Thomas Neumark is Associate Director of the Connected Communities project at the RSA, examining the role of online and offline social networks in building resilient, empowered communities and promoting mental well-being.
The aim of the Big Society is to develop “neighbourhoods who are in charge of their own destiny, who feel if they club together and get involved they can shape the world around them". One of the ironies of the government’s vision is that this end is quite removed from the means that have been announced so far.
Many of the government’s Big Society policies that have been announced so far centre around getting members of the public more involved in their local public services. This might be through setting up a free school, or attending meetings with the local police force or scrutinising the council’s expenditure.
But the prospect of running a school or a library or even a community pub can leave most people nonplussed. Ipsos MORI’s polling has found that only about 5% of people express even a nominal interest in becoming actively involved in the delivery of public services. You can hardly blame them. Sitting in board room meetings voting on internal policies for a school is hardly an attractive prospect for most people.
Worse still, those who do participate in this way – the so-called 'civic core' of predominantly well educated, middle-aged professionals – do not feel in charge of their own destiny. The majority of people in this group say that they cannot influence decisions in their local area and they often feel used by local services as "free labour".
The truth is that most of us are motivated to get involved in our community by very specific questions. For example, we may be concerned by a planning application for a new building that we fear will ruin our neighbourhood. In response we may organise a round robin email or get a petition signed. We may even contact our local councillor or a neighbour who has experience of these matters. Perhaps we know a lawyer, or someone who has been through the process before or someone who works for the council. In short, when we do get involved in an issue that matters to us, we draw upon our social connections.
If we have a relatively large number of quite varied social connections then we have more of a chance of clubbing together to change things. If we have fewer connections or if our connections are only of one type (e.g. if we only know unemployed people) then we have much less chance of doing so.
The problem with many of the Big Society policies is that they do not recognise this fact. They focus on utilising our existing passions and contacts to improve public services, but they do not show any appreciation for the institutions and practices that support and build our connections.
Our research in New Cross Gate, London found that there were a number of institutions that built and sustained local connections in that area. The café in the local supermarket, the pub that had a particularly idiosyncratic quiz master and the community garden were all sited time and again as important places where people met other people from their neighbourhood.
A local musician who teaches kids the piano and the local priest were also mentioned numerous times as examples of people who were good at making introductions and bringing people together.
Some state institutions did show up as important for developing local connections; the most obvious being the school gate and, perhaps less intuitively, the lollipop lady. What is striking about these examples is that neither the school gate nor the lollipop lady are necessarily meant to build the Big Society and yet, the people we meet through them are invaluable when the time comes to try and change our neighbourhood. John Kay calls this the problem of "obliquity", the idea that many goals are more likely to be achieved when pursued indirectly.
What does this mean for government policies that are meant to build the Big Society? I think there are at least two conclusions that we can draw;
1. If we want to increase people’s ability to get things done and change their circumstances then the focus must first be on supporting social connections and neighbourliness. Direct, top down state initiatives are not necessarily the best way to do this. Local businesses, sports clubs, community groups, faith groups and a number of other institutions have their role to play in this but the makeup will be very different in different areas.
2. We know that some people have far "thinner" social networks than others. For example, the unemployed and retired are much more likely to be lonely or isolated than those who are in work. As well as being an argument for the need to get people, especially the long term unemployed, back into work, this should also prompt us to consider the institutions, places and practices that bring us into contact with people that might be isolated. We need to ask ourselves how we can best support these institutions above all.
Attempting to get more people and community groups involved in the provision of public services will not, by itself, create neighbourhoods where people feel that they can shape the world around them. A better – and possibly complementary – strategy for fostering neighbourhoods that are in charge of their own destiny would be to focus on building denser and more varied connections within these neighbourhoods. This is difficult, unpredictable work, but the potential returns are enormous.