Why we should – must – keep talking about the Big Society

People laugh at David Cameron for his focus on the Big Society. They think he’s deluded to think that we can consciously make our surroundings better by getting involved. But that is what all politics is about. However, by constantly saying it’s failing or it’s pointless, those commentators who dismiss the Big Society are doing none of us any favours.

The Big Society is important in two ways. Firstly – and least interestingly, to most people – because it really is important to David Cameron. Secondly, and much more importantly, because it is a radical idea with huge potential to transform our lives.

I was veering towards agreeing with Nick on his point that we should simply stop talking about The Big Society and just get on and enable it, and talk again nearer an election. But this afternoon I’ve changed my mind. I spent the afternoon at the Big Society Network’s reception for Nexters – a programme to support the best innovations in social enterprise and technology that enables people to make the best of their lives.

I’ll come back to some of the ideas they featured – there are some amazing things.

I’ve written before about the need for – in shorthand – a sort of Google Map of big society ideas, so that people with an urge to get involved can see what is going on in their area, and can see where people who’ve done something similar have learnt lessons.

Every time I go to any Big Society event, I meet a number of people who are essentially doing the same thing. Now if all you’re interested in is making a name for yourself, having lots of the same project running is fine but not really scalable and probably involves a lot of duplicated effort and wasted funding and goodwill, and probably isn’t making the most of whatever their idea is.

As a dedicated localiser, I am reluctant to say this, but I think the time has come for some serious thinking to be done about how to encourage small enterprises to merge to maximise their effectiveness. Not everyone can set up the next big thing, and having lots of people chasing the same resources is a recipe for inefficiency. I have worked with a few charities and foundations, and one thing that has struck me over and over again is that at some point, the funders need to acknowledge that an organisation is too small to have any real impact, or that their model simply doesn’t achieve what it’s supposed to, or that the outcomes are not sufficient to justify funding.

Additionally, there has to be an acknowledgement that, yes, some ideas fail but it’s worth trying something that isn’t yet tested. Someone I talked to today said that in his corporate life, he asks his Board to keep an eye on his failure rate, and if fewer than about 30 per cent of his decisions aren’t successful, he considers that he’s not being brave enough – which I thought was an innovative and very different approach to the way we tend to do things in politics.

The other key thing that needs to happen – and it’s started – is that people need to be inspired and encouraged to do things. Not talking about the Big Society as a concept for the next three years is not going to encourage greater involvement – quite the reverse in fact. So the Big Society Network and Number 10 are absolutely doing the right thing in identifying great ideas and great people and spreading the word to people who don’t yet know, because if something becomes a cultural norm, it becomes entirely natural and second nature and we (nearly) all end up doing it without thinking about it too hard.

I repeat – again – what I’ve always said about the Big Society. It’s not just about volunteering, it’s not just about public services, it’s not just about nudging people into better behaviour. It is all of those things, but most importantly, it is about enabling all of us to live the best lives we can. And that is absolutely the most important mission of any government.

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