The Big Society already exists, we just need to enable people to reach it
A guest blog by Paul Twivy, CEO of The Big Society Network
Our societal issues are more complex but also more resolvable than is usually portrayed. Consider this paradox.
On the one hand, we have record levels of social isolation amongst old and young alike with 7 million people living on their own in England and Wales alone. 97% of neighbourhoods have become more fragmented since 1971. Average life expectancy varies between the richest and the poorest by 14 years and the richest 10% of the population are 100 times as wealthy as the poorest 10%.
Our general level of social trust has almost halved since the late 1950's despite the fact that so much else has improved. 61% of us don't feel able to affect local decisions. Only 1 in 33 of us attend public meetings. Only a quarter of us take part in any kind of regular, formal volunteering.
Yet many of us as disempowered, angry and disenchanted citizens, sit with a “Berlin Wall” in front of us.
On the other side of this “Berlin Wall” are an estimated 900,000 to 1 million community groups, 1 for every 6 citizens; 238,000 social entrepreneurs, many of them brave, persistent, 1-10 person charities born out of anger and passion, fighting the toughest problems on our doorsteps, only 1% of whom get any kind of formal funding. Imagine if we made it even 3%.
We need to smash down this Berlin Wall so that all of us can firstly see the extraordinary diversity and energy of civic society, of social enterprise and community groups.
We then need to create a brilliant filtering and guiding mechanism by which people can find or create the right groups and enterprises for them, in their local areas, using the starting-point of their own needs, issues, talents and passions.
We need to make The Big Society practical and within reach.
We need to bring people with us in small steps that get larger and more confident with time.
Maslow famously developed a Hierarchy of Needs. I would like to introduce a similar principle in relation to Citizens: the Ladder of Citizenship.
A small number of people go from being unengaged citizens to tackling an overt problem by setting up an organisation. Thank God they do. For most people, they will start with something much more modest. They might help a neighbour for the first time. They might help organise or take part in a Big Lunch as a million people did this July. They might use their mobile or a public kiosk to spontaneously register a problem, a saving, an idea and send it to their local authority. They might join a hobby-based group like Stitch n' Bitch or a football club. From there they might then decide, with that group of neighbours or hobbyists, to save the local post office or start a group for elderly people in a building lent by the local council.
One activity, one baby step gets people to cross the line from unengaged to engaged.
It is best that we never mention The Big Society but that millions of people cross that line millions of times. Then in three years we will turn round and find ourselves in The Big Society rather than just talking about it.
Paul Twivy is CEO of The Big Society Network, who celebrated the Big Society and its key players at the ‘The Big Society Party' with ResPublica and Business in the Community at Conservative conference.