So it is goodbye to 2010 and hello to 2011. Looking back 2010 was an extraordinary year of change both for the country and personally. In Big Society terms it was a year in which government started slowly to release power, which has in turn impacted on the role of organisations, whether in businesses, the voluntary or the public sector, as resources move increasingly away from the centre and become influenced more by civil society and citizens over time. In 2011 the emphasis will start to shift to citizens themselves defining what role they want to and can play personally and collectively in society, however large or small. Effort will need to go into making it easier for them to make use of the new powers and influence they will start to have, and there will need to be a focus both on building on previous efforts to put citizens in control over their lives, as well as on innovating and developing new approaches, not least to ensure fairness and accountability in non-bureaucratic ways. As recent surveys show, public appetite differs widely depending on what they are being invite to engage in and how much, and there are many barriers which need to be overcome notably a perceived lack of time, confidence, information, not feeling included, and too much red tape.
In what has been generally forecast as a tough year, in view of the ongoing austerity measures to tackle the deficit and the anxiety this inevitably creates, I want to focus in this first post of 2011, on how Big Society relates to poverty, partly in response to Matthew Taylor’s thoughtful assessment of it here. Big Society was not conceived to deal primarily with poverty although many behind it believe it can ultimately be more effective at tackling it than Statism. When citizens are newly empowered and put in control, it should be up to them in a free society to determine how they use that influence for the common good and for personal benefit. There are dangers with such a liberal approach of course, which is why leadership is still needed from government, business, and the voluntary sector to tackle poverty head on alongside the Big Society to ensure that there is a minimum level below which people do not fall for very long, if at all. And citizens working together harnessing the opportunities provided by Big Society, can do a lot with the encouragement of government, business, and the voluntary sector to tackle poverty: helping others discover that there is injustice in our own back yard because of the greater exposure and mixing across social divides that Big Society seeks to engender (for example through National Citizen Service), using new powers to include and build up the capacity and social capital of those less fortunate than themselves (such as taking over and maintaining local assets that everyone can benefit from regardless of background), and harnessing resources more effectively across society as a result of Big Society approaches so that more capacity can be directed across sectors to those most genuinely in need (such as when mutual assistance in social care for the elderly or just better less monopolistic alternatives to state-only delivery enables more resources to be freed up to be spent on supporting dysfunctional families more holistically).
But beyond this there is another way in which Big Society could help transform the approach to poverty over time. To do so we need to move away from the narrow conception of poverty that has dominated policy and debate in the 20th century, one that has proved both divisive and ineffective in improving people’s lives beyond the provision of a basic safety net for all. This well-meaning approach generally sees some other external agent such as government as providing the solution, often an economic one, from outside in, which is useful in an emergency, but can have the effect over time of weakening your own ability to solve poverty-related problems yourself. This means when that support is withdrawn (for example in a recession or due to restructuring or a change of personnel) you are left vulnerable and exposed as is tragically now the case. Such an approach sees poor people as in need of fixing – a problem to be solved as opposed to potentially capable of being the source of their own solutions, given the right encouragement and support by those around them – of not being authors of their own futures.
What then is a more holistic approach to life, one that is not defined and trapped by the narrower glass-half-empty approach to poverty, but redefines it so that lives can be more readily transformed? What happens next after you have been helped by the safety net that comes from the welfare state, voluntary action, and a job or the prospect and dignity of meaningful activity? What approach will engender hope rather than sow division and unhappiness (which a narrow focus on relative economic wealth, combined with mass media, has been shown to cause)?
One way is to think about poverty in reverse, not about what you lack and need, but about your current capacity to give (which may at times be negative) – in short your “philanthropic capacity”. It might seem absurd at a time of national austerity to be talking about philanthropic capacity, but I believe the elements that make it up could profoundly help us cope and thrive in the coming months ahead, whereas the old, divisive approach which casts everything only in terms of “poverty” and class warfare or what we lack can often make a lot of noise without benefitting the very people that need support the most – because it still depends on someone else (generally government) taking action from afar. Ask an average working class voter what the previous government did for them and you will know what I mean.
Philanthropic capacity in mathematical terms is literally how much resource you have minus your costs and obligations. It is equivalent in effect to your “surplus” in life and what you choose to do with it. It can be counted in financial terms (income minus your cost of living minus your debts or debt repayments and/or savings). It can be counted in terms of your time (total waking hours minus time taken to earn a living or perform your core role in life minus time spent on administration or looking after others you feel a duty to look after such as children, and less able or elderly relatives). It can also be counted in other ways, such as knowledge in the form of skills, encouragement, or networks (total new knowledge minus the effort required to acquire it minus knowledge you are not allowed to share for proprietary or other reasons).
The historical approach to poverty and much policy in general focuses on financial capacity. Of course we always need to do more to create growth and jobs and the conditions needed to raise incomes, keep the cost of living affordable, and help manage and reduce personal and collective debt. There is no doubt that government (still – see Lynne Featherstone’s views on the ongoing role for the state in addressing poverty), the voluntary sector, and business can do a lot working within the Big Society framework and generally to address these issues to maximise financial philanthropic capacity and encourage wealth generated to be used for common good and not just for private gain or pleasure (see the Governments recent Giving Green Paper for ideas on the latter). As part of this I predict an increase in collaborative consumption, co-production, and mutual aid in the coming years, much of which aligned with Big Society: more sharing and swapping and renting of transport, accommodation, tools, books and other materials, experience (through job clubs), purchasing power (through buying clubs and schemes such as Groupon), debt advice, land for growing food and generating energy and becoming more energy efficient, learning, and mutual and peer to peer (angel) investing. In short, less costly and time-consuming ways of consuming that help ultimately raise income, social capital, and skills – financial philanthropic capacity.
