Social Productivity: Big Society 2.0 or same BS?

Maybe it was because I was nursing a hangover but this morning’s breakfast seminar at the RSA just made my head hurt. From Big Society to Social Productivity coincided with the creation of the 2020 Public Services Hub and the publication of their launch paper. One of the speakers, Cllr Steve Reed, is Leader of Lambeth, the country’s first Cooperative Council. (Steve spoke about this at my debate on the Big Society last year). Reed wants to see ‘citizen-led’ public services that put people ‘in charge of their own destinies’. Instead of continuing to send in so-called experts to tackle the problem of gang violence he is ‘handing the resources of the state to the community’. Those living on the brutalised estates of Brixton, he argues, are best placed to solve the problem.

Unfortunately – because I liked much of what he had to say – Reed went on to contradict himself. He explained that the middle classes ‘have the capacity to participate if they choose to’. Does that mean that the rest of us lack the ability to take part in society (Big or otherwise)? That we’re just not up to doing things for ourselves because we need prompting and ‘supporting’. Certainly for Reed and therefore for Lambeth, the plan for the ‘very excluded’  is to ‘put capacity into them’. They will do this, he explained, by training up a ‘new cadre of facilitators’ for instance. After all, as Ben Lucas, founding Director of the 2020 Public Services Trust, explained, it would be Utopian to imagine the Big Society just ‘springing up’. Tell that to the participants in the Arab Spring. Or maybe they just had better community organisers.

As I explain here, I have a good deal of sympathy for co-production and some of the related ideas for improving public services that were discussed this morning.  I am all for creating participative networks and challenging the traditional service delivery model that, as Reed rightly put it, is always ‘doing things to you’. The trouble is that efforts to involve local residents and users of public services can end up doing the same thing. It seems to me that we’re in danger of replacing the old model with something that is even more patronising and paternalistic. It is hard to escape the impression that we are very much being done to by advocates of the Big Society and Social Productivity. We are being participated whether we like it or not.

Miliband and the responsibility-dodgers

Frank Field, a working class Tory if ever there was one, is reported as saying it is ‘difficult to overestimate how significant today’s speech is.’ In reality Ed Miliband’s lecture on social responsibility this afternoon was as unremarkable as one might have expected.

He said his party will ‘listen’ to the people. Oh dear, not again. It was the New Labour government of which he was a part (lest we forget) that started this whole participatory, localising, ’empowering’ rhetoric. How much longer do we have to listen to this mantra? How about, Mr Miliband, actually having something to say. Something that might save us from the monster that the Big Society is becoming.

With Cameron’s compassionate/cutting Tories running the show (more or less) there is no let up from this meaningless drivel. I almost wish for the return of the ‘no such thing as society’ Tories. At least they stirred things up a bit. Far from making the case for social responsibility Miliband only confirms once more that the political class like nothing more than to delegate their responsibility to govern, to come up with policy ideas, etc etc.

The very notion of taking responsibility assumes that people are capable of autonomously doing as they will. That they don’t need nudging in this and that direction away from benefits and anti-social behaviour, or towards jobs and the good/Big Society. There is little between their … well, we can hardly call them visions can we? Except, claims Miliband, New-New Labour aren’t like the stick-wielding Tories, they’ll just dangle carrots in front of us irresponsible plebs. Oh, thanks.

The Archbishop, the cowboy and the Big Society

We were asked at the YouGovStone debate last night ‘Do we need the Big Society?’ For Shaun Bailey, apparently now calling himself Ambassador for the Big Society, the answer could only be yes. He did, however, argue that the government lacks direction. He’s right but the Big Society isn’t helping. More important, the political class and their ‘civil society’ sector friends lack a basic faith in people. Whatever Big Society-types might claim, when it comes to it we’re not to be trusted. We need supporting and enabling, we need community organisers and ‘civic’ servants to show us how to do it. Even Tim Montgomerie of ConservativeHome and John Bird of Big Issue, for all their anti-state bluster, wanted to ‘rebuild’ government the better to run the Big Society.

