The Big Society had a positive reception in Salisbury today, where 100 members of Wiltshire voluntary and community society were gathered to discuss what they could do. One of the things they were very interested in, is how to involve more people in the Big Society and how to gather views from people on what they want.
This is incredibly important—the Big Society is ultimately about building social capital—basically, social connections and the trust and norms of behaviour that go with them. If charities want to help build the Big Society, they need to show how they help build social capital, they need to show how they are connected into the grassroots of their community, and they need to show that they represent people. The Big Society is about devolving power down to people—not about presuming that you know their needs and priorities. And this is true for charities as much as it is true for the state. And for this to work, you actually have to reach the people in your community, rather than just the usual suspects—something which isn’t always that easy.
Fortunately, the RSA (www.thersa.org, where Martin is speaking tomorrow) has been doing some interesting work looking at the social capital in communities. Its analysis shows who gets reached by organisations and who gets left behind—which would allow charities to try to target their interventions a bit better. And importantly, the analysis also shows who holds surprising positions within the community. It’s not always the obvious people like councillors that you should be speaking to if you’re trying to find out what’s going on in a community. Instead, it could be people like the local pub landlord, or the organiser of a mothers’ group, who are actually tapped into more informal networks. These are the people who you have to bring on board if you’re trying to start a new idea—like a new local festival. This sort of analysis could be used by community organisations to make them much more representative of the community as a whole, and make their interventions a lot more powerful.