What does Big Society mean?

Does Big Society = a + ß1occ + ß2qual + ß3eth + ß3age + ε?

 This is not April 1st arrived early! Consulting Inplace has published a report on which local authority areas are best prepared for the big society.   It has also had extensive media coverage.

 As with much quantitative statistical research, the relevance of the findings depends on the adequacy and availability of information i.e. rubbish data leads to poor research findings. In this case, the emphasis is on formal volunteering and participating in decision making.  It makes claims that these are prerequisites for swift progress on Big Society and further argues that factors such as occupations, qualifications, ethnicity and age are critical.  These latter points are hardly earth-shattering!  Localities with people having high-level qualifications and managerial occupations do indeed get more involved formally in activities compared to other areas.

 More fundamentally, a key issue is whether formal volunteering and involvement in local decision-making is an adequate measure of Big Society. What about informal activities such as helping neighbours, supporting local facilities and investing time in grass-roots organisations?  There needs to be a new unit of measurement in any analysis of the potential for Big Society, rather than a ‘time served’ approach to how volunteer-minded a city is.  Some of the ‘invisible’ volunteering that has been happening without a government sanctioned framework needs to be recognised – a grey volunteering economy that is difficult to measure now needs taking into account when examining and evaluating Big Society.

 One example  of measuring and recognising activities that may, hitherto, have gone unnoticed is the Active Learning for Residents programme at the Chartered Institute of Housing.  Employees of housing organisations have undertaken training to become official ‘recognisers’ so that they can mentor tenants through a series of learning activities to gain a level 2 qualification.  This may help tenants who have contributed to their communities and who do not have the formal qualifications to get access to the workplace, to have their achievements recognised.  But, does it change the nature of community action and volunteering?  Are we in danger of changing the very thing we study, by imposing top-down frameworks of measuring and ‘recognising’?

 However, before we all denigrate quantitative research, we ought to take a step back from the current confused debate and discussions on Big Society.  There is little substance in many of the contributions. We, therefore, badly need robust research on Big Society, community engagement and capacity building.  Ten years ago, Robert Putnam’s research on social capital was in vogue. His work was also criticised for its emphasis on formal groups and societies; but it generated considerable interest at the time too.

 We, therefore, ought to revisit the work on bridging and bonding capital and link it with current studies to take forward the Big Society debate as part of a robust research framework.  Rather than undertaking research from an detached point of view, future work to analyse Big Society should perhaps take the form of ‘co-produced’ research in partnership with the very communities it seeks to observe, in order to properly understand the connections and contributions that people are making in their society but which are not formally measured.  Such findings could have impact locally and might produce evidence to question ‘Big Society = a + b1occ + b2qual + b3eth + b3age + e’ and instead attempt to properly understand hitherto unrecognised contributions to community, from the community, and according to communities’ own frames of reference rather than externally imposed methods of measurement and recognition.

 Written by Tim Brown   &  Jo Richardson

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