Get this stuff out of my head.

Big Society, Little Hope?

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This week I attended a meeting intended to start activity on the Big Society in the North.  I went along to find out a little more and to get an impression of whether the ‘Big Society’ thing is a political ideology driven scheme to dismantle the apparatus of the social welfare system or a real grass roots movement to redistribute the authority to JFDI to civic minded citizens. The overall impression I got was that the people in the room (excluding the usual Sheffield digerati) were all activists in the charity sector in one form or another.  Some had specific causes (recovery from substance addiction, self esteem building, providing conflict resolution skills to kids), some were thinking about general tools for organisers (online networks, hyperlocal information, skills exchanges, an app store) and a couple were thinking about the Big Society movement itself (what defines a Big Society activity? [see Matthew Taylor’s blog post], what does the Big Society network look like?). Several of these people stood up and gave a pitch for their organisation, endeavour or idea, primarily to start a conversation among the attendees, to draw on wider experience and gather ideas. On the whole I walked away with 3 thoughts:
  • those people who pitched their specific cause were in the wrong room.  Everyone in that room was already up to their ears in pro-bono work and good causes or interested in the Big Society as a concept rather than the good work that happened under it flag.
  • Too few of the people there (excepting the internet people) were thinking about the power that networking would bring to their endeavour.  In fact one person actually suggested that their organisation abandon using technology to communicate and send each other postcards instead.  I’m all for simplicity, but not at the cost of magnitudes of scale of effectiveness.
  • No-one seemed to be thinking about building a community of practice for voluntary, pro-bono and charity work.  The idea that someone brought to create an app store of tools went in that direction, but the conversation seemed to head quickly toward technology rather than technique and practice. While discussing whether an activity could be considered as a ‘Big Society’ activity, it was suggested it should not be if a funded body was already doing it, but no-one revealed how someone would know if an activity that they want to undertake is already funded.
However, my overriding impression was of hope. The people who had gone to the Big Society in the North meetup were stoic in the face of a future without government funding and with tightening purse strings from private sector funders and were all still fighting hard to get done what they know needs to be done. Perhaps the encouragement to JFDI is worth more than all that funding after all.