Shane McCracken on Big Society

Shane McCracken is a good guy, and when he blogs about something it is worth paying attention. Here’s his view on the Big Society.

That is what Big Society is to me. Local people taking control of their local facilities and making them work. The swimming pool as we know it will close. We need to choose if, we as a town, want to keep it. It needs to become our swimming pool, not the council’s. Big Society isn’t about closing council run facilities. They are going to close anyway. We can’t afford them. Big Society is a way of keeping them open.

Some commentators have questioned whether enough people have enough time in order to run these facilities.  The people who care passionately about the rugby club find time. The people who care passionately about their estates join the residents groups. The people who care passionately about education run the parents’ associations and join the board of governors.  We’ll find out soon enough how passionate people are about keeping their post offices, museums and, of course, swimming pools.

Go read the whole thing.

Big society: app stores and hyperlocal democracy

David Wilcox has been doing a great job documenting the discussions around the Big Society agenda, which according to the website, is

an organisation being set up by frustrated citizens for frustrated citizens, to help everyone achieve change in their local area. Our aim is to create a new relationship between Citizens and Government in which both are genuine partners in getting things done: real democracy using all the human and technological tools we now have available. This partnership will also add a third and fourth leg to its sturdy chair by involving business and the voluntary sector.

This is quite interesting, as it presents an opportunity to tie up a number of the agendas that have been floating around recently. Now, it’s important to remember that the Big Society is not a technology thing per se, but as I mentioned in a previous post, a lot of the language it uses is the language of the net.

So, hyperlocal reporting, community activism, tapping into cognitive surplus, engaging with social enterprise, improving participation in local democracy, digital inclusion and probably a bunch of other stuff could come under the Big Society label. This has all existed in my head as a massive venn diagram slowly scrunching together and overlapping more and more, so it seems like a positive move.

Big Society App Store

The internet has role, not just in providing some cultural reference points, and examples of big society type activity (Wikipedia, open source software, thriving online communities), but also in providing a platform for organisation, sharing, collaboration and communication.

It’s something I bang on about an awful lot, but the way in which many people now choose to communicate and get things done is changing. Current methods of democratic engagement – for example – are actually pretty exclusionary. The very idea of meetings where people have to be at a certain place at a certain time is pretty anachronistic, and by their nature generally excludes anyone with a job and a family. The nature of participation and volunteering – whether as part of democratic processes, or a more general view of participation, needs to have as many interfaces as possible – and online is a key one, I feel.

David has been particularly promoting the idea of an ‘app store’ for the Big Society:

Last night Steve Moore asked me to speak briefly about ideas for a Big Society Commons or Store, which I wrote about here, and here. I said we need space with different levels … information, conversation, exchange, products and services. Maybe it is a mall plus a market, some high tech, some low. It is absolutely not created by government, but by those with something to offer.

Then I started to wonder about the role of the skilled, creative, passionate people at the Open Night. Perhaps one analogy for part of the store is an Apps store, where you can download smart ways of doing things to your mobile phone. Some are free, some you pay for. The fee goes to the developer, with a percentage to the store owner.

It works because there is a framework for the way apps are developed – tight in the case of Apple, more flexible in open sources stores.

So perhaps some of the people at the Open Night were potential developers for the Social Apps Store. If the Network can help to create the store, it will provide a much bigger market for those with social action products and services to sell – or offer free.

The Apps Store offers one metaphor to help us think how we bring good stuff together, what’s in it for the different interests involved, what rules and frameworks we need to make sure things work together.

Sounds like a nice idea… not just tech apps, but other bits of social hackery (training, organisation, actually doing things in real life) too in a way that works for volunteers as well as those who have some bills they need paying.

Hyperlocal democracy

Next on my rambling radar for this post is localism and how Big Society stuff applies there. Actually, there’s no question about it – surely the most obvious pre-existing communities are those in local areas, and there should be in most places existing networks and groups that could start to work together a little better, as well as employing some new engagement methods to increase reach.

