A number of commentators have argued that people do not have the time to get involved in Big Society. Traditional surveys on civic participation over the last decade in the UK indicate that this may be true. Indicators such as volunteering levels appear to have plateaued, with recent falls occurring in 2009-2010, and few people attend public meetings. At first sight, this would suggest that the degree of civic action taking place has already peaked and is healthy but with little room for growth, leading one to ask whether there is any more capacity left.
But there are several problems with this analysis. The first is that there are indications that while the headline levels of volunteering have been relatively static, there is a danger that as the population ages it is increasingly carried out by fewer and older people, who do more each year as others do less, ignoring the potential for others to be more involved who have become less engaged of late in ways that fit their lifestyles, constraints, and circumstances, such as the young. The second, more serious point, is that the headline data does not capture often the many informal activities that would not be classified as volunteering, but which represent civic engagement, from the greeting of a neighbour to attendance at a club, to blogging on a hyperlocal or social media website – all the stuff not captured in formal economic statistics including most of the time we spend online, at home, and with our neighbours and in our communities.
In fact, more granular surveys suggest quite large numbers of people are willing to get involved in activities that affect them. Today’s IPPR/PwC report, Capable Commmunities: Citizen-powered public services has found that 42% of people would attend a regular meeting with their neighbourhood police team, and 18% would volunteer at a police station. 20% would be willing to commit to mentoring a child struggling in the education system, and 46% said they were willing to keep an eye on an elderly neighbour and 33% said they would regularly drive an elderly person to the shops. Over 90% however believe that the state should retain responsibility for delivering most key public services – that there still remains a role for the state.
Stepping back from the statistics, there are three principles to unlocking time so that citizens to get more involved, however large or small, in the Big Society.
Many people have time, or can create it
The first is to realise that there is often more time available than there might appear to be at first sight. For many, if they care enough about an issue and getting involved in society, various alternative time-consuming activities can be displaced (e.g. watching television, an activity already declining among some segments in society). It also only takes a few people to increase the levels of civic engagement that are most of use to society, such as the 3 percent who attend public meetings, to have ripple effects that enlarge civil society, even if most people still do not get involved in such an intensive way. There are also many people in certain demographic groups and at certain stages in their lives who will have more time than others which could be harnessed, if they were to be asked and supported in doing so. Groups such as the recently retired (of which there are every year now an additional 900,000), or those classed as incapacitated either physically or mentally (8.6 million people in the UK are registered disabled), and those who study full- or part-time (2.4m), who work part-time (7.8m). Such groups can often be seen as unable to participate in society as problems rather than having and being assets within communities. This suggest there is huge potential if it can be unlocked in certain segments of society, and where there is an interest in getting involved.
Those who genuinely lack time can trade it
Even where people lack time for whatever reason, whether as a single parent or busy working person or student, there are existing and innovative means for unlocking time to help make the most of the hours that are available for mutual benefit. The first of these is the increased use of mutual aid and bartering of services. Where neighbours and people are connected, arrangements can be created, for example sharing in childcare arrangements or caring for the elderly that can save and release time. These can be further formalised through activities such as time banking, or service credits, in which citizens can actually trade the hours they may have available (e.g. at the weekend or during the summer or over Twixtmas), in exchange for support when they need it to unlock hours for community and social activity (e.g. to get baby-sitting support to attend a meeting or football match with a participating time credit partner who has underutilised space or tickets). A final means by which time can be unlocked is through co-operative and mutual or community ownership of assets. Where citizens feel ownership over a facility or building, they can feel a greater compulsion to invest time in it, both because a strong tie of affection has been established, but also because such an investment will lead to a return whether financial or psychic further down the line.
