Friday, September 24, 2010

Big Society and small business

Where should the state end and the voluntary sector begin?

This is one of the central questions of the Big Society. Supporters argue that the state has smothered grassroots activism in a way that is not only costly, but has actively undermined the ideas and energy of local people to make their lives better. Sceptics, on the other hand, warn that a rolling back of the state will do much greater damage still, and risks deepening our social problems and increasing inequality.

Role of the private sector

But where does the private sector sit in all this? For the most part, it gets a walk-on part as either heroic sponsor – the corporate philanthropist that steps in to fund community projects – or moustache-twirling fat cat, reaping the rewards of a policy that invites privatisation by the backdoor. Either way, ‘business’ usually implies ‘big business’, but this risks marginalising the vital role that small businesses have to play in achieving the aims of the Big Society reform agenda.

We hear the advocates of the Big Society urging us to think of all those supermarkets and other high street names that could act as new community hubs. Such venues offer a ready-made focal point for communities, these commentators say, where shoppers could find out about local projects and volunteering opportunities, and where space could be found for community groups, activities, and perhaps even social enterprises. These are already functions that some supermarkets encourage and are keen to develop – after all, it makes good business sense to be the hub of your community.

Certainly we should look to big private companies, particularly major retailers, to do their bit. They have the money, presence and influence to generate considerable social benefit if engaged in the right way.

But our notions of the private sector’s role in fostering and sustaining a genuine Big Society culture cannot begin and end with them. Does it not sit uneasily with the messages about the local, distinctive and bottom-up, to locate the Big Society in these identikit temples of near-monopolistic consumerism? Might a Big Society supported by – and supportive of – local small businesses, not also be stronger, more energised, and with a broader, more sustainable support base?

Starting and sustaining a small business isn’t usually about making a fast buck – it can mean long hours for little financial reward, at least initially and sometimes permanently. The commitment and vision these people show to their businesses is the same sort of commitment and vision we are being asked to show as citizens in our communities. Those businesses can help us to be active in our towns and neighbourhoods because they also want to see their localities succeed, and they understand where we’re coming from. Big Society supporters need to realise that social and economic entrepreneurship go hand in hand, and that the conditions and culture that support the one can support the other.

A personal example

To take the example of my own hometown of Wellington, near Telford: each year, some friends and I organise a series of free events in the town centre. The first, in June, is a historically-inspired fayre, with jesters, morris dancers, folk bands and craft and food stalls. Later in the summer, different local musicians perform every Saturday as part of a ‘Sounds in the Square’ season. Finally, over the August bank holiday, we hold a ‘Big Barbecue’ event in a field near the town, to raise money for charity.

Market at Wellington Midsummer Fayre

Market at Wellington Midsummer Fayre

Pitching in

In the case of each of these events, local small businesses play a crucial role. They buy cheap advertising space in our promotional leaflet, which pays for 10,000 copies to be printed; they make donations of about £30 a head to fund the performances we arrange (with further funding – it should be said – coming from our local town council); and the business people themselves chip in with practical help, from helping us put up bunting to donating competition prizes.

Free music event in Wellington

Free music event in Wellington

Just as importantly, they tell their customers about what we’re doing, they enthuse them and they encourage us. Their involvement makes it feel like a real community effort. If we don’t have enough chairs for our brass band, Percy at the bookshop will lend us a couple; if we need more costumes for our procession, Joy and Margaret at the needlework shop offer to make us some more. And if our other funding sources ever dried up, I’m confident they would all rally round to keep our events going, because they believe they’re ‘good for the town’ – socially, culturally and commercially.

Costumes at Wellington Midsummer Fayre

Costumes at Wellington Midsummer Fayre

It’s important to point out that ours is not a picturesque town of galleries and organic delicatessens – this is a struggling market town on the fringes of a larger urban area, hammered by out-of-town shopping, increasingly suburban in feel and at risk of losing its identity. That’s partly why we organise these events in the first place.