But an over-focus on the financial dimension ignores the wealth we all have elsewhere available in different forms, and does not ultimately work. It causes too many people to wait too long before they start to give back or even contemplate it (when they retire, or have reached a certain level of savings, which may never happen), and can absorb all of our time (see Parkinson’s law). It creates unhappiness and discontent as we compare ourselves to millionaires and billionaires (there will always be someone with more than us, for all but the richest person in the world, who will retain that position only until they die), and the solutions can take a long time to have an impact on people’s lives, are heavily context dependent (ultimately based on global markets), and can seem distant (boosting exports for example to create jobs which in turn may help the low skilled, or it may not).
A focus on building up philanthropic capacity along the time and knowledge dimensions can be more fruitful for a number of reasons. First, because we can control our time and knowledge more than our finances (no one can print time, and what we know is unique to us). Second because time and knowledge can be traded to make up for the lack of financial philanthropic capacity. You may not be able to give money, but you may have, for example if unemployed or retired, time to give, or you may not even have much time, but could pass on a contact or mentor someone who has more time and money than you do to give. Third because policy and business and charitable approaches that combine the time, money, and knowledge that people give will be more effective and ultimately efficient than ones that rely on money and one actor alone. So an approach to tackling crime combining people taking responsibility for knowing each others’ names, of communities actively supporting their Neighbourhood Watch, and an effective police force trusted by and responsive to citizens will be better than one funded to the hilt but having to do everything for everyone everywhere.
The challenge moving forward is how to balance the equation not just in a financial way, but to help people think about their time and knowledge to unlock the capacity we will all increasingly need as our population ages and public finances struggle in the coming decades as fewer people work and pay taxes. Tim Ferriss in the Four Hour Work Week explores some of the ways of thinking that could facilitate this. His mantra is essentially to encourage people to focus their time (and reduce the time spent) on what will create the most income (mainly by being self-employed and offshoring tasks), reduce the costs of living (for example by working virtually and from time to time abroad), and reduce obligations (avoiding for example unaffordable mortgages and credit card debt). He then advocates the pursuit today of what you are passionate about but using super cheap ways of achieving it through bartering and being savvy about what makes you happy. But Ferriss’ vision needs much tweaking, first because the approach he proposes presupposes a certain basic level of income, and second because the freedom it creates tends to be for individual gain and pleasure rather than for the service of others. But nonetheless the ingenuity his approach brings to balancing this equation and his focus on encouraging people to use their capacity to pursue what they love is instructive. The task moving forwards is to find ways to help people free up their time, by exchanging it using tools such as time banking, by situating services so people can access them without spending too much time travelling back and forth (for example in places people already go to such as in shops or in their neighbourhood or local church or community centre), by informing people how much time they spend on community versus their peers and in relation to watching television, by enabling social enterprises to scale up to encourage citizens to “try before they buy” social action to overcome fears about making long-term commitments, and through policies such as the encouragement in law of more flexible working. The task is also about helping each person audit their own knowledge – their unique skills, experiences, and networks, so that these can be used for the benefit of all as well as to to help generate income. By reshaping philanthropic and social action around the pleasures, interests and skills people have we can also shift it from being an transactional, guilt-ridden obligation to a hobby and a joy, which gives purpose and thereby increases wellbeing, and which ultimately forms the basis for our economy and society at large.
This vision of philanthropic capacity will not be easy to realise, and will no doubt take at least a decade to emerge fully as has been pointed out before: “This is not the work of one parliamentary term, or even two. Culture change is much harder than state control. It will take more than a generation.” It is so critical a part of Big Society that I will aim to revisit it and unpack it further in the months ahead. It challenges us on a number of fronts. It is a political challenge, both for the right to look beyond a narrow financial economic approach to poverty and society to note that our time and knowledge are just as important to our quality of life as money and that they are interrelated. To the left the challenge is also to go beyond a narrow conception of poverty and rediscover many of the principles that formed the early basis for the Labour movement: of self-help, mutualism, and lifelong learning which gave those on low or no incomes dignity and a means to survive hard times (it used to be the case in Scotland’s dockyards and elsewhere that your working men’s club would help you learn to read and then discover philosophy). To the wealthy it challenges the danger of agglomerating so much wealth that the economy ceases to function properly because to disperse it widely requires too much time and knowledge, which the wealthy paradoxically for many of the reasons given above, can lack (the solution of course is to recognise this time and knowledge poverty and release more time and capacity to be philanthropic, harnessing the time and knowledge of those closer to the ground to be more effective). To the poor or those feeling squeezed, the challenge is to see how you have something to bring and can be a part of the solution even if you find your resources constrained. And to all of us engaged in building this vision the challenge is how to encourage participation, a topic which I plan to cover in my next post – particularly to encourage citizens to focus first on helping others to increase their philanthropic capacity, which would have an exponential effect on the growth of the Big Society.
Much of what is captured in the idea of philanthropic capacity is not new. It recasts mathematically concepts that are ancient and reside in the wisdom of many civilisations and faith communities. It will require much innovation and an exploration of the use of technology to help overcome barriers to it in the use of time, money, and knowledge. For many, warm, cuddly rose-tinted philanthropy and mutual aid of yesteryear is not realistic – we will need help online and offline to engage and to make the process of engagement easier. But my conviction is that 2011, as hard a year as it may end up being, can still nonetheless be a year in which we are able to exercise that precious gift, whatever our level of income, and find in it more transformational ways out of poverty in all its forms: the capacity itself to give. Happy New Year.