In a very hot room at the bottom of the Communities Department, about sixty people met last night to talk about, and start to define, the Big Society.
Organised by the startup Big Society Network (bank account just opened, according to Chief Executive Paul Twivy), the event brought together community groups, people from Government Departments (CLG, COI and DCMS all present) and a number of civil society and new governance organisations such as us and FutureGov.
It was a self-selected group, partly because of the short notice of the event. I saw many friends – Nick Booth, William Perrin, Dominic Campbell and others – but some of the bigger civil society organisations (NCVO, Charity Commission, etc.) didn’t seem to be there. I hope that their absence was just due to diary commitments and short notice. The alternatives – that they are ignoring the issue, or that they are getting involved at a more senior level and ignoring the network elements – would be disappointing.
The event itself was run (by Steve Moore and David Wilcox) as an unconference, with people volunteering to host a conversation on a particular topic, and people going off into huddles to discuss issues like “how the Big Society can tackle climate change” and “ensuring diversity in Big Society participation”.
As a result, it shared the usual positives and negatives of an unconference. On the positive side, there was a great deal of energy in the room, and people were happy to chip in with ideas and suggestions. On the less positive side, there was a strong whiff of groupthink, people were scratching their own itches, and by the end of the evening a shared definition of what the Big Society approach is felt no nearer.
There are a couple of big risks with this lack of definition. The first is that the Civil Service, which is a huge structure-generating machine, will try to create a structure, or a mechanism, or a framework, and before we know it the local initiative that Big Society is trying to promote will be stifled by definitions, or paperwork, or funding models, and we will be no further forward.
The second risk, not wishing to sound like Malcolm Tucker, is that the Big Society idea is being created in a political environment, and in such environments if you don’t define what you’re doing quickly, the opposition will define it for you. Paul Twivy made much play about the Big Society Network being apolitical, and not kow-towing to the Government. I’m sure his intentions are just that, but whether the network is political or apolitical is not up to him – it’s rather a matter of perception. I know a few people who are standing back from the Big Society name for fear that it will become a divisive or political badge, and therefore harmful to their own organisation’s brand.
My task from the meeting was to write up some thoughts on the Big Society and Big Democracy, and to host an online conversation on demsoc.org (with the help of Involve) to explore the links between Big Society and accountability mechanisms. More to come on that later.
For others? There’s a Big Society event coming up before recess, and I hope that provides a bit more crispness to the thinking, as well as making clear what local and central government will be doing to enable localism and flexing of financial and legislative requirements. The Big Society Network will need a constant effort to avoid being defined and pinned down to a “thing” or a “structure”. The people working in the field need to carry on talking to each other, and try to build a transaction with government (“we will do x if you will do y”) on the back of last night’s conversations.
Even after three hours’ discussion, Big Society still feels slightly like “fairness” or “justice” or other terms that can mean many different things to many different people. I don’t think that makes it worthless, but it does mean that the critical shaping and definition have to happen quickly, probably over the next couple of months. Sceptical or not, it something I’d encourage people to get involved with.