How can we balance the need for leadership with the need to make the Big Society citizen-driven?
For better or worse we’ve always remembered history and politics by our leaders. What’s profoundly different about the Big Society is that it is set up to, and can only, work by empowering us – the citizens – to make it, to own it, but most of all to lead it.
This is a change that requires a radical shift in how societal roles and services are imagined, planned and delivered. And such a big shift naturally needs strong leadership. This leadership is needed to inspire the necessary culture change as well as to break down structural barriers such as lack of funding or start up capital, monopoly interests and unequal power and skills distribution – among others.
And so we find ourselves with a confusing contradiction. One which leaves us all asking, what exactly is the role of leadership in the Big Society? Who should be leading it? How? This is especially true given the vision of the Big Society as the overall sum of different projects from different places led by different people.
It is this leadership befuddlement which is stagnating Big Society momentum, preventing those already building and leading in their communities from engaging with the vision of the Big Society that they could be owning. We need only look to recent statistics to see those who were traditionally the drivers and enthusiasts of a bigger society now doubt its very possibility.
There is also some concern that government and key advisors will pitch their role wrongly. Cameron’s famous statement that he wants “the Big Society to be one of his greatest legacies”, in addition to the elusiveness of other Big Society “authorities,” has already drawn borders where there should be territory for others to claim.
If we want a bigger society, we need to find new ways of leading and new ways of understanding leadership. It needs to be transformative, facilitative and empowering – following where others go and supportive of diverse initiatives.
Leadership in a bigger society has multiple levels: leaders who drive its ideology, those that have innovative ideas, those that coordinate its delivery, those that set up projects or initiatives, those who act in their community and many others.
However, these levels should not be hierarchies. Hierarchies, like they always have, are likely to create power struggles which take away fundamentally from what the Big Society is all about. If we are to work together for a common purpose outside of the structures we have previously built to do this, we need to seriously consider the power distribution between these structures. But more importantly, we have to actively break down the hierarchies that have become institutionalised by the way we have governed for centuries.
New forms of dispersed communication, citizen journalism and internet-enabled collaboration mean the opportunities for more ‘facilitative’ leadership to spring organically are ever increasing. It’s great to see the @Big Society Network tweet to the world about projects they’ve found inspiring. Blogs provide people with a voice, the opportunity to become thought-leaders in a way that values knowledge and inspirational quality over position. Social networking tools provide the potential to circumnavigate hierarchies and facilitate action when and where people want to, as the 1000s demonstrating across the UK against tax evasion at the end of last month clearly demonstrated.
But this is just the start. To end up with a truly bigger society, that values new types of leaders at all levels who inspire, transform, support and do, there needs to be a tangible as well as symbolic redistribution of power and authority. We need to embed the spaces and structures that recognise people everywhere as equal agents, drivers and leaders. After all, “It is said of a good leader, that when the work is done, the aim fulfilled, the people will say, ‘We did this ourselves’.”
By Rachel Aveyard
 Maier, E. (14/10/2010) “Where do we go from here?” Local Government Chronicle.