By being proactive we can shape what ‘Big Society’ means.
A decentralising of power, greater accountability within public services and increased opportunities for civic participation. How should we view this political enthusiasm for community led initiatives and, more importantly, how should we respond?
The Big Society and managing common resources
David Cameron cites the 2009 Nobel Prize winner for economics, Elinor Ostrom, amongst others, as providing evidence of the Big Society at work. Ostrom and her colleagues have studied the use and provision of common pool resources; shared use of forest resources, management of fisheries, provision of communal irrigation systems and the like. What they showed was that where top down solutions from outside were ineffective, self-organised, cooperative initiatives where communities communicated and took action, led to success. This is both intuitively appealing and supported by empirical observation; schemes imposed from the centre frequently have low success compared to those from within the community.
Civic participation in decline?
It has been suggested that civic participation in the UK has declined, pushed out by a dependency culture where personal responsibility and community action has been strangled. Actually there is little evidence of a decline, but the nature of participation has changed. Whilst membership of voluntary organisations has grown, direct participation has often been displaced by a more distant relationship. This has been fuelled in part by the growth of ‘expert’ organisations, able to engage in complex policy discussions on climate change, agriculture policy, EU Directives and so on.
The arrival of Big Society at a time of austerity in the public sector prompts cynics to view it as little more than a crude attempt to cut government costs, shifting the proper responsibilities of state to the individual or community. But I think it would be unworthy – and possibly unwise – to dismiss it so lightly. The Big Society challenges the role both the public and voluntary sectors should play. How should the voluntary sector work with supporters and communities to provide opportunities for genuine and direct participation?
A shift in power?
Whilst participation in the local environment can be a way in which the responsibility for delivery of goods and services is passed from government to communities, the exchange brings with it an obligation on government to pass power. With responsibility comes a right to identify the issues and develop solutions.
Researchers at Oxford University’s School of Geography and Environment have been looking at ways in which the public are involved in environmental controversies. In particular the way in which local knowledge can be used to develop models of flood risk and arrive at solutions for mitigation. It is recognition that whilst science and expert knowledge has much to offer, it is only part of the knowledge that exists and is needed to tackle social and environmental problems.
Finding new ways to participate
The Woodland Trust is trying to address participation through new ways for civil action which match today. Our long running Nature’s Calendar project has allowed thousands of people to be part of a ‘community of interest’, feeding vital data into a citizen/science project which has had real power as a tool for advocacy around climate change and its impact on wildlife.
More recently, MyView provides a web-based tool which people can use to campaign for a better environment with more trees and green space where they live. Individuals, neighbourhoods and communities first capture images of the local area, then manipulate them to provide a vision of how they would like it to look. This could provide a powerful visual tool for communicating between members of a community, and to local leaders with the ability to bring about change.
For a society disenfranchised, or at least distanced, from the natural environment the Big Society offers a starting point in a discussion about how we restore decision-making to people. By being proactive we can shape what Big Society means, so that is not simply a shedding of central government responsibility, but a real shift in power and agency to people and communities.
If we reject the challenge of the Big Society, what we are left with is simply government cuts.
Mike Townsend, Senior Advisor: Conservation