Big Society – useful thinking or a dangerous distraction? #bigsociety

I have a number of reasons to engage with and understand the current or new Big Society thinking:

My community enterprise movement to improve the local facilities and resilience of a very rural community in Whitechapel and Inglewhite on the edge of the Forest of Bowland, will be affected by cuts and big society developments

My recent involvement working with and supporting the development of Classofyourown to engage with the next generation of built environment professionals. To date largely funded from public sources, now seeking private funds and supports to fill the gap from the drastic austerity cuts. (although how can you call cutting funding from programmes designed to give children not in education, employment or training a chance to get back into the system austerity cuts?)

As a co-founder of be2camp – a social media advocacy and unconference programme that has sustainability and community engagement through social media and web technology In addition I run social media surgeries for both for-profit and not-for-profit organisations and facilitate unconference events, all of which seems to be a theme in big society at the moment.

As a co-developer along with Keith Alexander of the CbFM thinking – Community Based Facilities Management that seeks to bring the community and social dimension into mainstream strategic facilities management along side the other three dimensions that FM is too often blinkered focused on – that of time cost and performance.

As a long term (passive) supporter of the Transition Town movement, bringing that thinking of resilience, peak oil, local skills and procurement into my main stream work themes of supporting improvement in construction and FM organisations.

So, my thoughts then on big society at the moment?

My engagement with big society thinking so far, and further moulded at the oddly uncomfortable Big Society in the North West event held in Stockport last week, is that it could be a dangerous distraction from the good work and development already happening.  At Stockport I sensed, along with others, confusion, frustration and even anger within the debates, aimed at MP's and the event organisers. There is confusion of what to do next, what to do with the great thinking and debating.  Perhaps the event started from a too political stance rather than one of big society provision.  The event did make great use of twitter as a backchannel for open debate often at odds with organisers comments.(see the twitter comments during the event). There was also frustration at the lack of involvement from the Big Society advisor Nat Wei at local events.

Those already involved in great community work are now turning energy into debating big society. Community entrepreneurs, volunteers and 'mavens' already seem have found a 30 hour day – what capacity do we have to do more debating, what capacity to take on the gaps from the coalition cuts?

Is there a possibility that the big society thinking will not outlive the present coalition or government and we could see another change of direction within 3-5 years? However we see a rapid dismantling of public service mechanisms which will prove very difficult or impossible to reverse, we still suffer from the work of the Thatcher Government. Big Society implies a local aspect, local empowerment, yet central government decisions can undermine all this in one swipe

Looking forward, in my mind we have a number of options:

Take the Cornucopian view and do nothing now as something will emerge soon to refill our rapidly emptying glass.

Take an accomodationalist view and accommodate changes as and when they occur – ir do the minimum necessary 

Take a Communalist view, preferably to me, continue all the good work through community need – not because of some central thinking on big society says we should, but to tag these activities as big society where and when appropriate. We will start to understand big society that is there and as it emerges. And it is on this theme that the best thing I took away from Stockport was the urgent need for a community led wiki type tagged database of all the current activities, with lessons learnt and importantly guidance for replication.

Big society however it is and will be defined has been happening very successfully outside of the new big society thinking, for example in the Transition Town movement. Lets be careful not to throw babies away with bathwater or whatever the expression is through unnecessary distraction.

Since writing this article there is a fascinating dialogue emerging between Julian Dobson and Nat Wei over at Living with Rats

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