    Quite rightly this has taken on a much greater importance than a theoretical ‘Big Society’ with unclear and (if they exist at all) only long range benefits.

    It would be extraordinarily inappropriate if the sector continued to focus most of its energies on Big Society at this point in time.

  3. February 16, 2011 at 10:40 am

    I hear what you say, and you are by no means a lone voice saying that our sector should focus on fighting the cuts that risk damaging the sector rather than working on the Big Society.

    The point I have been trying to make in my last couple of blogs is that whether or not the government was pushing the idea, we would all be looking for ways to engage, empower (or whatever terminology is flavour of the month) citizens and communities.

    We aren’t in a position to work on economic issues, our charitable objectives are about public engagement. One of the key questions for me, is how those who are tapping into the anger about the government’s programme are trying to involve people as more than just campaign fodder. Can the engagement that communities have in this issue be turned from anger at the government’s programme to something that is longer lasting and positive in terms of building social capital and communities with more control over their lives.

    The loss of infrastructure organisations within the sector, the cutting of grants to small community groups is undoubtedly going to make this harder. Part of our role must be to draw on what we know about why people engage, and what support they need, to point this out to local and national government. There are other organisations that are better placed than us to do that of course, NCVO being one, but we have a role too.

    thanks for your comment too. You highlight a key issue, and what is a real challenge for the Big Society. Can small and medium sized enterprises, social enterprises, charities and community groups get into the position where they can bid credibly for government contracts. We all know that government needs to do things differently. One thing to hold the government to account for is therefore whether or not they do this.

    it isn’t, as you point out, just about opening up the tendering process, it is also about terms of payment and many other things.


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