The joint Head of Public Service Practice at The Futures Company on getting people involved in the Big Society
This article is part of a special series on the Big Society, originally published in the Ethos Journal. Other contributors included The Young Foundation’s Francis Davis, Turning Point’s Lord Adebowale and ResPublica’s Asheem Singh.
Building the Big Society has become a cornerstone of the government’s strategy and the public service reform agenda. In the midst of big thinking about Big Society, The Futures Company conducted research for our think tank the IIPS (Institute for Insight in the Public Services, co-founded with a sister company specialising in social research). The aim was to understand why citizens are prepared to get involved (or not), and what it all means from a practical point of view.
On a national level, the picture is encouraging. In the past year, there’s been a swing towards people saying they think the quality of life in Britain would be best improved by ‘looking after the community’s interests’ rather than ‘looking after ourselves, which ultimately raises standards’. Now, almost 6 in 10 express a belief in community as opposed to individualism. And looking at the numbers of people engaging locally – helping a neighbour (40%), attending a community event (36%), volunteering (25%) – it could be argued that Society is already Big.
But there’s been little change in what people are actually doing, and some social stereotypes persist. Although a solid majority of people (57%) could be categorised as ‘community participants’, attending events or helping out, a minority of 1 in 5 (21%) are ‘community organisers’ who really make things happen. These people, while spread across the population, are most likely to be middle-aged, middle-class women working part time. Those least likely to get involved are men, particularly those from low-income groups.
So how can government encourage more people to do more?
Our research suggests that drivers of involvement range from retaining control over local issues of concern to the social benefits of being known in the community. People have fun getting involved and find it personally rewarding. But significant barriers exist. Lack of time is most frequently cited (51%), but related concerns include fear of over-committing or being taken advantage of. People often back away from taking responsibility, believing that they lack the skills to get involved and fearing repercussions if something went wrong. On a practical level, they often don’t know where to start.
Even if they are interested in finding out more, 1 in 6 say that they don’t know how to get involved or ‘had never really thought about it’. Red tape and bureaucracy were also found to be off-putting.
One final concern was over not feeling welcome. People were easily discouraged by perceived exclusivity of certain groups. ‘Cliques’ and ‘closed shops’ were frequently cited, particularly in relation to church- or charity-based activities. People often believe that volunteering is ‘not for people like me’.
If more is asked of society, those in government and beyond will need to build on the benefits of involvement, address systems-level barriers, and approach the Big Society as a behaviour change challenge. They will need to use timely, targeted and accessible information about local opportunities, emphasising inclusivity and flexibility. They should develop structured support, with further guidance signposted for involvement perceived to require specific skills. And they should avoid the language of added responsibility – or, indeed, suggesting that building the ‘Big Society’ is something new.
The Futures Company is a strategic research and futures consultancy, well known for its understanding of social change and ability to apply expert knowledge of consumers to support organisations’ strategic planning, policy making and implementation.