Big Society Rhetoric Must Be Grounded

It happened in carriage seven of my normal commuter train yesterday morning, somewhere between St. Johns and New Cross. My little Eureka moment. Not large, I hasten to add, but it helped me substantially to understand some of my frustration and concern around the Big Society debate.

I’d been dipping into the now infamous #bigsociety deluge, caught somewhere between the rapids of posts by Sociability and @NatWei, when I realised something about group dynamics, which may be hampering our attempts to co-create a ‘big’, ‘good’ or simply ‘our’ society. And it’s about basic human relationships, and the dynamics which naturally arise between people.

While we each have our predilections – enthusiastic or cautious, ideas or evidence based – we are hugely affected by the interactions around us. Even if we are naturally enthusiastic, inspired by blank canvases and ideas, we may find the need to ‘balance’ a conversation if we feel it’s become too aspirational. Too ungrounded.

I know the experience well. In the charity I used to lead, I was thought to be the ideas person. Everyone pegged me as the ‘dreamer’. What I knew well was that the rest of the organisation would see it as their role to ground me, bring me down to earth. I knew this, and I let them. It made for good and balanced decision-making.

I now find myself in an organisation with a co-director who I work very well with. He is, in general, more aspirational than me. Now it’s me who spends my time bringing us ‘back to reality’, airing caution, balancing and probing for evidence. Initially it was quite uncomfortable, but after a while I got used to it and I think it works well.

‘What has all this to do with a national policy debate?’ I rightly hear you ask.

The national conversation around the Big Society, since it erupted last year, has been a fascinating and very valuable one. Once many of us got over an initial scepticism, there was a great deal of excitement and optimism about both the aspirations of the conversation, and its open nature. We seem to be entering a risky phase now with increasing voices calling for its clarification, and signs of the economic recovery creaking.

Since its start, and more so recently, it seems that the number of contributions raising caution, concerns, and even negativity is growing. Many of these come from thoughtful and normally very positive people whose entire lives’ work has been contributing towards what they would all describe as a ‘big, better, balanced’ society. Why is this?

I think it’s because of what seems to be quite partial and ungrounded communications coming from government, and those close to government sources. Communications which are aspirational and exceptionally well-meaning, but in the eyes of many not grounded in the reality of the challenges we now face.

These are not just the huge financial challenges. These are the thorny and complex challenges of inspiring, engaging, facilitating and galvanising diverse communities to get involved in the world around them – for their own benefit and the benefit of others. These challenges are struggled with on a day to day basis by many – systemic and cultural. I’ve done my fair share of struggling – with desperate failure and wonderful success. I know it’s worth it, but a struggle is what it often is.

So when the Big Society is framed by government in purely aspirational terms, without recognising the inherent challenges and uncertainties, many of those engaged in this struggle feel the natural need to balance the dialogue with caution and more grounded contribution. Which can be seen as negativity.

While this is natural, it’s also a big problem in my opinion. The government has issued a challenge to the sector and to society, to co-create the big / good / our society. To do this, those inspired by the notion need to feel positive themselves; particularly as the cuts will bite so hard in the sector many of them are connected to. Attacks naturally lead to defensiveness.

No matter how tangible we get about defining what the Big Society is in practice, as Matthew Taylor and others have called for, the blank canvas at least, particularly at a local level, will hopefully remain. We therefore need a more balanced communication from government sources, grounded in both the challenges and the inherent uncertainties in the Big Society conversation, with a continued call to those interested to not only keep contributing, but keep co-creating it.

I think this more grounded communication will lead to a more genuine dialogue, enabling us to ask important questions and challenge assumptions. It’s not a change in direction and requires no extra money, but will free those inspired to take up their natural positions of visionaries, dreamers and co-creators.

Because an obvious point is that the one resource which is worth far more than money, political support or lack of bureaucracy, is people – their inspiration and motivation. And we badly need it right now to help tackle the challenges and work towards the vision many of us hold in common.

– picture credits to:

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