Nowhere is this more obvious that in local councils – that is to say, parish, town and community councils which are at the level closest to people. I and the Learning Pool team have been working with Justin Griggs and colleagues at the National Association of Local Councils to help promote their sector and provide some advice and guidance for local councillors on being a little more engaging.

Likewise I’ve attended and contributed to a couple of events organised by the Society of Local Council Clerks – which supports the people helping to herd the local councillors, and keeping everything going. Again, these people need help and guidance on how to best employ new tools on the web to get more people involved in the great work that they do.

I think it is vital for these people, and these existing organisations to be involved as much as possible in the Big Society – but it’s fair to say that for that to happen, those people also need to up their game in terms of being more open, transparent and engaging. Part if this is not being overly tied to existing structures and processes, and accepting that there are other ways of getting involved, and that these are to be welcomed.

A nice, quick guide to the world of local councils can be found in NALC’s ‘Power to the People‘ document – actually a how-to for setting up your own local council, but full of interesting snippets.

I do wonder if there is more potential to tie up the work of hyperlocal bloggers and online community builders, such as those Will Perrin at Talk About Local is promoting, with these very local democratic institutions and processes. A kind of hyperlocal democracy, perhaps.

Big Society in the North

One nice example of people picking up the Big Society baton and running with it is the Big Society North group, who have set up an online networking space, using grou.ps (which I am not terribly keen on, but that’s another post).

They didn’t ask for permission to do this, they just saw an opportunity and took it. An event is being run on Tuesday (27th July) for interested folk to get together and discuss how the Big Society idea might work. What’s pleasing is that not only are those involved in the Big Society centrally supportive of this self-organising, but are also attending the event in Sheffield. I’m hopefully popping up myself, assuming life doesn’t get in the way.

Your Square Mile

The Big Society is not without its challenges however. One part of it, which is pretty vague at the moment, but nevertheless sets off alarm bells, is ‘Your Square Mile‘:

This simple, modest web-site, plus all the blogs, twitters, mobile apps, Facebook and Google groups that it will spawn, will grow into a resource library for your use; to give you the confidence and means to change your neighbourhood and improve your life.

Shudder. I don’t think the square mile name is a good one – a project about localities with such a strong central London reference as its title? – and the potential for some duff tech platform to be built when it isn’t needed seems to be significant.

Far better I would think would be to provide options of what is already available, with learning on skills and knowledge. Again, tie this in with the Talk About Local and Harringay Online approaches – using free or cheap tech to provide the glue that can stick communities together.

Summing up

OK, so a real ramble. But the Big Society offers a number of opportunities and challenges. There are a number of wrong courses those involved in it could take.

But as long as the urge to create new platforms or systems is resisted, as long as it is genuinely self organised locally, and that existing local communities and democracy is respected and engaged with, there is a lot of potential.

There’s another possibility, of course, that it’s just a load of flim-flam and will go nowhere. But that isn’t a very positive way of looking at things.

Bookmarks for July 11th through July 16th

I find this stuff so that you don’t have to.

