Yesterday I shuffled from a meeting with someone working on Big Society, to an event about how to get citizens involved in public policy. This latter was the launch of findings from the 'Rediscovering the civic' project run by the universities of Southampton and Manchester, known as 'nudge-nudge, think-think' because of the experiments exploring the effect of policies which 'nudge' people into prosocial behaviour, and those which encourage people to think through the issues in the hope of prosocial consequences.
Inevitably, set in the heart of Whitehall with an array of learned speakers, the debate was at a high level of generality while acknowledging the significance of the political moment. Combined with the preceding meeting, it's helped to clarify for me quite where Big Soc fits and what it might mean.
First, the suspicion that the thinking behind Big Society has been based on a shallow appreciation of the realities of the community sector have been confirmed. That can be remedied, perhaps is being remedied (well, they invited me along for a chat!).
Second, we are all starting to see more clearly where it has come from, historically. Take these two quotes, via former Blair advisers, which are going the rounds:
(i) Matthew Taylor referring I believe to a Norwegian journalist who pointed out that Labour's failure was a failure of public mobilisation, having campaigns like child poverty that should have been public campaigns which they turned into technocratic exercises. Can't argue with that. (You can? Go on then).
(ii) Attributed to David Halpern, something like this - 'we're not trying to do more with less. We're trying to do more with more, and that comes from the social fabric'. I've heard this discussion elsewhere, when people say the Big Soc is just what we were trying to do before... Yes, at local level it can certainly look like that. But wouldn't it have helped if new Labour managerialism, and all the arrogance of previous administrations (not that much different), had been supportive instead of so often obstructive and (to pick up a point made by Sue Goss yesterday) infantilising? To put it another way, did previous administrations culturally stifle public involvement? To me these are little insights which can help measure the change to a new context.
Third, insights from Phillip Blond of ResPublica, revealing the centrality of nudge to Big Society. He said that nudge is a modern way of referring to tradition or tacit knowledge, which has become derided and devalued in recent decades.
'Tradition is already a pre-selection of how we should live. Nudge is about group behaviour.'
For Blond, it seems that the Big Society is about restoring the public value of tradition, of accepted shared forms of collective life. Neither De Tocqueville nor Putnam got mentioned, which I suspect is a good thing: whatever is being invented here, it's more than US-style bowling together, because of the political niceties.
Still, association is key in Blond's view:
'There's almost no context in which association is not part of the determinative answer. And yet we do not have the conceptual architecture to make association desirable, to help it happen.'
Don't we? He spoke about making this happen around the issues that people care about 'in their communities', proceeding to an immaculate if not quite intentional definition of community development, without mentioning 'community development'.
But, fourthly, Michael Saward challenged Blond's 'unitarian' interpretation of good citizenship as uncontroversial and universally accepted. That may be unfair, I can't say, but it gets back to a central problem for the Big Society which Saward himself had raised at the outset of yesterday's discussion:
'Will awkward citizens be welcome in the Big Society?'
I've raised this question here in a different way myself: what does BS mean for the local activist who is moved to confront social injustice, not just for the cakestall mafia? When street reps in Shipley talk to me about the tensions between being a 'good citizen' (reporting disorder, keeping an eye out for drug drops, liaising with agencies etc) and campaigning to become empowered and overcome inequalities (activism in the local political arena), it feels like Big Society is not ready to provide the frameworks for that activism, to accommodate awkwardness.
Yesterday's material helps me visualise Big Society as one big nudge towards prosocial action, and I have no problem with that. But if and when Big Society does recognise the need to engage at the level of social justice, it will need to do so in a way that does not feel to local activists like assimilation or an attempt to neutralise whatever frustration, anger, resentment, bitterness they may be feeling.