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Where am I? (Part 1)

September 13, 2010

Over the last few weeks I’ve become better and better tuned in to what feels like a really big network (small ‘n’) of people who are discussing, assessing, responding to, and even defining the Big Society or, as I most often seem to encounter it, #bigsociety.

This has made me aware of quite a few things

  1. There are people who have lived and breathed this stuff for years – often as part of an even wider political and philosophical agenda.
  2. There is so much material being generated on this topic that just keeping up could consume all the time that one has available for anything outside ‘the day job’.
  3. For some people this is a big part of their ‘day job’.
  4. Some of the people who are seeking to clarify and validate/judge the Big Society spend a lot of their time actually trying to do and achieve things on a personal/community level, or with issues that are directly personal for them. These are the people who seem to invest the most hope or anxiety in the debate. But they are also the ones who most often put forward the thought that “we’re doing something like this already” and who are the guardians of the principle that, whatever this new perspective is, it needs to be bottom up. These commentators have a hawk-like focus on the big society undergrowth and can spot the slightest movement of top-down paradoxes, contradictions and slips.
  5. Other commentators seem more to be part of a third sector ‘industry’ and are primarily concerned with judging how the application, by Central Government, of principles with the Big Society label attached will affect the flows of funding into different programmes and projects. All I know about these discussions is that they make me uncomfortable, suspicious, in a way that I don’t yet have clarity/time to analyse and express. [Though I am compiling a list of what I consider to be “charitable oxymorons”]

And from all this?… I conclude that the Big Society debate, on a national and theoretical level, just points us unerringly back at the great big questions about the state and the individual, structure and emergence, cathedrals and bazaars, open source and proprietary, analytical and instinctive. David Cameron’s statements about the Big Society constitute a position on some of these things, and amount to a refreshed articulation of them, but unsurprisingly they aren’t a solution to those big dichotomies. Perhaps the most charitable (sic) interpretation is that, applying big society principles to the Big Society project itself, Cameron is conceding on behalf of top-down government that there aren’t any unified answers… and is inviting people to volunteer (sic) a variety of responses to the UK’s current needs, whilst offering to create an ecosystem that will better support and enable those responses.

I’m a beginner in all this. There are lots of things I’m not a beginner in but, if what I’m now starting to do is best understood as a Big Society ‘instance’, I concede I’m a beginner compared to many people who have blogged, tweeted and published on this subject. It’s precisely my conviction that those questions are intractable, perhaps even undefinable, from a top-down and national perspective that first made me want to concentrate on a) doing and b) localness-hood.

So my practical conclusion is to take the slider on my hypothetical time management application and shift it from 50% doing and 50% reading/debating, to 80% doing and 20%
reading/debating.  I’ll just have to hope that when I come back to ‘volunteer’ some of what I have learned, the carnival hasn’t moved on to a new pitch or even changed its name. In fact, given that some of that 20% will now be spent learning from the network of ‘doers’ to whom the Big Society has led me so efficiently, it’s even possible that I will discover that it’s not about the Big Society at all.

That’s where I am.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 17, 2010 10:23 am

    Hi Nick

    You are absolutley right about the charity oxymoron and third sector industry – over the last 10 years the third sector grew by about 25% and had more money than ever before and yet at the same time small and medium sized charities grew smaller (OTS 3rd Sector Review 2007). All that money failed to trickle down to smaller community groups and local resident action, to where it was actually needed. Controversial but true, which means a significant part of the third sector is wholly discredited by its past actions and as a society we didn’t get the kind of investment in communities we should have done

    Source: ‘Not every organisation has grown. NCVO 2007 UK Voluntary Sector Almanac highlights the rapid growth of many large charities and the decline in income of many small or medium sized charities’

    Future Role of 3rd Sector in Economic and Social Regeneration (Treasury & Cabinet Office) 2007 – paragraph 1.1

    Secondly David Cameron has referenced a debate on the role of the state which is important to hold onto, simply because a part of the funded charity sector behaves like it is an arms length part of a council community sector unit which can be very confusing for members of the public wanting some independent support and advice

    Like the 80-20 principle

    all best



  1. Interesting elsewhere – 15 September 2010 | Public Strategist

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