  • How to work with online communities at Helpful Technology – "But there are many other ways to build relationships, and lots more experience to share. To help explore this further, I’m helping to convene Meet The Communities, a free, one-off event probably in Central London during September, bringing together some of the leading online communities with the government clients, PR & digital agencies for an afternoon of storytelling and speednetworking."
  • App Inventor and the culture wars – O’Reilly Radar – "Creativity–whether the creativity of others or your own–is what makes life worthwhile, and enabling creativity is a heroic act. Google has built a culture around enabling others' creativity, and that's worth celebrating. "
  • The Big Society – the evidence base – "Building on David Kane’s blog-post on the numbers behind the Big Society, the NCVO research team is keen to explore in greater depth the evidence behind this important policy agenda which emphasises the need to transform the relationship between citizens and the state."
  • Should Governments Develop iPhone Apps? – "No, governments should not develop iPhone apps, the community should."
  • Why Google Cannot Build Social Applications – "With Google applications we return to the app to do something specific and then go on to something else, whereas great social applications are designed to lure us back and make us never want to leave."
  • WordPress Plugins to Reduce Load-time : Performancing – Doubt my blog will ever run into performance problems due to traffic, but some interesting stuff here nonetheless.
  • BBC – dot.Rory: Martha’s manifesto – "But it's hard to see how the pledge of universal web access for the UK workforce – which may well be backed by the prime minister later today – can be fulfilled without some government money."
  • UK Government Goes Social for Budget Cuts: Do Not Hold Your Breath – "Once again, this is the unavoidable asymmetry of government 2.0 in action: it is easier (and certainly more pressworthy) to call for ideas on channels that government controls, rather than to gather them where they already are."
  • How Local Government can do Facebook « The Dan Slee Blog – Great roundup and hints and tips from Dan.
  • CycleStreets: UK-wide Cycle Journey Planner and Photomap – "CycleStreets is a UK-wide cycle journey planner system, which lets you plan routes from A to B by bike. It is designed by cyclists, for cyclists, and caters for the needs of both confident and less confident cyclists."

You can find all my bookmarks on Delicious. There is also even more stuff on my shared Google Reader page.

You can also see all the videos I think are worth watching at my video scrapbook.

Bookmarks for July 3rd through July 7th

I find this stuff so that you don’t have to.

You can find all my bookmarks on Delicious. There is also even more stuff on my shared Google Reader page.

You can also see all the videos I think are worth watching at my video scrapbook.

Bookmarks for May 14th through June 2nd

I find this stuff so that you don’t have to.

  • TWiki – the Open Source Enterprise Wiki – "A flexible, powerful, and easy to use enterprise wiki, enterprise collaboration platform, and web application platform."
  • How digital engagement can save councils money – A great paper from Anthony at the Democratic Society. Read this!
  • Living in a world of the merely improbable – Great post, covering why organisations need to figure out their approach to digital and how it can help them get through the cuts.
  • Tim Berners-Lee and Nigel Shadbolt speak out on web institute axing | Technology | guardian.co.uk – "Web inventor says that open government data will become increasingly important – but that 'immediate decisions had to be made' on spending."
  • Instant messaging: This conversation is terminated – Interesting article on the decrease in use of IM – it's Facebook's fault, it would appear.
  • And The Long Sought Replacement For Email Is . . . | Forrester Blogs – "Enterprise 2.0 enthusiasts (count me in) have argued for several years that Email’s manifest deficiencies could and would be overcome with open, social, and dynamic 2.0-based communication and collaboration tools. However, there’s also long been the recognition that Email – or rather, Email users – would not go down without a fight."
  • The Coalition: what now for digital? at Helpful Technology – "In terms of public sector IT at least, it looks broadly as through the principles and plans outlined by the Conservatives over the last six months are being brought into effect, with added emphasis on civil liberties."
  • Designing the Big (Civil) Society – it’s DIY time – "But in my experience, whether it’s a group of activists, social entrepreneurs or local government officers, you can’t assume people will easily start co-designing new stuff together – particularly if that involves adding technology. People need to get to know and trust each other, tell stories about what’s worked and what hasn’t, filter inspirational ideas against local realities, think about who does what, where the money comes from, and so on. That’s particularly difficult when you are doing that with less funds then before – as will certainly be the case."
  • The Future of Open Data Looks Like…Github? – "the future to me in this area seems clear: we’re going to see transformation of datasets incorporated into the marketplaces. As the demand for public data increases, the market will demand higher quality, easier to work with data."
  • Government needs a SkunkWorks – "What's stopping us spooling up a Skunkworks? Nothing but the momentum which continues to carry us down the old path. It's inertia, but, as I said, we're at the dawn of something new. Personally, I'm confident that all manner of things which would have been difficult before will now become possible."

You can find all my bookmarks on Delicious. There is also even more stuff on my shared Google Reader page.

You can also see all the videos I think are worth watching at my video scrapbook.