Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Big Society: report on the network meeting

OK – so I am reflecting on the Big Society network meeting (see below) at the Department of Communities and Local Government that happened last night (6/7/10). All in all, I am very glad I went. As always a great networking opportunity and I met some lovely people with whom I plan to keep in touch. It was also helpful to hear a little more about how the plans for the Big Society are shaping up – although everything is very much in an early stage of development as was stressed to us by Paul Twivy yesterday. The format used did allow some shaping of the agenda from the floor – which was a healthy innovation for a meeting in a government building.

I could be very picky about the process used (it was NOT open space technology in my view and it concerns me that some people will have left last night thinking that it was) but I recognise the constraints that the organisers were working under. The room size for the numbers present and air con were severe limiting factors for sure. There was some tweeting and talking about the (minimal) visible diversity present in the room and indeed amongst the people who got up to nominate discussion sessions. And so I am left feeling that several opportunities were missed to join people up and indeed allow those collected the chance to help shape the future agenda. Much more could have been achieved with a little more space, time, design and cool air.

Where next? I am hoping this is just a beginning and over the course of the next few months, there will be more scope to develop this idea of a Big Society. Some questions are buzzing in my head (and I am grateful to the meeting yesteday for helping to stimulate these thoughts):
  • Can you get ‘owt for nowt?’ (Energising, coordinating, developing volunteering in the UK won’t happen without some considerable investment in a range of structures designed to do this. This was a point made several times last night)
  • What local leadership will help the Big Society come to life? (There are already many volunteers in local government at all tiers already, including several thousand unpaid community / town councillors. Moreover there are many district, unitary and county councillors too. Beyond this there must be many thousands of treasurers, chairs, secretaries of thousands of local voluntary groups. All these people have a leadership role and will be helping, or not, draw more people in. What is now needed to support the leadership that will help do this?)
  • Just what levers can be pulled to grow the legions of voluntary workers still more? (Some people seemed to believe it was an absence of information about opportunities that was a significant barrier to more people getting involved. Others wondered whether just be inviting people, that in itself would bring more on board. Others, including me, wondered if a key factor was confidence in that a person needs this to be prepared to volunteer. There were many more factors explored such as the use of technology. My hope is that evidence and research, as well as more ruminating, will help identify what interventions will achieve the most gain  and guide action from here.)
  • How do you engage the unengaged or even the ‘don’t want to be engaged’? (If the Big Society is to really take off, many more people will need be involved. How will some people, particularly those who may feel they have nothing to offer, be attracted to join in?)
  • What wheels need to be reinvented and which existing one, with a bit of oil perhaps, could work far better? (For example, Paul Twivy spoke yesterday about the idea of a new mutual financial institution that could provide low cost indemnity insurance to volunteers etc. I was left wondering don’t we already have a people’s financial institution called the Post Office? I am worried that in the rush to produce some shiny new ‘Big Society’ some existing structures, such as local libraries, may just be overlooked. Equally there may be some bodies that have served their purpose and something new is required. These decisions need to be made carefully, I think.)
So as always, more questions than answers – but let’s keep the dialogue going!


  1. Hi Jon,
    Some of your points remind me of the investment in the 3rd sector infrastructure under Labour which was supposed to fix the kind of capacity building that's needed. We don't hear so much about social capital either. I also think that we need to have a clearer sense of what we mean by 'community' and how that relates to the big society. The budget core budget is less than £3m, where Labour's was over £100m

  2. Ian - thanks for your thoughts. I remain optimistic and I hope that the necessary infrastructure will be established to make the idea fly.