Is the Big Society a Blank Canvas or Blank Map?
Last Thursday was a very daunting day for me. It was my first day back in the office for over a month. But it was daunting not, as you might imagine, because of having to wake up before noon, or suffer the proximity of other people on my commute. It was daunting because I knew that something powerfully addictive was waiting for me in the office. It lives in my computer. It’s always there, demanding my attention and eating my time. My evenings and weekends have become consumed by its power. I’m becoming fatter and poorer as my gym membership goes unused and I spend more money on microwave meals. My wife has issued the ultimatum: ‘It’s me or the computer. Choose’. It’s tough. It’s a life I don’t like and I’d made a promise not to go back to it; but as ever I’ve caved in to the irresistible force within my computer. The force that is the #bigsociety buzz.
The endless tweets, blogs, papers, videos all accessible through #bigsociety have become the script to my life since May. I no longer watch TV or read the paper: unless , of course, it’s been recommended to me by #bigsociety. Perhaps you know what I mean – you’re like me, right now hooked to your computer, and try as you might just can’t look away from the screen.
But still, after all this time, can you honestly tell me how much you feel you really know about the big society? How it’s going to work in practice? How it might affect your life, your work, your community? We’ve read paper after paper – N Squared, Growing The Big Society, Connected Communities, Investing in Social Growth - but is any of it any more than hot air? I should know – I’ve produced enough.
Does that bother you? Probably not. I suppose you’re a well balanced person with a sublime work-life balance who just enjoys the odd glance at #bigsociety. You perhaps find my addiction amusing rather than familiar, but bear with me, because it bothered me: the suspicion that I’ve been sacrificing my life for nothing of substance.
Then yesterday it all changed. The location for this enlightenment experience was a room in Biggleswade, Bedfordshire (the Lord works in mysterious ways) with 30 local authority practitioners. I finally realised a simple point. There is no detail. The canvas is blank.
This is the profound shift that Pickles, Cameron, Wilcox, Wei and others have been talking about. I’ve always thought of myself as pretty innovative – I’ve started a social enterprise or two; I’m pretty open minded – come up with a new idea or two; and I’m willing to embrace change – supported a policy shift or two. But the profundity of this point that’s been there for so long was hidden to me. Though I’ve been advocating decentralisation of power for my entire adult life, I couldn’t see it – perhaps because I’d never seen it before.
On holiday I read David Wilcox’s There is no Big Society Big Plan. It seemed like an important point for how the national plan was being developed, and it played to natural anarchic tendencies of the twitteratti. Interesting, but not news. Not until yesterday when we talked it through with members of the community sector and local government did the penny and its momentous consequences drop. You could hear a shower of loose change land and scatter across the parquet floor. It’s one thing to say to some bloggers ‘There is no Big Society Big Plan, and no-one is in charge’, something profoundly different when you’re planning local service delivery with slashed budgets.
I’ve been hooked to #bigsociety unconsciously waiting for a sign, some substance to get stuck into. And its lack was draining my energy. Now I know that that’s the point. Now I know that this is what decentralisation is; what the actual bottom-up looks like. Now I can unhook myself from the #bigsociety drip and actually get on with building the real Big Society. Or at least give it my best shot.
This has probably been obvious to you for a long time. But if I’ve been slow on the uptake, judging from yesterday I’m not the only one. This subtle but profound cultural shift at the heart of the Big Society could unleash all our creative potentials. Of course it comes with a small proviso: what if we all lose our jobs and the economy collapses. But you need a crisis to spark a revolution. We’ve got the former and we badly need the latter.
If the rhetoric of decentralisation and genuine localism is to be believed, it is a powerful lens that cuts clearly through the #bigsociety fog and gives us all license to use the #bigsociety information machine however we want. I just wonder how many of us have noticed the lens, let alone looked through it. Still more importantly, I wonder what those who have looked through the fog have seen. The uncertainty of a blank map? Or the opportunity of a blank canvas?