Our Society Founder Julian Dobson argues that "you can't use a hierarchy to create a network"
Ive lost count of the number of times Ive heard people close to government talk about ˜delivering the big society. The latest namecheck goes to government adviser Nat Wei, quoted in the press release
announcing the successful bidder to run the training programme for community organisers:
˜Getting well trained people out into communities to help mobilise and facilitate is an essential step towards delivering the Big Society on the ground.
There is something both deeply revealing and depressingly wrong about the language here. It may sound insignificant, but its the lingo of Whitehall and Westminster, the discourse of top-down government that assumes policy initiatives will be initiated within the usual circles of power and influence and systematically ˜delivered to the likes of you and me.
Ive even heard officials talking about ˜delivering localism, as if its something that could be packaged up like Amazon parcels and ferried around the country in fleets of vans emblazoned with appropriate logos.
Im all for localism. I think we need solutions to our economic, social and political problems that are rooted in the aspirations, abilities and assets of local communities. Im not against the big society idea either, although Id challenge some of the political baggage that accompanies it - the belief that the state is the problem and shrinking it is the solution, and the assertion that Britain is broken, which locks us into a deficit model of community action.
Getting well trained people into communities to help mobilise and facilitate is a good idea. Enabling people within communities to do that work is even better. The problem is to specify at a central level what the form and the outcomes of that mobilisation and facilitation will be.
That, to my mind, is where big society has fallen on its face. Linking it with the governments least popular policies - selling forests, slashing local government funding and imposing a reorganisation of the NHS that only a handful of people believe in - has helped to turn it into a PR disaster. But we need to avoid dumping the best of the big society ideas along with the label.
As Nat Wei argues on his blog, we cant turn the clock back: even the most Keynesian of commentators recognise that the deficit must be addressed one way or another, and the economy faces huge and growing pressures from climate change and demography. So if we need a stronger society, how do we go about it?
My contention, along with friends and colleagues who have helped set up the Our Society network, is that we need to trust society to find solutions to its problems. Not only do we need to: its the best hope we have. This chimes with Ian Birrells view that we have to strengthen the civic institutions that lie between the individual and the state. But that strengthening must happen on our own terms, not by government imposing a vision or ˜delivering a policy.
So our assertion is that the ideas and contributions of individuals and local organisations are as valid as those of think tanks and ministers. We think society should determine the nature of government, not that government should sell or impose a view of society (and that might mean that we want government to protect public services and act as the steward of our environment rather than seeking to offload responsibilities or create a free-for-all for private bidders). We believe a bigger, better society will emerge from our combined efforts and interests.
David Cameron talks a lot about giving away power. But devolution starts with a state of mind: those who take decisions in the usual places, surrounded by the usual people, are highly unlikely to give us the unusual. You cant use a hierarchy to create a network.
At the core of our thinking at Our Society is that networks are the key to a stronger society. Most of the UKs population lives outside London: why make most of the decisions that affect them inside London? Our core group comes from unfashionable places like Mansfield, Huddersfield and Sheffield: we arent arguing that government should move to Mansfield, but that the voices and expertise and hopes of all these places - and Driffield, Petersfield and Anfield, for that matter - should be at the heart of our future.
Social technologies and connections allow us to create alternative nodes of power and expression in a way that hasnt happened before, and to start bypassing traditional gatekeepers. By linking these tools with the depth and strength of community action and involvement throughout the country, we can find different ways to pursue common interests, tell our stories and build bridges.
The other point about networks, as Clay Shirky argues, is that the involvement of a large number of people who make very small contributions actually makes the network stronger, not weaker. The inefficiency within a hierarchy of opening the door to relatively unproductive people becomes a source of strength and opportunity within a network. People buy into the proposition on their own terms and in ways they feel comfortable with, not because they are hectored and lectured by people telling them they should do more.
Our Society isnt here to supplant existing organisations and networks, but to find ways to knit them together and link them with the many people who are outside all networks. We have been inviting ideas and suggestions (something that didnt happen in the development of the big society narrative) and are looking at how to turn them into practical, helpful ways of supporting social action.
Of course this may fail too. It is certainly fragile - what weve done so far has been to form a loose, unresourced network of about 350 people. But its enough of a start to reveal an appetite for a more open approach to engagement with the ideas behind big society, a set of issues that people would like to engage with, and a wealth of knowledge rooted in real experience.
It might be just whats needed to rescue the big society: an open forum where people can pitch ideas, share innovation without it being considered a particular groups intellectual property, learn from each others mistakes and successes, and be themselves without having to modify their language to fit the political dialogue of the day. Governments and their ideas come and go: communities are in for the long haul, and we need forms of support and bridge-building that work with the grain of their efforts instead of trying to keep up with policy fashion.
Julian Dobson is a one of the co-founders of the Our Society network.