Big and small societies

Nick BoothI had the pleasure on this lunchtime of spending time with Nick Booth – the man (the legend?) behind Podnosh, and the phenomenon that are Social Media Surgeries. What I love about Nick is that he is a connector – he knows government, and he knows communities – and he introduces them to each other all the time, on the web or in real life.

Anyway, this isn’t a post (just) about inflating Nick’s ego. We spent an hour and a half discussing business, the state of local government, where our own relevance might lie in these austere times, and that sort of thing. We naturally ended up discussing the Big Society, what it might actually mean and how it might actually work.

We probably didn’t cover much ground that others haven’t, but it was a useful discussion. I think that what I took away from it most of all was the idea that the lack of money to fund civic activity should be seen as a feature, not a bug.

In other words, don’t complain about there being no money attached to the Big Society. Make the point of it doing stuff that doesn’t need a grant to work. If your idea can’t operate without funding, maybe this is the wrong time for that idea.

* * * * *

Last night, on Twitter, my attention was grabbed by another Birmingham resident, Andy Mabbett, who posted up a couple of tweets tagged with #smallsociety. His point was:

do one small thing each day, to make the world around you better…Imagine if we all picked up one piece of litter and put it in a bin; or reported one pothole or faulty street light.

I love this idea. It also ties in beautifully with one of my favourite phrases to describe the internet, David Weinberger‘s ‘small pieces, loosely joined’.

Perhaps the big society is just lots of small societies joined together. Maybe the internet could be the adhesive.

Photo credit: Pete Ashton.


I’ve been accused of “big society romanticism” by Patrick Butler in the Guardian. I refuse to accept such a charge lying down!

I’m not saying this funding-free environment is a good thing. But it is a thing, possibly the thing and all I was doing was to point out that maybe it’s a change in mindset that’s required to get through the next few years, and make the most of the fact that the big society agenda – whatever its faults – has some serious backing in government.

Do I see a funding-free utopia ahead, where the gaps in public services are filled by willing volunteers, suddenly happy to give up their time to do the stuff they have got used to government doing for so many years? Of course not.

But I also think that dismissing attempts to think positively about the position we are in as ‘romanticism’ isn’t going to get anyone anywhere.

6 thoughts on “Big and small societies”

  1. Dave, I’m sorry if you felt I was dismissing your attempts to think positively about Big society. That wasn’t my intention. My problem with the “romantic” Big society position is not its positive outlook, but its excessive positivity. I worry that it over-rationalises every catastrophe as a fabulous opportunity, finds virtue in every affront. It always seems in danger of denying the boring and mundane – but crucial – importance of money, practical support and infrastructure in the nurturing and development of civil society. I fear it accepts political decisions about funding too uncritically
    So when you say: “Don’t complain about there being no money attached to the Big society” I worry. That seems to me worryingly passive. I sometimes feel that the Romantics (and I appreciate you take umbrage at being labelled as such) feel that being freed from the corrupting influence of state funding is somehow spiritually liberating, as if it will pitch them back into a purer place.
    I’m not suggesting civil society needs big contracts or shiny offices, or arguing you can’t organise or innovate without a council grant, but saying we have to be realistic about what resources are needed (basic seed funding, administration, advice, political backing) and who and how they are provided. A lot depends on what we mean by big society too: if it’s about clearing your street of litter, all you may need is a helpers, a binbag and a brush. If it’s about running a library, swimming pool or a support group for people with complex disabilities, say, then I guess energy and an internet connection alone may not get you very far.
    It’s clear from your update that you think I got the wrong end of the stick, and that’s fair enough. My guess is if we discussed it properly we’d be very largely in agreement. I think it was your bug/feature analogy that got me in the end: if my computer gets a bug and crashes, I get irritated and I fix it; I don’t celebrate it as a feature (and decide that pencils were better anyway)…
    All the best

  2. Patrick – thanks for coming back. Reading back my response to your note, it’s clearly over the top, which surprises me because I wasn’t particularly enraged by what you wrote.

    You’re right that we probably agree on much more than we disagree. My attitude is that proper public services really ought to be delivered by professionals who are properly paid and properly supported. But it doesn’t look like that’s the way things are headed, so…

    My bug/feature point was really one of perspective – what one thought was an error on a computer is actually just a program working in a different way to how one expected it to. A bit like someone loading up Emacs thinking it would work like Word – whose fault is it? There’s a good argument that it isn’t the guy who programmed Emacs.

    I’m stretching this analogy to breaking point.

    Anyway, I think my overall point is that public and third sector is now a very different place to what it was a year ago. The way that councils work is having to change dramatically, and that change is has to happen in the community and voluntary / third sector as well. I genuinely believe that a lot of the assumptions that people make about what is required to get stuff done are over-the-top. Your points are correct (although I might quibble the libraries one) though – but that might be where local authorities come in, and can lend their infrastructure to the people filling in some of the gaps.

    I work a lot with local councillors, who are often the school governors, and the volunteers, and they do tend to come with a fixed mindset around how stuff is done, which may not now be terribly relevant. If there’s no money, there’s no money. So do we do something or nothing?

    It strikes me that right now, not many people contribute a lot, and where we need to be is where we have a lot of people doing something: more in the aggregate but less individually (if that makes sense). Maybe that’s what makes society ‘bigger’?

    I dunno.

  3. Dave, I think we are more in agreement than not. I agree absolutely with your last paragraph…

  4. Dave,

    For one, I might be encouraged at the prospect of a funding-free environment since the social enterprise model we deploy operates on that basis, re-investing more than 50% of profit into a social objective.

    In many ways the funded environment has hampered progress in that it renders our kind of operation invisible. Those that issue grants publicise the recipients and the media tunes in accordingly.

    In some instances we observe our own plans being reproduced and funded while we contribute to this in being corporation tax payers.

    It was something else that I tuned into on your page Patrick that interested me greatly, the reference to Matthew Bishop’s call for a Big Society approach to international development.

    That’s pretty much what we’ve been leveraging in Eastern Europe for the past decade, starting with the work that leveraged investment for a microfinance bank in Tomsk, Siberia.

    The last 6 years have focussed on Ukraine where impact from our 2006 strategy plan can be observed in several areas. One component yet to be actioned is the plan for a centre for social enterprise, which seemed to have paved the way for the British Council’s arrival this year in the same context. Yet they have been very reluctant co communicate or collaborate.

    Only recently I discovered that our paper seems to have been passed off as the achievement of a third party, seemingly with the aim of painting us out of the picture.

    Ukraine as you will know is a kleptocratic state, which can be seem as the primary social problem. Yet our own government enters with something founded upon dishonesty and at the same time excludes those like us that Big Society is supposed to be empowering.

    Jeff Mowatt

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