Former BBC newsreader Martyn Lewis, in the chair, pointed to the Marlboro Man with his hand up. He was referring to my admittedly shocking choice of shirt rather than my attitude to smoking (which you can read about here). But he did get me thinking afterwards. Perhaps what we really need is to make a reality of the rugged individualism personified by the Marlboro Man in those old ads. If we can somehow rediscover that Marlboro spirit maybe society – big or otherwise – can look after itself. We certainly can’t go on as we are. Like the officious ‘community building’ initiatives favoured by New Labour before it, the Big Society will only further undermine the informal enterprising of community life, and dent people’s confidence in their their ability to run their own lives. The Big Society has, as the Archbishop of Canterbury says today, ‘fast become painfully stale’. And yet Cameron, for all his u-turning on the NHS and prisons, is holding on tightly to his so-called big idea. For the rest of us, the sooner we’re rid of it the better.

Self-sufficiency with a ‘helping hand’

Hand Made: Portraits of emergent new community culture, edited by Tessy Britton (Social Spaces 2011)

Edited by Tessy Britton, Hand Made: Portraits of emergent new community culture is a snapshot of like-minded community projects in the UK and beyond. Whatever the projects’ respective merits – which I’ll come to in a moment – Britton’s enthusiasm and that of her fellow contributors makes for a refreshing change. In our age of CCTV-watched, CRB-checked anxious individualim and over-managed underwhelming public services, the contributors to Hand Made at least promise a practical can-do approach. The projects featured in the book are an attempt to ‘reconfigure and re-mix what is lying dormant’, and to bring out people’s sense of themselves as ‘talented, resourceful and self-sufficient’ says Britton. If the Big Society is to mean anything at all then it is this belief that people are more than capable of finding their own solutions to problems and bypassing official channels to get things done.

Britton sees the book as a championing of the work of those ‘single-mindedly creating imaginative new opportunities for people to come together and contribute’. According to Julian Dobson, one of the contributors to Hand Made, ‘Present communities with an issue and they’ll often devise a solution that’s more likely to work’. Sounds good, but what are we to make of the projects themselves? I rather like Nick Booth’s account of running social media surgeries in Birmingham, getting people online who would not otherwise be so, and helping them to start enjoying the benefits. A simple, quite modest idea well executed. The same goes for ‘Power of 8’, a much more ambitious project intent on pulling together ‘a collective expression of the future’ by ‘building a public discourse around the aspirations of ordinary people’. Nevertheless, in as far as these projects deliver something worthwhile for residents, or seek to go further by imagining a better way of doing things, they are – unfortunately – in a minority among the projects. 

Too often the volunteers, arts collectives and social entrepreneurs involved in other examples fail to resist the urge to remake communities in their own image. There is ‘Space Makers’, for instance, working on behalf of Lambeth Council to commission residents to come up with ideas to fill an empty Brixton Village shopping arcade. They were inundated with ideas but settled for shops ‘making and selling recycled clothes, a deli specialising in locally-sourced food, two vintage clothes shops and a Community Shop’. The self-styled ‘militant optimists’ of Camden’s People’s Supermarket (and of recent Channel 4 series fame) also extol the virtues of ethically produced and apparently healthy food. Their community supermarket is run by volunteers … with a little help from a membership scheme, a government employment scheme, a charitable foundation, an understanding landlord, the generosity of fellow enthusiasts and Camden Council. For a book that claims to celebrate people’s resourcefulness and working from the bottom-up, this sounds rather cliquey and donor-dependent to me. 

Perhaps this is what contributor Andy Gibson has in mind when he complains about ‘“grassroots movements” that have been designed from the top down’. According to the people at ‘Getgo Glasgow’, you should ‘[p]lace yourself in the middle and become facilitators of conversation between the community and local authorities’. Their take on community project work couldn’t be further removed from the interests of ‘the people’, however. When parents took to the school gates to fight the closure of a local school, we are told by Getgo that the ‘protests were intense and energetic, there was a visible community spirit’. Just the sort of thing you might expect to be celebrated, right? Well no, because ‘they were coming together behind a negative consequence. We realised that we needed to channel this energy into something valuable’. Presumably when they were getting their placards out the parents didn’t think they were being negative. Quite the opposite. They surely thought they were doing ‘something valuable’ by standing up for their children’s education. But what do they know?