Services can be configured to unlock time
Much of Big Society however will not necessarily require all citizens to invest vast amounts of time, since for most, their ability to participate in it will be mediated by public, private or voluntary services that have been adapted to work with citizens to harness the little time they have when they engage with the service. So the time used online or waiting in a queue or recovering from an operation could be harnessed to enable citizens to have a greater say, or find out more about the activities in their area, or to make participatory decisions that affect their lives. So services can be delivered more in the community, ideally multiple services at once, reducing travel time and going from one official to another. The rise of citizen games could facilitate real-world problem solving and giving even for busy commuters using online and mobile technologies. Certain services could involve taster sessions to allow citizens to not have to commit upfront to long-term engagement, such as with the National Childbirth Trust courses, which in turn feed longer-term participants. And chains of service providers can enable complex challenges to be tackled by the very committed but in scalable ways, harnessing the deep commitment of the few to benefit more and more people. Finally, we could probably do a lot more to make it easier for citizens to get involved in formal statutory processes and make them more inclusive, particularly for those from lower income backgrounds. Do we have to have so many meetings? Do they have to be held at times when only those that are around at that time can make them? Can we use technology such as mobiles and blogs and social media to hold ongoing conversations? Can we have meetings where people actually congregate already, such as in shopping centres and community centres and cafes? Could the format of the meeting be less dull and more interactive? Could meetings and consultative processes be run by locals in their front rooms or on the back of existing activities such as drop ins and meals on wheels deliveries and in the course of community organiser conversations on doorsteps? Could we reward attendance at such meetings with time credits? Maybe people do not go to public meetings not because they cannot be bothered but because the format of those meetings no longer fit our busy lifestyles and how we like to operate, and therefore need to be adapted.
Unlocking time through credits
Time credits appears to be one of the most promising developments that could help fuel the growth of the Big Society in years to come. The challenge, as I have learnt over the past week or so, will be how to build it to scale.
Last week I spoke at an event hosted by the Young Foundation looking at the Just Add Spice model of public sector time credits. And yesterday at the Cabinet Office, I attended a seminar given by Edgar Cahn, regarded by many in the field as the father of timebanking globally. He gave a number of insights from work he has carried out recently in the US which I have captured below and started by claiming that the core economy (the economy not captured by GDP data but covering everything we do for each other in the home and community and civil society) is the ‘operating system of society’ (sounds familiar). He shared a number of innovations which he has been trialling with various States and with the Obama administration including:
- youth courts in Washington DC to which 70 percent of non-violent juvenile crime cases are now referred using time credits in which young people sentence other young people to community service (including to jury service in the same courts) that have reduced reoffending by over 50 percent
- school-based time credits for older pupils to mentor younger ones to help them read and study which has reduced truancy and improved test scores
- ‘Homecoming Academy’ time credits which are used by ex-offenders to help each other settle into life after prison in which they serve the community by providing safe passage to kids in gang areas to get to school and to mentor kids who truant back into school
- eldercare credits (similar to social care credits) to enable care to be given to the elderly inside and outside hospital (changing lightbulbs, befriending, and other practical support)
- lawyers using time credits alongside a community to help close down crack houses and regenerate an area (could also be used in other cases where professional help is needed such as with asset transfer)
- university scholarships granted in exchange for time credits earned
- work apprenticeships using credits as part of the process of being trained (here the credits act as a kind of credit history analogous to that used in microfinance)
- timebanking in Chinatowns to help provide translation services
Key enabling ideas that could support the scaling of complementary currencies and time credit usage included:
- creating incentives and prizes for ‘frequent flying’ to reward those who had served the most and to celebrate commitment
- tying in time credits into procurement and changing the latter to recognise social value and the leverage of time credits bring in (in the US,Cahn has discussed with the Obama administration a citizen time match being a requirement of public contracts where possible)
- hybrid social enterprises which run with lower financial overheads and utilise time credits to create value and achieve their mission with communities online and offline (rationing the limited money available)
A lot more needs to be done to help scale up time credits, removing barriers in commissioning, in perceived and real risk, to educate the population at large, and to embed this approach in our public, private, and voluntary sector systems and mindsets. It could however be a third leg alongside public sector paid for services and pure volunteering in the quest to help release more citizen capacity (just as social investment is emerging as a third leg in social funding alongside public sector spending and philanthropy).
In Shoreditch, I’m part of a time credit scheme called the Timberwharf Timebank which has gotten some traction since its recent launch, and started to show benefits for participants in terms of improved wellbeing and mental health. The key challenge now is to scale the model learning from the above and to find partner organisations across Hackney willing to offer opportunities (finding willing individuals has curiously not been a problem, it is more the opportunities for them to help others that have been needed!). We are looking for members, be they GP clinics, schools, parts of the local authority service provision, and others from the private and voluntary sectors who act as anchors in the area. The deal is that partners provide both timebanking opportunities to share skills and where they can rewards (such as free use of space in offpeak times or services; cinemas and sports venues even offer seats; taster sessions and consultations). The timebank is currently looking for more opportunities for people to help others, so if you live or work in the area and have service opportunities and/or underutilised assets and capacity that could be used as rewards to offer either as an individual or organisation, get in touch.