Those who know me know that I remain committed to the vision and principles that underpin the Big Society. The news stories circulating at the moment are instructive for several reasons and give an opportunity to clarify several myths that have been circulating about Big Society as well as my involvement in it to date.
First, there is a myth that Big Society is all about volunteering and taking on more than you can bear or have time for relative to family and work commitments to help serve society. In reality, it is more about having the tools, information, and opportunities in place (partly as a result of government and other reforms) to play your part, with however much or little time you have – but where collectively these actions by citizens add up to represent something ‘big’. At different times in life one will have more or less time. At the moment, alongside my work in the Lords, serving the Chinese, faith, and other communities as a peer, my family, and earning a living, I have slightly less time than I did last year. Thankfully the structures in government are now in place to harness my time better so I do not have to put in the long hours over and above the two days a week I agreed with the government in June 2010. I put in extra time when I first started, which impacted on family life and finances. My duty must be to my family first, then the communities of which I am a part, as well as to the country.
Second, there is a myth that somehow Big Society will happen overnight and be really easy to conjure up. David Cameron said in his Hugo Young lecture at the end of 2009 that it would take one or two Parliaments, if not a generation, to effect the culture change that we have embarked upon. I echoed this in my Maiden Speech in the Lords last year when I said that this would be a long journey and involve many setbacks. In truth, we have only just begun, first by changing government so that it can be more of an enabler of Big Society rather than an inhibitor of it. The next phase is to work with civil society to create and strengthen intermediaries, tools, platforms that can transform the raw power and information and opportunities that have been transferred from the state, and make them accessible to time and finance constrained citizens. For example in being able to access a toolkit, social finance, and the right support to create a chain of citizen-led libraries. The last stage is to see the innovation unleashed that citizens will bring as they combine and use these different tools and platforms and apply them to their lives, communities, and services.
Third, there is a myth about my role. Some may consider it to be flattering to be nicknamed a ‘Tzar’ and ‘Mr ‘Big’, but those who know me know that I prefer to remain quite understated in my approach, and am not superhuman – I am only a humble Advisor. I even said in my Maiden Speech I would have much to learn – about politics, about the country, and about the media. There is something quite un-Big Society in thinking one person alone at the centre of government can magic it into being. I have learnt that I am a small cog in a big machine. Indeed government can only itself do so much. As I have said before, it will take all of us over time contributing in whatever way we can to make this a reality. So alongside spending most of my time last year in government seeking to reorientate parts of the machine to better enable Big Society, I have also recently been working on online and other tools to help establish a community of activists who can champion and help create Big Society where they live. More on this will follow in the coming months. But as I have said before, this year is the one in which citizens and social entrepreneurs and even the media will have the chance to take the helm and support the creation of the Big Society, and I am looking forward to helping play my part where I can in my own small way.