You’d be hard pushed to find a truly ‘people’s’ project among the 28 featured in the glossy pages of Hand Made. At the risk of sounding like a cynic, too many of the projects lend themselves not to the interests of residents, but to the pet-prejudices of a bunch of trendy interlopers. ‘BikeLab’, a sort of cycle-recycling scheme to get hard-up residents in a small rural community in Alabama on the move, has a lot going for it. But they ‘not only believe in bicycles as a viable means of transportation’, and as an opportunity to share their knowhow of repair and maintenance. Bikes, we learn, are about so much more than just getting people from A to B. They can also help residents by ‘improving their own physical health, as well as promoting an environmentally friendly means of transportation’. And so a nice if somewhat limited idea – in the absence of a campaign for a reliable public transport infrastructure, or the kind of development that might make cars affordable – is undermined. A simple but apparently effective mobility scheme that responds to the immediate needs of local people becomes an example of healthy, sustainable living that locals have little choice but to go along with if they do indeed want to get from A to B.

What’s wrong with that you might ask? Let’s first consider other policy orthodoxies – for that is what we are dealing with – that figure strongly in a number of the projects. ‘Learning Dreams’, a community education programme in the USA more interested in ‘engaging’ poor parents than educating their children, will be familiar to followers of education policy in the UK. As will the ‘School of the Future’ in Brooklyn, a project committed to a policy orthodoxy masquerading as a brave challenge to the status quo, with its advocacy of ‘collaborative learning’ modules and mutually interchangeable students and teachers. There’s ‘Mind Apples’, based on the notion that we all need ‘5-a-day for the mind’. It too is an orthodox idea – that we all have mental health issues and that our continued wellbeing demands that they are addressed – presented as a ‘radical’ challenge to accepted thinking. The Australian project ‘Mensheds’ hardly goes against the grain of public health orthodoxy either, portraying garden sheds (a familiar retreat for a generation of men) as little more than a reflection of bottled-up masculinity. Using them as a vehicle to fix men’s relationships and to get them to talk about their health and emotions – an unwelcome intrusion, however well-meaning are those doing the intruding.

There are two remarkably persistent ideologies expressed in the pages of Hand Made – the therapeutic and the ecological – and neither bodes well for the autonomy of individuals in their communities. The ‘Transition Movement’, bent on weaning us moderns off our supposed addiction to oil through a community strategy of ‘engaged optimism’, is in fact rooted in the profound social pessimism that drives so many of the projects in Hand Made. ‘Green River’, in Utah, is a project borne of the disenchantment of young architecture graduates about a profession that has ‘devalued itself to work unapologetically for the socio-economic elite’. Behind the faux-radicalism of opposing big bad capitalism is a ‘run to the hills’ (or to the desert in the case of Green River) mindset, and a romantic attachment to pre-modern social arrangements. There is, for instance, a strange enthusiasm for ‘non-monetary exchanges’ such as TimeBanking. ‘Trade School’, a pretty inconsequential art project, ‘rejects cold cash transactions because barter fosters relationships’. ‘Mess Hall’, an ‘experimental cultural center’ in Chicago, is all about developing ‘alternative economies’. They proudly boast that ‘no money is exchanged’ there.

The difficulty these outlooks presents for a shiny new book purporting to be about exciting future-oriented community projects is that they are, in reality, inherently conservative. They look inwards – to our allegedly damaged selves – and backwards – to a mythical unspoilt past. The resourcefulness of individuals in their communities and their ability to impact on the world around them – surely the point of the book – is forgotten, as these social (and perhaps more to the point, moral) entrepreneurs’ put into practice outlooks that can only diminish the subjectivity of those they seek to engage. Having said that, any dogmatism is tempered by a continual celebration of indeterminacy in the pages of Hand Made, and only the vaguest of senses of what the point of many of these projects actually is. So while what Booth describes as his ‘zero expectations’ are wholly appropriate when it comes to social media projects that are too often over laden with the demands of social inclusion amongst other things, elsewhere this is just evasive.