The point is that it’s the dozens of small businesses we look to for support, rather than one big charitable or corporate supporter – that might be easier and require less door-knocking, but it would also feel less authentic and less ‘owned’ by the town. The businesses we approach are often run by proprietors short on time and increasingly short on profits, but most appreciate our efforts and reciprocate either in cash or in kind – and certainly more than they would if these events were being organised by a paid council officer.

People will make the Big Society

In essence, the Big Society will require people to be interested, to care, and to make an effort. That’s a more inviting prospect if you live in a thriving, interesting place, and thriving, interesting small businesses are a key component in creating those places. As the debates about Big Society rage, we need to ensure that it isn’t just about the duet (or duel) between the public and voluntary sectors, and that when the private sector does come into view, it isn’t just the big players who get all the attention. It would be a missed opportunity – not to mention a terrible shame – if ‘Big Society’ just became another aisle at Tesco.

Planning for the Big Society

OPM is supporting local authorities to think through the role they envisage for the Big Society in their areas, and plans to hold a roundtable event with leaders of small and big businesses later in the year. To register your interest please contact Sarah Holloway on or 0207 239 7817.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Big Society and community cohesion – Ideas from Europe

The Council of Europe asked me to speak recently in Ohrid, Macedonia about inter-cultural dialogue at their 2010 Exchange on the religious dimension of intercultural dialogue.

Based in Strasbourg, France and with 47 member countries, the Council of Europe aims ‘to develop throughout Europe common and democratic principles based on the European Convention on Human Rights and other reference texts on the protection of individuals’.

While the 2010 Exchange focused on inter-religious issues, some of the examples of work going on in Europe strongly resonate in relation to discussions about the Big Society.

There were many examples of locally-developed, civil society projects with religious leaders from different backgrounds getting together to run services, such as local newspapers, community centres and community events aimed at promoting integration.

A good example of promoting community cohesion

One impressive example comes from Germany, where there is growing concern about conflict between the non-Muslim and Muslim populations. Here, the local Muslim community has received funding to set up community markets in local town centres. The community markets try to reflect how markets operated in early Muslim societies. But while they aim to promote aspects of Muslim society, the markets also involve non-Muslim traders and stalls selling traditional German food and other goods.

The following quote comes from a flyer produced by the European Muslim Union, which promotes the markets and their impact:

‘We hold events in venues such as beautiful town squares, as well as in a courtyard of a Bosnian community mosque on the edge of an industrial area. We transformed the venue into a social arena in which people come to meet, talk, have a good time, and enjoy the atmosphere – and the traditional Bosnian food. We stage live music – students of a music school, for example, found the opportunity to promote their work. Or, for example, traditional dances performed by young Bosnian women. But one of the most important things for us is the children’s programme. We want to offer something for the whole family. Our market is not a place for drinking alcohol, as many other festive events are. The response is very positive. The local press is coming to the event and is reporting about it.’

With the UK government demonstrating its commitment to the revival of local festivals, markets and ‘big lunches’, could these kinds of markets be a further addition in building inter-faith and cultural dialogue and understanding?

Monday, August 23, 2010

Using lessons from extremism for the Big Society

Unfortunately, extremists and those who hate are often good at organising people to engage in collective action. In some ways, extremists are mastering aspects of the Big Society agenda for the wrong goals. They use social media, common causes and collective action to divide societies.

Take extreme organisations such as Islam4UK and the English Defence League (EDL) – they are often very good at bringing people together to address what they deem to be ‘social problems’, such as immigration and democratic participation. For example, the EDL has been effective at using social meeting to get hundreds of people involved in ‘street protests’, with damaging consequences.

Organisations that seek to counter extremism, and find positive alternatives for those who are vulnerable to extremism, such as the Active Change Foundation (who OPM have worked with on several projects), often argue that what they do is turn the methods of extremists on their head by promoting collective action and social bonding for positive rather than destructive goals.

