This week marks a watershed moment for the Big Society for several reasons. Firstly because as the PM affirmed on Monday, it is here to stay. Government remains committed to it not just because it is the sensible thing to do, but because it is the right thing to do to bring about a social and not just an economy recovery. Second, because despite its broad appeal across party lines it is now a battleground between those who favour the false (and expensive) comfort of statism and bureaucracy, and those who yearn for a better, more sustainable and community-anchored way of life in this country in which citizens have more control over their lives. Third, because a barrage of the key policies and legislative bills that underpin and enable it are now launching after months of planning which has taken up much of my time and that of countless others inside and outside government to refine over the last year – from the Big Society Bank and vision for social investment, to Community Organisers, to local funds and endowments for building social capital, to National Citizen Service and the focus on employee-owned mutuals. But this flurry of policy also marks a shift because from now on the baton will start to be handed over to us to share in the building of it, whether as individuals or in our groups, as representatives from the voluntary, business or local government – harnessing the new opportunities, tools, and information that government has started to release. Big Society, rightly, is leaving the confines of Whitehall and Parliament (though in truth, it never was confined to it in the first place).
This is the reason why I have rebalanced my own time, because from now on, Big Society is about more than what happens in government. We have an opportunity to cultivate it not just in Westminster, but in our communities, families, and workplaces, building upon the great work that has been done by others all over the land over many years past. It will not be easy, but I’m excited about this next phase, which will be forged in the struggle between the dying vested interests who know that their time is up, and born in the rise and rise of the civic entrepreneur, people who know that the future belongs to citizens and who make it their calling to make it easier as pioneers to build bridgeheads and platforms for others to follow the trails they blaze. My main focus moving forwards will be to help these citizens, these civic entrepreneurs, from the heart of government, across the land, from Shoreditch, and in my own family. To help them make the most of the opportunities, tools, and information that are now being released for the benefit of every community in ways that make it easy for the rest of us in turn to engage.
I saw a number of such civic entrepreneurs at work powerfully recently at a visit last week to TechHub in Shoreditch, one of the projects I plan to put more time into as a volunteer both online acting as a guest blogger on TechCrunch and in person on Fridays. TechHub hosts technology start ups and businesses, providing a community for them all and affordable space, and is a key part of the move to create a Silicon Valley movement in East London. There is also a real commitment among those working there to ensure that the benefits of their investment and time spills over into the wider community and society as well. If you look closely, tech entrepreneurs are choosing to also be civic entrepreneurs, builders of the Big Society, making it easier for others to get involved. Three examples highlighted this for me during my visit. The first was in a start-up called Housebites. This model, developed by a successful tech entrepreneur, enables citizens to advertise their dinner parties online, which has the effect of connecting people who would not otherwise meet. But more than this, their aim is also to encourage the parties to easily raise funds for local and other charities, making giving both easy and fun. The second start-up that stood out is called Squadify. This business, whose site is still in alpha though you can sign up to be invited when its beta starts, seeks to simply and take away the hassle of organising sports matches, whether football, or cricket, or many others old and new, and make it possible to source last minute teams and communicate with people who may be around or have the time and skill to get involved. Again the social benefits of the model is one of mixing people who would not otherwise associate with each other, but there are also health benefits as well since the technology means fewer matches will get cancelled at the last minute for lack of players. In many ways, the model takes power away from professional clubs since it allows citizens to self-organise fixtures, though it is also possible for sponsors and clubs to communicate with members using it as a tool, creating a symbiotic relationship. The third initiative that stood out was one designed to help train up kids from as young as twelve from council estates to become software developers with mentoring from leading technology firms. The companies concerned did not feel the state-sponsored or university-based way of training up developers alone was giving them the flow of talent they needed so they simply decided to get more directly involved in nurturing local talent earlier. What is really interesting about all these models is that they harness the power of collective action, to do more any one of them could do on our own, and seek to weave civic action into daily life – not as something to be outsourced expensively to politicians or bureaucrats, but as something fun, linked to something we would want to do anyway for our own or our own organisation’s benefit.
But it does not all have to be about technology. Civic entrepreneurs include social entrepreneurs who have found ways to help others replicate their models and fund them sustainably and resiliently, business people who make their business and facilities a means for citizens to take action and greater control over the lives, the community organiser who builds a local movement online and offline, the group who took over the pub and who wrote it up for others to learn from their experience, the large charity that realises its assets, brand, and balance sheet could be used as a tool to empower local citizens to help achieve their mission, the public sector worker who engages in creating a mutual and then creates an intermediary that helps others do the same, and the cultural leader and trendsetter who decides to use their influence to drive fashions that also benefit society. And as new opportunities presented by the shift in power from Whitehall to localities present themselves, exciting platforms become possible which we can only dream of today. Such as outpatient hotels in reformed NHS hospitals and mutuals that make it easier for relatives to care for their recovering loved ones using online booking tools, made possible because the provision of such services have been opened up through the Public Services Reform Bill. Such as out of the box toolkits that make it easy for communities to take control over and have the access to finance needed to manage their local libraries and facilities using powers and information made possible by the Localism Bill. Such as websites that help to plan school trips which take the hassle out of doing all the planning, linked to more streamlined CRB regulations. And many many more such platforms for action.
As the past months have shown, the way forward will continue to be challenging. But we have now embarked on the journey and there is no way back – history and an ageing population resulting in fewer tax payers are on our side – forcing us to find a different, more local, more empowering way of running our society. Big Society is too big for Big Government, that attitude which says government and the bureaucracy must do, fund, and support everything. Those who want to bring Big Society down must now contend with the fact that it is and always has been all around us, growing all over the country, presenting no one obvious target, and at work even within their own ranks. Once you start to find ways of doing things more locally, with others around you, with only the most essential support from outside – once you start to take more control – it is infectious, and hard to resist long term. There will of course continue to be attacks and cynicism, and I and others may have to bear the brunt of it. But my family and I are willing to endure it, since we have nothing to lose, and the sacrifice will be worth it if it leads to the real improvement we all deeply desire in the villages, towns, and housing estates that media and politicians alike have struggled for so long to transform through action from the centre alone.
So join the movement, lead it where you live, let us build those bridgeheads that make it easier for citizens to get involved whatever their constraints and backgrounds. Get in touch; I and many like me are here to help and encourage you. If you are building a platform for change harnessing the information, opportunities, and tools that are coming on stream, or want to find out how they can be harnessed for your platform, get in touch at GovAdviserBigSociety@cabinet-office.x.gsi.gov.uk. Together we can make it happen.