Dougald Hine at ‘Space Makers’ tells us, for instance (and somewhat disingenuously) that his work is ‘not oriented to a preformed objective’. The account of the Big Society inspiring ‘Big Lunch’ tells us how the organisers – perhaps conscious of their greener than green credentials – were ‘careful not to spell out what’s meant to happen; it’s not our party’; and Andy Gibson says with some pride ‘I often refuse to define the goal of the project’. It is all too easy to hide behind notions of collaboration and participation when you are bereft of anything practical to offer, never mind an overarching vision that might frame your offer. Such things are shunned in this book. Britton is quite explicit in her rejection not just of the old politics. That much she readily admits. She, in common I suspect with many of her contributors, is against politics per se. The faintest notion of ‘exerting pressure to effect change’ (the very stuff of politics) is jettisoned in favour of a resolve to ‘demonstrate what is possible when you think differently’. The thinking, as I argue, is all too orthodox.

A number of contributors describe their approach as DIY. While there’s something undeniably positive about this ethic, there’s also an implicit accommodation with lowered horizons and stunted ambitions. While one or two projects threaten to break the mould, others are makeshift in outlook as well as methodology. For all the allusions to the contrary, the contributors are mostly loyal to a pre-determined script about the damage done to people and to the planet by the way we live our modern lives. This can only add to an already existing pessimism about the potential for social action. The abandonment of political argument in favour of mucking in may seem positive, but is it really a substitute for critical engagement and political contestation.

Hand Made is too breathless to pause for reflection, and too one-sided to entertain a competing worldview. Surely we can do better than just ‘make do and mend’ as the title of the book would have us do? While I applaud the ‘have a go’ ethos and the sentiment behind it, the book is too hamstrung by its orientations to really deliver. I wanted to be convinced that a new community spirit has emerged, and read about how people are resisting the petty interferences of officialdom. I wanted to hear about how communities are just getting on with it unencumbered – and sticking up two fingers to the meddling authorities. But maybe that’s another book. How about Self Made? If Tessy Britton doesn’t write it, maybe I will. 

Hand Made is available online at socialspaces

A nudge away from freedom

The signs were there. While talking publicly about his big society, behind the scenes Cameron was urging colleagues to tuck into Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein. Indeed, this publication, marking one of the more sinister developments in social policy, was required reading not just for the Tories but for the political class as a whole. But surely this had nothing to do with the big society?

Nudging is all about the state finding clever new ways of getting us to make the ‘right’ choices, for example not smoking, eating healthily, and recycling like good ‘active’ citizens (as Matthew Taylor, chief executive at the RSA likes to see us).

The big society, so I thought, is based on people getting on with it and doing things for themselves, not relying on the state to make decisions for them. Well, I got that wrong.

At a discussion late last year, the great and the good of the voluntary sector assembled to hear Taylor turn what was generally regarded as inconsequential into something more worrying. He explained, without a dissenting voice, that the big society is all about changing people’s behaviour.

Behaviour change couldn’t be more in vogue. Public health advocates might have pulled out of the government’s public-private ‘responsibility deal’, and some have even expressed doubts about the effectiveness of nudging. But their enthusiasm for telling us how to live our lives goes on unabated.

None other than the RSA is running a project on nudging us to engage in ‘prosocial’ behaviour. The result is a disturbingly one-eyed and amoral perspective on a vast array of social problems, from murder rates to organ donation. It’s not about argument and persuasion, economics or politics, apparently. But about creating the sort of environment that encourages us to scurry rat-like in this or that direction.

Nudging is all about pulling our levers until the desired policy outcome is achieved. But as Paul Ormerod acknowledges in N Squared (pdf), sometimes just nudging isn’t enough. We have the annoying habit of doing our own thing. And yet, rather than pointing to this as a fatal flaw he implies that this tendency to stray doesn’t make us – at the risk of mixing my metaphors – any less sheep-like. We can still be made to follow the herd or obey the ‘network effect’ as he would have it. Thus, the humble nudge might be amplified into something more akin to an almighty shove.

So much for the idea of the citizen (active or otherwise) with a mind of his own, and goodbye to any notion of personal freedom. Whatever the big society is, this diminishing of the political subject can mean just one thing. We are not being engaged in it. We are being nudged towards it.

I’ll leave the last word to Andy Gibson of Mindapples, something of a nudging enthusiast. He thinks it has an ‘important role to play in improving the design of public systems and spaces’. Yet even he is disturbed enough by the ‘implicit paternalism’ that underlies it to ask the one question that nobody else seems to be asking: ‘How can we be trusted to run our communities, deliver public services and control local planning decisions when we cannot also be trusted to make informed decisions about feeding ourselves or raising our children?’. Quite.