The Big Society isn’t really for everyone

It’s true the Government does understand the principles of social media and the principles of reuse as Big Society is relaunched yesterday (was the the 3rd time, i personally lost interest and count during the election).

Anyway yesterday the twitterverse was awash with a variety of views on what is and what isn’t Big Society and how risky it could be and whether capacity exists in communities to do what essentially paid employees do now – but for free. Also without any money how will this actually happen, which services, how it will turn government on its head and transform society and bring us all together like one happy family…it really was a fascinating discussion you can check it all out here.

I have thought about this quite a bit since i first heard about Big Society, well actually since i started thinking about digital participation and engagement (to be honest i can’t even remember when now, but it was definitely before yesterday!!) and have wondered how inclusive it really is and who actually will be part of this Big Society.

It is worth saying that i think the concept of the Big Society is a good one, it is afterall already happening in many parts of the country right now. It will be a difficult challenge, but i fear unless we really appreciate the impacts, effort and commitment required we will end up creating poor quality replacements that could put people’s lives at risk. We need to be clear about the risks and mitigate and manage these.

People do this all of the time, but these people are few and far between, the following comments are generally concerned with a wider adoption by society of this and my at time somewhat cynical view. BUT i am trying to be optimistic about this, after all it will happen – we need to shape how good is actually is.

I did like reading Shane McCracken’s post about how he saw the Big Society developing and emerging (even though it isn’t a new idea – just new branding – Shane points to an asset transfer scheme which is almost identical)

One thing that did occur to me though after reading Shane’s post and it joined the dots in my head about this also is that the Big Society isn’t really for everyone.

The Big Society will *really* test people and communities and their tolerances around the quality and variety of services available to them. As Shane points out in his post the Big Society is already here and is well established across communities up and down the country – what the government wants to more of it so that the impact of cutting or stopping services is reduced by the willingness of active and committed people.

I spot Flaw number 1 – Active and Committed people….Hmmm, well when i look around my community now i do see active and committed people, some are only temporarily active and are based on issues but on the whole there is a good few people – notice the use of *few*.

I was also thinking about what type of services people – the active and committed kind – might be tempted to run – well this to me seems like and endless possibility really as there are already groups that exist that manage quite complex services and are accountable (this is a key aspect which we must not lose sight of) an example being School Governors. They really do an excellent job and it isn’t something you would do because you felt like it, you would need to be passionate about the school and the education of the children in it. You would be a committed and active person. This is why not everybody becomes a school governor nor actually wants to – for some it just sounds like *a bit too much like hard work* and for what return? Flaw number 2 – Motivation.

However society isn’t made up of active and committed people – i very much see these people like i see the high value contributors in social media spaces. They generate most of the content and develop the conversations for others to engage in and consume – The sad truth is that the majority of society are in fact *lurkers* and they are happy to consume and participate in a low-cost way – providing it doesn’t take up too much time.  Here comes Flaw Number 3 – *Time* – Now i agree with Shane in that those people who are passionate will find the time, but i suspect that these people are *already busy* and more than likely using all of their available *participation bandwidth* supporting services which the government has already decided not to support or simply wouldn’t exist without their input.

One of the  biggest challenges to Big Society for me is not identifying which services a community might decide is too important to lose but how the community itself – the people in the communities who are already active and committed – can tap into and access the people on the edges, the people with *participation bandwidth* and provide the sustainable connections to maintain the service.

In my post the World of GovCraft it refers to  “gamers” and the super powers they have developed and how these super powers can help us solve the worlds problems.

The 4 super powers that gamers have are:

Urgent Optimism – extreme self motivation – a desire to act immediately to tackle an obstacle combined with the belief that we have a reasonable hope of success.
Social Fabric – We like people better when we play games with people – it requires trust that people will play by the same rules, value the same goal – this enables us to create stronger social relationships as a result
Blissful productivity – an average World of Warcraft gamer plays 22 hours a week: We are optimised as humans to work hard and if we could channel that productivity into solving real world problems what could we achieve?
Epic meaning – attached to an awe-inspiring mission.

All this creates Super Empowered Hopeful Individuals – People who are individually capable of changing the world – but currently only online /virtual worlds

There are clearly lessons in there about how we can all tackle the issues facing us and how those active and committed people can support a new kind of active citizen, one who has being doing epic problem solving and giving huge amounts of time willingly for the sake of a wider community.

Perhaps the challenge is about defining community and associating stuff to it for people so they see value in helping to keep it alive.

I think i’ll need to blog again on this at some point as there is of course the models by which communities and groups can organise themselves to manage and provide services, which will provide better opportunities to bring communities together – Social Enterprise anyone!!

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2 Replies to “The Big Society isn’t really for everyone”

  1. Nice post. And thanks for the link.

    You’re right to point out the flaws in the idea. And I know I’ve got a distorted view here in the bucolic paradise of Bradford on Avon.

    The main point you make is that there aren’t enough people with the time, & motivation to get involved. Amazing though how many people have time to campaign against the closing of the library, or swimming pool. I think people will have to wake up to using their activities more positively.

    Again BoA provides me with an example. An influential group within the town want a new footbridge: http://www.backthebridge.co.uk/ whereas an ultimately more influential group: http://www.bradfordheritage.co.uk/index.html successfully opposed the proposal: http://www.bradfordonavon.com/archives/977 – at least for now. Enormous effort has gone into the campaigns for and against, and ultimately they are trying to spend £750,000 – the cost of a cable stay bridge.

    I can’t help think that their energies could be, and hopefully will be better spent working out how to maintain the facilities within the town that we want. And perhaps they might find a better use for the £750k.?

    As for communities where there is little current “social capital”? There a need to help people there. With relatively higher spending perhaps, with support and “capacity building”, but ultimately people within those communities will have to continue to step forward to take control.

    I think it is clear that the levels of spending are not going to be maintained on non-essential services in order to keep providing the essentials. An ageing population with unfunded pensions and rising healthcare costs isn’t going away.

  2. Thanks Shane,

    I agree there will be a huge test for communities and those that will step up will have the benefit of learning early in the process.

    There is of course a huge opportunity for social enterprises to come forward and deliver services as well as maintaining social values – i see a better alignment here with existing public services than the private sector but that doesn’t mean the private sector wouldn’t do a good job either.

    Perhaps communities will end up commissioning services much like councils will!

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