Extremists famously take their members out for outward bound activities to create a bonding environment, as do charities that work with vulnerable people, but in this case to stop people engaging in extremism. Similarly, our work supporting the Young Muslim’s Advisory Group has highlighted the value of building social media infrastructure that allow groups to communicate internally and develop a stronger sense of shared purpose. It’s a case of ‘using their own methods against them’.

Those working on things that fall within the Big Society agenda, which focuses on developing a new generation of active citizens and community organisers, need think about how they can use positive alternatives to those used by extremists, such as outward bounds activities, social media and collective social protest.

OPM is working with Catch 22 to produce a paper that explores examples of good practice in community organising in which we will explore these concepts further.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Addressing grievances through the Big Society

With the Government likely to significantly reconstruct, if not entirely dismantle, the Preventing Violent Extremism Programme, it is important to consider what role the Big Society agenda can play in mitigating the risks of people becoming extreme or involved in violent extremism.

There are a range of risk factors associated with the process of radicalisation – the journey people take to become involved in extremist activity – that can be present in communities and provide the oxygen on which extremism thrives. One of these is the problem of grievances held by individuals, groups and sometimes whole communities who perceive that their values or way of life is under attack. Most extremist groups, whether the English Defense League representing far right extremism, or Al Qaeda representing violent extremism in Islam, exploit real or perceived grievances. These include grievances about immigration, housing allocation, foreign policy and the role of the police in undertaking stop and search.

So what can be done to enable people to address these grievances, challenge extremist exploitation and diffuse the tensions that this can generate? And in what way can the Big Society agenda contribute?

Recently, as part of the evaluation of the charity Creativity, Culture and Education’s (CCE) Prevent Programme, we assessed the impact of a range of projects, which give people time to explore and analyse grievances in a safe environment. Called Your Thoughts with Mine, CCE funded a number of community dialogues, which brought together of mix of local people to discuss a range of difficult and complex issues, including racism and extremism. The events were well received, and participants spoke of how they were able to explore complex issues from a range of perspectives.

Community dialogues like this can be a powerful way of building awareness, understanding and knowledge of critical social issues, help people understand the viewpoints of others, and provide powerful arguments to help people counter grievances. And the Big Society, as an engine for community engagement and empowerment, can maximize these types of opportunities in communities.

There is scope for the community groups that are to be created and supported under the Big Society to engage residents in dialogue on a range of complex and sensitive issues, such as the role of police, Islamaphobia or the impact of immigration. With the help of trained and experienced facilitators to provide a constructive platform for conversation, an increased use of community dialogues could not only help to reduce grievances as a risk factor for extremism, but also encourage more unified communities that are ready to respond to the demands of the Big Society itself.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Big questions for The Big Society: What role for local government?

In the preceding months and weeks, many discussions about the Big Society have been taking place at OPM.   Early indications from central government – particularly the promise of a general power of competence for local authorities – point to a need for local councils to articulate their role in developing the Big Society.  It seems likely that councils will need to start by mapping local voluntary sector capacity and interest in relation to different areas of service provision.

From what little the government has revealed about the Big Society, it is clear that local government will need a developed understanding of local community organisations and their capacity to deliver particular services or share decision-making powers (or some combination of the two).  Altering delivery models for ‘hard edged’ services like childrens’ and adult social care will likely be seen as most risky, while it is easier to envisage how local parks, leisure facilities, museums and libraries could see greater involvement from volunteers, perhaps from existing ‘friends of’-type groups.  When mapping local voluntary sector capacity and interest in building the Big Society, councils will need to begin by asking the following:

By Chris Reed, OPM research assistant and Rob Francis, OPM associate fellow.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The Collaborative City

This report launches the London Collaborative. It reflects its analysis and thinking about the key challenges for London and sets the scene for involving stakeholders in discussions about the most productive areas for collaboration.